How to Read Sheet Music
I have travelled to what seems like a far-away land (or rather, just east of Paris) to receive a one to one lesson in music theory from Steve Journé, who has just finished writing his book, in which he explains how to deduce the pitch of notes.
Here is Steve’s 9 step programme that will get you reading sheet music like a pro in no time!
Step 1 – Separate rhythm from pitch
Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start)
When Steve starts teaching a student about pitch he avoids looking at rhythm. Why?
“Because so often when we start learning music theory, we confuse the two dimensions, especially children. It would be like asking someone how old they are and them replying ‘1 metre 70’”, Steve explains.
So for the time being, cast any idea of rhythm out of your head and focus on understanding the pitch!
Step 2 – Forget about note names
Forget everything you think you know.
First thing’s first – what is pitch?
I’m glad you asked.
The pitch refers to how high or low a note is and is usually indicated by a letter, A to G.
However, Steve instructs me to cast aside this method of identifying notes at first to avoid over-complicating it.
Step 3 – Understanding the pitch
“The beginner must understand what a sound is. It’s an object. I try to make it material. We can’t see it because it’s abstract. However, if I can materialise, it will allow the beginners to understand how we have put in place the system for writing music. In order to understand the pitch, well the object, we have to do scientific experiments,” he tells me.
At first, Steve instructs me to touch my throat when I talk and feel the vibrations. Instantly, I have a better grasp and understanding of the pitch of sounds.
Using exercises like this, Steve is able to make “sound” a less abstract and intangible construct.
Step 4 – Measure the notes
Now that we have a grasp on what pitch is, the next thing is to work out which sound corresponds to which note. The only way to do this is to “measure the note” according to Steve.
“What do we use to measure something?”, he asks me.
“A…measuring stick? Or maybe scales?”, I suggest apprehensively.
“Yes! And what is there on a measuring tape?”
“Numbers. Usually cm measurements…”
“And…?”, he asks, desperately trying to hide any bemusement.
After a lengthy pause, he puts me out of my misery and offers up the answer:
“There are also small lines which give you the height of the note.”
The same philosophy is applied to measuring all the notes at once. Each line of the stave acts as a measuring tape, against which we can measure the height of note. A note higher up the stave will have a higher pitch.
Step 5 – Try some music games
“Now we plunge into the heart of the method,” he begins.
Finally, we begin our first game – “the telephone game”. Steve “calls me up” and asks me to communicate as most efficiently as possible the notes I see on the page, without using letters to describe them (A, B, C etc). Instead I have to describe their position in the stave.
“Hello!”, he begins.
“How’s it going?”, I respond.
What follows is what feels like 15 minutes of me repeating the same phrase, “the top space! No. The TOP space” as Steve tries to find the note I’m referring to.
This particular game shows me that musicians don’t have to know the specific names for the notes in order to be able to communicate and express themselves. The telephone game is something he often tries with children, as it improves their communication skills and musical awareness simultaneously.
“The brain is going to look at the position of the sphere in the five lines. You just need a fraction of a second to visualise the position of the sphere. You don’t need to name the note. The important thing is to see the position of the note in the stave,” Steve says.
Step 6 – Add names to the notes
Of course, Steve does teach children the names of the notes too after they have a good understanding of the position of the stave. It’s a lot easier to say a letter than say “top, bottom, line” etc. So giving notes names speeds up the process.
He finds that they rarely have a problem with learning the note names after they know the notes.
“When a child is in a class and doesn’t know anyone, how long does it take for a child to learn all the names in a class? In 2 days they’ll know the names of everyone’s name. That’s about 30 names. That’s more names than notes to learn on sheet music!” he says.
Step 7 – Start learning
That said, there is a crucial difference between the two learning processes: children aren’t exposed to music notes constantly, in the same way that they are to their peers during the week. Steve has a way of overcoming this.
He recommends that beginners learn the notes five times a day in short bursts. By “learning”, he encourages just reading a line of music, which should take 30 seconds. That’s 2 ½ minutes per day.
“Music theory is training yourself to read the notes. It’s as much about the training as it is about the practice,” he insists.
Step 8 – Add an element of competition
What’s the best way to learn something (and actually enjoy it)? Get competitive, of course!
Steve regularly holds “Olympic Games” for his students to test what they’ve learnt. It’s effectively a series of lines of music which the students must read, with each line testing a different skill. There’s speed and endurance (rest assured I fail both).
“E, D, F…erm…shit.”
“Shit is not a letter,” he informs me.
The next line is the “crocodile”, in which Steve’s finger follows the notes as you say them. It certainly adds the pressure. After acing this exam with flying colours, I begin to consider my career in music.
Steve looks unconvinced.
Step 9 – Don’t give up
“Just like if you train all day, your muscles get bigger, if you read more and more notes, you’ll improve. You have to learn how to use tools. The brain is a tool. Perhaps the most complicated on the planet,” Steve says.
Steve’s class was certainly both entertaining and insightful. I am certain that any child who participates must enjoy themselves. All he’s missing is a swearing Brit as a permanent feature…
Feeling inspired by Steve and wanting to learn some music theory? Check out our guides on how to read music. So far we’ve looked at the treble clef, rhythm and rests.