Reading Music and Reading Words Are Very Similar

Learning how to read music—specifically sight-reading—can be a challenge for a beginner musician. However, it does not have to be that difficult.  In fact, if you have the skills needed to read this article you already have some of the basic skills required to read sheet music. The trick is learning to take these everyday skills and employing them in a new capacity.

Discovering and Recognizing Patterns

At its core, spoken language is a musical phenomenon that uses controlled tone, pitch, and rhythm to convey meaning through sound. Each of these sounds is represented by a single, pair, or grouping of letters collectively referred to as an alphabet. When learning to read written language, our first attempts are characterized by the slow and rigorous process of sounding out each letter to produce words, sentences, paragraphs, stories, and eventually complex narratives depicting abstract ideas and emotions.

The chore of learning to read by sounding out individual letters is soon abandoned, however, and the act of reading becomes more an act of recognizing familiar and contextual patterns than an attempt to reproduce isolated sounds. On the simplest level, these patterns represent various grammatical, spelling, and usage rules that help the reader interpret the meaning intended by the writer. At their most complex, these patterns can communicate cultural information and emotional nuances that would be impossible to depict through symbols alone.

The process of reading music is essentially the same. In the same way the beginning reader translates the sound of each letter to the vocal chords, the music learner must slowly process each individual note written on the page and assign to it a singular sound from his or her instrument. This sound is then consciously assigned a particular movement of the hand, bow, or guitar pick. As the student progresses, he or she begins to recognize certain patterns of notes that are commonly used together in the form of scales, keys, and chord progressions in much the same way that the beginning reader recognizes the patterns of written language. 

How Are Patterns Useful?

Whether reading a play written by William Shakespeare or a composition penned by Mozart, recognizing patterns allows us to organize and interpret much larger pieces of information than individual notes and letters do when interpreted in isolation. In written language, patterns are established through the use of assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, rhyme schemes, and countless other literary devices that carry meaning. In music, meaningful patterns exist in the form of scales, intervals, keys, and chords. For example, minor chords are often described as sad chords and tend to convey feelings of longing or loss when played.

In both written language and music, it is when the reader learns to recognize and decode the patterns contained within that he or she can recreate not only the sounds and basic meaning, but the abstract, emotional themes as well.

Hear the Word

To illustrate this concept, look at anything with words on it—a billboard, a magazine, an internet page, etc.—and try not to read it.  As hard as you may try not to read it, you will find that when you see the words, you will hear them in your head. To accomplish this, you did not sound out each letter to translate the word, instead you simply recognized the familiar pattern of letters that informed you what the word was and what it sounded like. This can happen in an instant, and from here we can begin to derive the literal and figurative meaning contained within the word. Is it a word that evokes happiness, a struggle, or a geographical location? This is exactly how experienced musicians use sheet music to understand the intentions of a composer.

As one becomes more experienced at reading music, the notes on the page will begin to sound in the reader’s inner ear. A sense of tempo and duration becomes more inherent.  Following a natural progression in both reading words and music increases the natural fluidity of the student. In music, the student’s progress can be enhanced by learning to sing, just as knowing how to speak enhances the student’s ability to read.

Filed Under: Education