View Full Version : learning to read music

Nov-15-2005, 3:50pm
any opinions of the best or easiest way to learn how to read standard notation and to memorize the notes on the fretboard?

Nov-15-2005, 4:38pm

When my instructor moved me from tab to nnotation (about 2 months in to playing) I started again with scales. As I read and played the scales (and then simple songs) I called out the note. Now it's pretty much altomatic. I can sight read reasonable quickly and know from notation what the note is.

Martin Jonas
Nov-15-2005, 5:17pm
I think the way to do it for somebody who reads tab fluently is to start out with dual notation, so that you always see the standard notation as well. Then, with tunes that you are confident to read from the sheet (but don't know by heart), start playing them with just the standard notation. You'll find the tunes familiar, muscle memory and memory of having seen the notes before (along with the tabs) will help you through any sticky patches. I have managed to wean myself of tab by these means, and in addition by the very great incentive of playing in a classical ensemble with others: if your playing with others from a sheet with only standard notation, then you can start by reading along while the others are playing and only play the occasional note that you're confident about (e.g. half and quarter notes and leave out the eights runs). Gradually, your reading will come up to speed and you can hit more and more notes in time with the others; eventually you find yourself playing the entire piece from the sheet. Easy-peasy.

Then start again in higher positions...


Jim Garber
Nov-15-2005, 5:36pm
IMHO: dump the tab. It will only bog you down glancing back and forth. It might be #a struggle in the beginning but it will get easier soon the sooner you dive in.

Just start reading some tunes you are familiar with in notation. I suggest some of the Suzuki violin books for classical pieces, say volume 3 and 4 to start. If you are more fiddle-tune oriented then get some of the tune books that are out there and read thru. Jigs, reels and hornpipes are pretty easy to read since the rhythm is fairly steady.

Just remember, it ain't rocket science. You can do it!


Nov-15-2005, 5:52pm
I learned by playing the note-matching game at musictheory.com and getting Butch Baldassari's book Cantabile that goes along w/ the great cd of the same name. Working on tunes like "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" were simple enough for me to read and play.

Martin Jonas
Nov-15-2005, 6:34pm
I think the way to do it for somebody who reads tab fluently is to start out with dual notation, so that you always see the standard notation as well. Then, with tunes that you are confident to read from the sheet (but don't know by heart), start playing them with just the standard notation.
I've just realise I worded this poorly and that it could be misunderstood. What I meant was not that you should go from tab to standard notation via an interim step of dual reading (as I think Jim understood me to say), but rather that making the leap would be easier if in the past you had already used dual-notation scores even if you paid no attention to the standard notation. That way, you now can now go cold turkey on standard notation alone, starting out with familiar tunes. Which is I think the same advice that Jim gave.


Nov-15-2005, 7:29pm
Sorry Martin but I agree with Jim. Dump the tab and start fresh with standard notation. You want to learn the name of the notes and tab will not help you there. Alan's method of calling out the notes as you play them is effective and used by a lot of music teachers.

I found that a beginning violin book ("Essential Elements," Book 1 by Robert Guipese, et al) worked great for me. They're fairly cheap ($6.00) and use finger marking at the top to orient you to the right strings( Suzuki is good if you are interested in classical but I would start with Volume 1, the price is about $12.00, CD around $15.00). #The finger markings are easy to intrepret to the mandolin fretboard as oppose to the violin finger board.. You will probably start with the D scale and work from there to your other open strings (G,A,E). These books include short versions of many songs from celtic, fiddle and of course classical. Some include both an easy #melody and harmony.

I also like using the American Fiddle Method series (Vol I & II) by Brian Wicklund. They run $23.00 a piece but include a CD for listening and accompanyingl The chords and words are include with the songs. In volume I, the first few songs use the finger markings to get you started along with a section on reading notation. A great way to learn fiddle tunes.

I found it pretty easy and learned to read with confidence in about 2-3 months.

Good luck, you'll be glad you took the time to learn standard notation.

