No one learns music theory in a vacuum. Generally, one learns music theory because one is a practicing musician, or is beginning the process of becoming one. In spite of what some rock musicians may say, you can’t really learn everything you need to know playing by ear. There is simply no way around the fact that you will need to learn some music theory. The basics of melody, rhythm, and harmony create the context you need in order to understand what you’re playing, and how it fits in–or doesn’t fit in–to what other musicians may be playing around you.
And of course, it is not only important to understand the basics of music theory. You need to know how to read music as well, and to (horrors!) even play your instrument (or sing) what you read on the page! This is called sight reading, and today we’ll look at how to get started on it without being scared.
If you are teaching yourself the guitar or another instrument, it will probably be to your advantage to get the basics of music theory down before you begin trying to sight read anything. There are some great online courses that can help you fill in the background if you haven’t spent a few semesters in high school or college level music theory classes. A course called Basic Concepts of Music is a good place to start, and another, called Theory in Music will help you move a bit beyond that. If you are already confronted with some sheet music and need a quick guide to get you started reading it, this blog entry by Nick Gibson, called “How to Read Music Notes” might be a good beginning.
Before We Start
It is worth stating right from the beginning that most guitarists, bass players, and drummers in rock bands cannot sight read. Oh, perhaps they do so haltingly, but in general, the idea of being confronted with a piece of printed notation and having to play it correctly, the first time, is terrifying, especially for guitarists. Yes, there are session musicians who can sight read, but they are the elite, the chosen few, the gods and goddesses of a musical Olympus that most rock musicians can only aspire to.
And it also bears mentioning that most of the greats could neither read nor write music. Who do I mean by “the greats?” How about all four Beatles? Musically illiterate, the lot of them. And it never stopped them from writing and recording some of the greatest songs in modern music.
So, now that you are either terrified or overconfident, let us begin.
The Set Up
What we are after here is not the almost supernatural ability known as audiation, or the ability to read musical notation and hear it in one’s head. Like perfect pitch, audiation is generally in the realm of the great composers. See the film Amadeus for this.
We are simply looking for a basic approach to sight reading that will help you get going towards the godlike musical status you no doubt aspire to. To that end, there are some essentials you will need before you start. The most important is a metronome. Buy one. You cannot sight read without a reliable timekeeping device that can be set for a variety of tempos. There are many good metronome apps available for smartphones now, most of which are more flexible and helpful than the simple wind-up version you may have used in your long-ago-discontinued piano lessons. They are more than worth the $1.99 download.
Another essential is a quiet and undisturbed space to practice in. If your instrument is electronic or capable of relatively silent play through headphones, arrange your circumstances accordingly.
For the sake of argument, we’ll use guitar as our example, since it is the most-played instrument in the world.
Lastly, you will need a music stand. I know–you can get by without one, but since you really do need to be able to read the sheet music easily while in a natural playing position, and since no one generally sits or stands in a position that allows one to look down onto a table top when playing the guitar, a music stand is a worthwhile investment. Get an adjustable one that has a clip on each side to keep the sheet music in place, and you’ll be all set whether you sit or stand while playing.
There are a number of good Internet sources for sight reading passages, customized for your instrument. A quick search for “basic guitar sight reading exercises” or “intermediate piano sight reading” will turn up quite a few that will work very nicely for your purposes, although you will most likely have to pay if you want more than a sample.
It is never smart to try to learn every aspect of music at once. Learning an instrument like guitar, for example, requires that you be able to read notation and understand it in terms of meter, rhythm, melody, and harmony. You can’t focus on all of those at one time, if you aim to be successful.
So, let’s start with rhythm and meter. It is a good idea to begin with a simple passage in 4/4 time. This is the most common time signature you will encounter, and is in fact known as “common time” for that very reason. Common time has four beats to a measure, and a quarter note gets one beat. Start your sight reading with an exercise that sticks to a single pitch (perhaps an open string on the guitar) on a quarter note that is repeated four times in a series of measures. If you’ve never done it before, you’d be surprised how difficult it can be just locking in to your metronome and playing along exactly in time, even if it is just a single pitch repeated over and over. Tap your foot and count along, “one, two, three, four.”
Once you can do that easily, try some exercises that mix in notes of other durations without any variation in pitch. begin with passages that incorporate half notes (two beats in common time) and then whole notes (four beats in common time) before entering the world of eighth notes. Eighth notes get half a beat in common time. For that, you’ll need to start counting in a way that gives you half beats, like so: “one and two and three and four and.”
Once you’ve mastered playing eight eighth notes to a measure of common time, then you should look at exercises that mix together whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes. We’ll leave sixteenth notes and all the other incredibly fast subdivisions for the intermediate players and the masochists. Still, it’s smart to do all this while staying on a single pitch. No need to complicate things too soon. Learn the rests as well–whole, half, quarter, and eighth.
Now, you should move on to some sight reading exercises that will challenge you to find different pitches on your instrument. On the guitar, this is less logical than it would be on the piano, simply because it is less linear. If you know the pitches created at each of the first five frets, across all six strings, you should be good to start this process.
As before, isolate the thing you don’t know and work on that, keeping all other factors as simple as you can. Find some exercises that allow you to begin with simple rhythm and meter: common time, and four quarter notes to the measure. Then, you’re on stable rhythmic ground as you read and play the different pitches. Work on exercises that let you play pitches on just one string at first, and then ones that add notes from more strings.
Putting it Together
Once you are comfortable playing a melody in this way (a melody is no more than a series of pitches, really), you can start to look at basic exercises that vary the pitch and the duration of each note at the same time, including rests. Once you’re at this point, you are really no longer a beginner. Congratulations!
As you progress, don’t forget that learning to sight read is just one part of becoming a musician. It is certainly an important skill to master, but music is a broad and rich universe of ideas and experience. Learn as much theory as you can, but don’t ever forget to listen. Open your ears. Don’t limit yourself to one kind of music simply because it is “what you like.” Once you get comfortable, you will no doubt start composing. A great online course called Music Composition can help you with that. You may even find that you want to branch out from playing the instrument you started on, and get into something a bit more in line with the 21st Century. An online course on Music Theory for Electronic Musicians might be quite helpful if that’s where the music takes you. No matter what path you follow through the world of music, remember that even if you don’t play in public, even if you never play for others, music is a rewarding way to change the way you think and enrich your soul.