Reading Music

Lesson 1

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Music is a language, and reading music is just like reading the written word. Do not be fooled by those who say learning to read music will keep you from having "feeling" in your playing. The people who say that don’t know, because they never learned how to read. I have never heard someone say that learning to read hindered their playing. Becoming dependent on reading can be detrimental, but we’ll get to that later. Think of it this way – music is very closely related to poetry. In fact, many of the terms used in music theory (the language used to describe music) are borrowed from poetry. Poetry is an aural art. That is, it is meant to be heard, not read. Poetry never really makes sense until it is heard, the full effect can not be reached by reading silently out of a book. However, who would take seriously a poet whom was illiterate? Who would say that a book of poetry is useless, worthless, or without feeling? Written language is the most efficient way to convey words to a great number of people over great distances and many years, and the written language of music does the same. Put aside the fears and prejudices you may have been taught, and let’s dive in to lesson 1.

1.1 Steady Beat

One of the fundamental principles of music is a steady beat. Most, if not all, systems of music have a steady rhythmic pulse underlying everything else that happens. It is usually very easy to find this pulse. If you’ve ever listened to music and found yourself tapping your foot or bobbing your head, you’ve found the pulse. The term beat is used interchangeably with pulse when describing music.

Try this: Listen to a familiar piece of music and tap your foot in time with the rhythm. Feel how even and steady this pulse is. Listen to how the various elements of the song move with or against this steady pulse.

Having trouble? Get a recording of modern, electronic dance music. Listen for a low-pitched thump going through the music. This is the main pulse. That low thump is there to tell everyone on the dance floor exactly where the pulse is.

More advanced: Once you have found the pulse, try tapping your foot twice as fast. Now half as fast. Some people feel the main pulse at different rates, who is right? Everybody! It doesn’t really matter which rate you choose as the main pulse, but it will affect your choices in notation down the line.

This main pulse is usually notated with a note called a quarter note. It looks like this - ±. Every time we want a note to play along with the main pulse of our music, we’ll use this note.

Try this: Go back to the song you were listening to and find your steady pulse. Now start counting each pulse in groups of four – 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 – over and over again. Listen to how the rhythms and melodies repeat over this four count. Hear how changes in the music tend to happen on the same count each time.

Having trouble? Try another piece of music. Some pieces don’t fit into a four – count system, but most do. Try that dance music again, it always fits.

More advanced: Notice which count the music tends to change on and reset your count so that the changes fall on count 1. Again, dance music is a great choice for this since it almost always follows this basic system. That’s why it’s so easy to dance to!

Now, we’ll notate our steady beat. To show our groups of four we’ll use a vertical line called a bar line. These bars (also called measures) of music help us find our place in the music:

| measure1 | measure 2 | measure 3| measure 4 | etc…

To notate our steady pulse, we’ll use our quarter notes:

|±±±±|±±±±|±±±±|±±±±| etc…

Now, that gets the point across, but it gets old real quick, right? So, it’s time for our next musical symbol.

1.2 Long Notes

Let’s use some longer notes to add some variety. If a note carries over two beats, it is notated with a half note - °. Remember, the beat keeps going, but the sound of this note carries over two counts. So, instead of being able to fit four notes into a measure, we can only fit two half notes:

| ° ° | ° ° | ° ° | ° ° |

Or, we can use a combination of quarters and halves:


Try clapping or singing the rhythm above. It would sound like:

| short short long | short short long | long short short | long long |

As you count the beats, you would clap or sing on counts:

| 1 2 3 - | 1 2 3 - | 1 – 3 4 | 1 – 3 - |

If we want a note to carry over all four beats in the measure, we use a whole note - ¬. Only one of these notes can fit in our four – count measure.

Try clapping or singing this rhythm:


You would sing/clap on these counts:

| 1--- | 1-3 | 1234 | 1--- |

Here are some more combinations to practice:






Notice how the last two examples sound similar? Example 5 is the same rhythm as example 4, but twice as fast, and repeated. If someone listened to example 4, do you think they might hear it as a slow version of example 5? Think about this, we’ll get back to it in another lesson.

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