Nov-16-2005, 1:20pm
I have a book "Kid Fiddle" that has simple fiddle melodies in notation only. Each tune is presented in 2 or 3 keys. Sometimes I play stuff out of it just following the notation and playing on the mando. Other times I use a general song book - we have some from different decades, one that is Disney, some Christmas ones, etc. The type with chords, piano and melody. I just play the melody lines from some songs I know.

The point is I don't think you need a DVD or any fancy method. You just need some sheet music and a mandolin. Sometimes when a tune seems hard you might stop and think about how it would lay out somewhere else on the neck.

There is something of an assumption on my part based on your statement that you want to memorize note locations that you really only want that. Knowing your scales are important if you want to realize when you are playing a 5th or dim 3rd or whatever so you can transpose it. If you want to memorize note locations, you have to keep playing different songs. If you play the same ones over and over, you will start memorizing the phrases and stop reading the notes.

Nov-16-2005, 1:24pm
i've definately been working on the scales. once upon a time I could actually read music, many years ago. I can look at a set of standard notation and pretty much tell what it what, but translating that to the fret board with any speed at all is diffucult. I guess its just like anything else in life, just keep at it and one day you won't even have to think about it.

Nov-16-2005, 1:53pm
Bickford is the way to go. They are out of print but can be printed and downloaded from djangobooks.com.

Nov-16-2005, 4:41pm
Two major elements can be learned individually: the pitches (notes and where they are) and the rhythms.

Learn the C scale notes in 1st position as a start. there are only 4 on each string (including open and not including 7th fret). Stay in 1st position for awhile, it will help you in the long run. That shouldn't take too long to get down...

Music Speed Reading- David Hickman (Trigram Music)- Gets you reading just noteheads (no rhythm). Finding the pitches first. This gets you used to dealing with where the notes are.

Good books for learning to decipher rhythms:

Rhythmic Training -Robert Starer (Universal)
Modern reading Text in 4/4 -Bellson (Adler)
The Reading Drummer (Berklee Press)

Remember that you need to learn to read and play RESTS as well as notes. Rhythm is'nt everything, but DELIVERS everything, if you think about it... http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/wink.gif When the going gets rough, remember that it is all finite. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/mandosmiley.gif

Nov-16-2005, 10:47pm
john is absolutly 100% dead on. I myself early on got caught knowing how to read the notes, but I was fairly poor with the rhythm. If you can't read the rhythm correctly than reading the notes correctly means nothing. Otherwise you would be playing a bunch of notes and that's it. I was taught when learning to solo(take breaks) that a rest is many times more powerful than trying to hit a bunch of notes of triplets. Listen to a bunch of Grisman tunes, he uses the rhythm as his main power behind his playing. Most of his tunes are not hard to play note wise, it's the rhythm that kills people. In fact, I would highly suggest learning some of his tunes while learning to sight read. It will help you learn the notes and rhythm at the same time.

Another great way to learn the rhythm is to clap the rhythm of the song you are learning to sight read. If you can't clap the rhythm than you probably can't play it. Once you can clap it, start sight reading. The process will go much smoother I bet.

As for learning the notes on the fretboard....write out a scale in standard notation, then play it on the mandolin, calling out each note as you read it. A good way to learn the whole fretboard is to do all your scales on one string. Start with the G string and play all your scales just on the G string calling out the notes as you move up the fretboard. Then move to the D string and then the A string and finally the E string. Then play all your scales in 1st position calling out the notes, then in 2nd postion and so forth. But don't do all this at once. Pick a postion and just work in that position for a while. If you can learn to sight read in positions other than the 1st, you will become very good, very quickly. This is something many, many people can not do. Highly regaurded among those who play in emsambles, if you can read standard notation and like to play classical music than you can probably find a job doing so.

John Flynn
Nov-16-2005, 11:08pm
Music is sound, not ink. Learn by ear. Everything else is a crutch created back in the days we didn't have sound recordings and slow down programs. BTW, I can read music, but as the saying goes, "not so well it gets in the way of my pickin'."

