Learning How to Sight Read Music

So you want to be able to sight read music? The fact that we write music down to be read later is nothing to be taken for granted. It began in the 900’s A. D. in Italy with a monk named Guido, who was a signing master in a Benedictine Monastery in Italy. He only lived about forty years, but in that time he began the now common practice of writing music down. Later, a pope would take credit for it, but Guido remains as Saint Guido, the father of music. While this written method preserved many tunes that would otherwise have been lost, it still shut out a great deal of people who were now musically illiterate, so to speak.

Written music has a few purposes for the musicians who can sight read music. The first being to tell us which notes to hit, the second being when to hit them and the third, to tell us for how long. Also, and without this we do not have music, it tells us when to be silent. It is called a “rest” and it also is measured in time. Yes, the notations are odd. Knowing how to read text and knowing how to sight read music are two totally different things. It’s like an alien language with which we can speak across time and nationality.

Here are some tips right now about how to sight read music. My music teacher in school had this fantastic comb fitted with chalk that had 5 sticks of chalk in it, one on each tooth. The teeth were perhaps one inch apart. With one steady sweep of her hand she could create what is called a staff, or a basic chart upon which notes are placed. So you have five lines and then the space between the lines, of which there are four. There is also a space above the first line and below the last line, making six in all. On the left hand side of the staff, or stave, as you prefer, there is a symbol called a clef. This “clef” allows you to know what the range of notes you will be playing is based upon. The most common one you have seen before is the treble clef.

Musical notes are played from left to right in the same fashion as you are reading this. There is a notation just to the right of the clef which tells you the speed at which the notes are to be played. Most waltzes are three quarter time, shown by a 3 over a 4. This is a fraction. Surprise! There is math to music. But don’t run away yet! This is only the beginning of a long line of knowledge and skill, at the end of which is a universe, literally, of musical power. There is a lot more to be said about sight reading music, and I urge you, if you still have interest, to check out some online instruction.

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