Nov-17-2005, 6:53am
Music is sound, not ink. Learn by ear. Everything else is a crutch created back in the days we didn't have sound recordings and slow down programs. BTW, I can read music, but as the saying goes, "not so well it gets in the way of my pickin'."

I agree that playing by ear is important -- I am one of the fortunate ones who was taught to both read and play by ear from the beginning.

But to refer to reading notes as a crutch is just wrong. Written notation is a form a communication of musical ideas that has been used for centuries to transmit pieces and as the basis for communicating ideas #ABOUT music as well (music theory etc.).

The original question was not about whether or not to learn to read but HOW to do so.

On that topic, there is much good advice here already.

steve in tampa
Nov-17-2005, 7:03am

Music is sound, not ink. Learn by ear. Everything else is a crutch created back in the days we didn't have sound recordings and slow down programs. BTW, I can read music, but as the saying goes, "not so well it gets in the way of my pickin'."

Music is a language. Help stamp out illiteracy!

I have gotten lots of good little insights with my limited command of tabs. Every little bit helps. Knowing enough to be able to decipher a phrase is a great thing.

Nov-17-2005, 11:06am
I think learning by ear is important too, but reading music is very important and very useful. Let me give you some Vivaldi pieces or Mozart and lets see how long, and even if you can figure out the piece by ear. Not only that, but when learning to read music, you learn all sorts of stuff such as dynamics, time signatures, key signatures, when to return on an upstroke or down stroke and all kinds of things. I agree that being able to read music is not essential for learning bluegrass or even country. But when it comes to Jazz, Classical, Baroque, Flamenco and that sort of music, there is no substitution for knowing how to read standard notation. Another big reason for standard notation along with learning the piece of music is that many are very long and complicated and it is very hard to memorize those pieces, especially if you are playing in emsambles where your are playing 20 and 30 pieces of music. Just virually impossible to memorize those pieces.

Nov-17-2005, 2:33pm
And, who knows -- maybe the original poster has standard notation for a piece but no recording. I have lots of books of tunes for which I have no recording -- it is fun sometimes to flip through the book and read/play them.



Nov-17-2005, 3:39pm
Yo MandoJohnny-

Just remember, there are 3 kinds of musicians- those who can count, and those who can"t. http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/laugh.gif

Larry Simonson
Nov-17-2005, 8:04pm
Last Christmas I started on my quest to learn to read music, after playing by the seat of my pants for 35 years. I started with the rules -Face and Every Good boy does fine- along with an old Ira Ford copy of "Traditional Music in America". I just wacked away at for 6 months then got a local piano teacher to help me with the rythym coding and have made quite a bit of progress (according to my wife anyhow). I'm not looking to get anywhere fast but I am enjoying the journey. Its kinda nice to go from Bach to thrashing around on the 'by ear' stuff. I find my wife's recorder books to be student friendly.

Martin Jonas
Nov-18-2005, 6:42am
To follow up on the advantage of being able to sightread: at our last ensemble rehearsal, we ran through about ten old Italian pieces (waltzes, polkas and tangoes) none of us had ever seen before, all arranged with full harmony parts, and all rather more complex than the average fiddle tune. #Although hardly of concert standard, we were able to play the pieces from the sheet first time. #While I do agree with the value of ear training and being able to learn tunes from hearing them, the ability of being able to play from the sheet is not to be underestimated (and having such ensemble rehearsals is one of the fastest and most fun ways for improving at sight-reading that I can think of).


Nov-18-2005, 7:42am
I realize the old punster is leaving himself wide open to jokes about Harold Hill and the "Think" system but you can augment your learning of notation and the fretboard during the downtimes (when no mandolin is present) by picturing in your mind a random note on the staff and a fingering on the mandolin at the same time and vice versa. I'm not saying to do this in place of your regular practice but perhaps when doing other tasks. Getting the process into the subconcious will help you accomplish sightreading a little sooner.

Nov-18-2005, 9:52am
I agree with Martin that playing in ensembles is the fastest and funnest(is that a word?) way to improve at sight reading. I've always liked duets. If you're able to find someone to read the other part, (violin, flute, one hand on the piano, or another mandolin) there are a lot of good, easy, violin duet books available. Many in a progressive format so they get harder toward the end of the book. It's alot easier and more fun to sit and play duets with someone else for a couple of hours than it is to try and do it on your own. If the other person is a beginning reader too, you can help each other along. If they are more advanced, trying to keep up will get you good fast! Try "Beautiful music for two string instruments" by Samuel Applebaum. Volume one is very easy. Beginning violin method books are a good way to learn the basic note locations and simple rhythms. Don't look at your fingers, look at the music! Good Luck!

Joel Glassman
Nov-21-2005, 12:03am
I'd get the standard notation Fiddler's Fakebook,
and a beginner's book on reading music, then
make a chart of the notes on the mandolin and the
fret/note names, and have at it. The FF won't teach you
a lot about rhythmic variety, but will help you get good
at reading eighth-note melodies. Try to count out the notes
in relation to the beat. (ie. 1&2&3&4& for 8th notes etc.)
This will take you a long way.

Nov-21-2005, 10:07am
John is absoluely spot on ... "Two major elements can be learned individually: the pitches (notes and where they are) and the rhythms"

One book I found that did a great job of teaching this and is a really great book in general for those learning to read music is:

"Learn To Read Music"
by Howard Shanet published by "Fireside" (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)

The book claims to give you a good foundation for reading in space of four hours. While your mileage may vary, I have used it with my students with great results.

Hope this helps!

Nov-23-2005, 5:09am
I'm at a stage where I know what the notes mean, I know pretty much how to read the rhythm and most of the other squiggles and splatters of ink. I can read a sheet of music enough to learn it a phrase at a time and then memorise it and play it "by rote" using the notation just as an aide memoire. BUT there is just no way I can sight read a new piece straight off (or even at a quarter speed). I'm like a child who has to break up the long words. I have NEVER managed to get passed this stage (perhaps because I've found memorisation a less painful route). But now I am starting to play with other musicians who can sightread and, while I am probably technicaly their equal (and better than many) I look and sound like a beginner who's been playing about five minutes. HELP!

I know there is no magic shortcut so I want to try and use my downtime (lunch time at work). Does anybody know any good websites or free software that I can use? I suppose I could just get sheet music and read it while visualising the fingering... suggestions? How do you get over the next hurdle in music reading and on to "stage 2"?


Nov-23-2005, 10:03pm

To learn to sight read, I would get some easy violon beginning books and start there. It sounds like you are trying to sight read too difficult songs. If you like classical, get the Suzuki Voilin I and the CD. If you like fiddle tunes, American Fiddle Method, Vol. 1 which comes with a CD. Since its the season, there are quite a few #beginning christmas books for violin that would be a good start. You probably already know the melodies of these songs so sight reading them should be easy and fun.

Start with easily playable tunes, even it is something you can play by ear, i.e.Twinkle Little Star. Listen to the CD once or twice through then start to read slow and try to concentrate on the rhythm and timing of the piece. Pick a tune for the week to work on. Your goal is to bring it up to speed by the end of the week

Continue to work with more difficult songs. Again, the Suzuki violin series do this with every volume (I think there are six or seven). It takes alot of practice,patience and perseverance to learn to sight read a piece, especially cold turkey(if you don't know the melody).

Good luck.

John Ritchhart
Nov-24-2005, 4:42pm
Practice, Madam, practice.

Nov-24-2005, 7:53pm
My wife and i took a college class on music theory, best class ever. Easier to understand why chords and keys work.

A year later we took a guitar class together, the first night after the class as we were chatting with the teacher a girl walked up interupting and wanted to know when he would be teaching "grid". Bill, my wife and I looked at each other in confusion. I asked her if she meant "tab" , she was firm that she needed to be taught in grid. It took a bit of convincing but she finally understood that it was called tab. And no, Bill did not reach tab.