Noticeboard - January 6th
  • Well done to everyone who participated in the Tudor Revels on January 5, whether, playing, singing, dancing, acting, laughing, eating or drinking. A great end to the mid-winter festivities. What shall we do next? 

  • The first Music Saturday of the year is coming up on the 12th. Check out what we're going to be doing in each session by clicking here.

  • Drop In Singing starts again on January 8th, and happens every Tuesday evening until May when we meet fortnightly. More details on the Drop In Singing page.

  • The first big task of January is organising dates for the Music Literacy Course. There will be one course on Saturday mornings in Felton, and there may be another in a different location. Keep an eye on the information and make contact if you are interested in taking part . More details are on the Workshops and Courses page.

Emma George
What Is Music Literacy?

One of the most commonly expressed wishes of adults involved in music making is “I wish I could read music”. Reading isn't needed for lots of types of music, such as folk, but it's really useful for “classical” music.

This article is designed to explain what music literacy is and what's involved in starting to acquire it. It's aimed at the person who most often voices the wish: the adult who enjoys singing in a choir and would love to feel more capable and confident.

Unpicking the Skill

You're sitting there in the choir rehearsal. A new piece of music is handed out. “Let's get a feel of how it goes” says the director. The starting notes are given, you're counted in and the singing starts. Around you several people are singing this stuff they've never seen before. Depending on your skill level relative to the difficulty of the music, you are either hanging on to their lead or pretty well lost. You know that once the director starts the note bashing process, you'll be able to take part properly and start memorising your line.

How on earth are those music readers doing it? Even when they make a mistake, they seem to be able to get themselves in again.

Listen more carefully and you'll notice there's quite a range of competence. Being able to read music is not a can or can't thing. 

Ask those who can read how they do it, and often they find it difficult to explain. Can you explain how you learned to read words?

In order to read the music at sight the person is drawing on:

  • knowledge of the sounds the patterns of symbols represent

  • knowledge of the words and symbols that give information about how the notes are to be performed

  • an internalised clock to calculate the relative length of the notes (and silences)

  • an internalised scale of notes to get the jumps between the notes the right size

  • access to a store of remembered common patterns to allow the reader to make assumptions and predictions about the music (like a vocabulary)

  • the ability to get information from all the simultaneous lines of music

  • the ability to relate the sound they are making to the sounds around them

And all this has to happen in real time – it has to be a fluent process.

You'll notice that there's nothing here about the names of the notes – all that A, B, C business or crotchets and quavers. That's really useful information that helps people talk and learn about music, but it doesn't get you into reading music any more than knowing the alphabet gets you into reading words.

Sometimes those who don't read music believe that those who can are blessed with perfect pitch. That's a really rare competence. It's when you can say to the person “sing a D” and they can do it straight away without having heard any other notes. It's like having a piano in your head. Apart from being almost impossible to learn once you're past the age of about seven, it's not always such a good thing – imagine trying to sing with a choir that's gone flat.

The pitching skill that we'd all like to improve is relative pitch. That's when someone says to you “here's the note G, now sing a D”. That's really useful. Some people are amazingly good at it, and can pitch any note from any other, even under pressure. I can't manage that well. I can manage some jumps straight away, while for others I have to have a strategy so I can work them out, or borrow them from another part. It's rather like mental arithmetic, some answers are instant while others have to be worked out. All music readers are at different points along the competence continuum, and can improve with practice.

Audiation

In 1975 Edwin Gordon, an American educationalist, coined the term “audiation” for the process going on in the brain when one is thinking in music. He equated it to thought in language. Thinking in language means we can recall, reflect and plan using unspoken words. We can also manipulate word patterns and think about language. When we see written there are thoughts to relate them to, not just elusive sounds. To become musically literate, at however basic a level, you need to develop your ability to audiate. 

You may think that you can't audiate. You probably can and it's just a matter of becoming conscious of it. Even if it feels as though it's a new mental process for you, fear not. It's easy and fun to get started, very empowering, and you can practise it wherever you are.

Staff Notation and how it works

When people talk about reading music they usually mean the way of writing down music called staff notation. The staff or stave is the set of five horizontal lines on which symbols are written. There are other ways of writing music down. Guitarists and other players of instruments with frets use tablature (tab). This is a system of pictures which show you where to put your fingers. Some software produces graphic notation. Tonic sol-fa (doh, ray, me etc.) doesn't need the stave. Letters represent the sounds in the scale. Staff notation is universal and works for any instrument: it's handy to understand it. It's what's used in most choirs, orchestras and bands.

Staff notation deals mainly with two aspects of music, pitch (the up and down of the notes) and rhythm (how the notes move through time).

Pitch is notated graphically showing the up and down. The five lines of the stave help the eye see how the notes relate to each other. The concept is simple. What takes learning is internalising a repertoire of pitch patterns so the jumps between the notes are accurate. That's where audiation really comes in.

Rhythm is notated symbolically. Each of the notes – crotchets, minims and so on tells the reader how long they should sound relative to the beat. Nowadays, printers of music try to help the reader by distributing the notes proportionately, but often this isn't possible. In order to read music in real time you need to accumulate a repertoire of common rhythms. There isn't time to work everything out mathematically.

The traditional way of learning to read music 

Most of the adults around who read fluently learned an instrument. The skills of playing and decoding are taught in tandem. There's the option of exam, and these test aural development (recalling and identifying notes and patterns), and reading music at sight as well as technical skills and performance. The best teachers integrate the separate strands of aural, reading and theory with practical skills. A minority learn to read music through singing, meaning they jump straight in to relating image to sound, with no decoding.

Those who don't play the piano, but show potential in music may be encouraged to learn. The piano presents the opportunity to combine notes, and helps makes sense of a lot of aspects of music theory. It's a really useful reference point.

In this tradition, music theory means understanding written music and all its conventions – clefs, key and time signatures, sharps and flats, notes and rests. 

Learning to read music as an adult

If you have the time you could replicate the traditional approach. Even if you want to learn an instrument, through, you can speed the process by getting into music literacy head on, rather than tackling it at the same time as you are mastering finding the notes.

In recent years, neurological research has demonstrated that we really can learn new skills as adults, even at ages when previous generations would have taken to the pipe and slippers. It can take a bit longer to build the connections in the brain, but we can use the self knowledge accumulated through life to manage our learning efficiently. 

“Practice is all. If you practise you improve”


In order to develop music literacy as effectively as possible it's helpful if you:

Have realistic expectations

None of us would expect to start learning a new skill as an adult and be as good as a professional after a few months. Music literacy is a big skill, but you can exercise at all levels, and the more exercise it gets, the more it improves.

Don't mind working with the simplest of music materials

If you start Russian lessons you don't expect to start with Dostoevsky. People who sing in choirs are often performing very sophisticated music – too complex to help you learn the fundamentals of music literacy.

Are prepared to have a go 

You can't learn any of this without making sounds, on the keyboard and vocally. 

Taking a relaxed approach, exploring and not minding making audible errors helps learning. Remember we talk about “playing” music. Be playful.

Can cope with being a beginner

We vary in how comfortable we feel being unskilled

Set aside your ability to learn by ear

Your musical memory is probably well developed, but you need to consciously put it aside to learn the new skill of reading. You'll probably continue to use memory at choir rehearsals all of the time initially.

Consciously manage your thinking processes and learning

To learn this skill you have to build new connections in the brain. This is what takes the time. Knowing that the process takes time and can be frustrating doesn't make it any quicker, but can help you through it. You use your adult, cognitive brain to coach the parts needed to acquire the skills you want. Patience and positivity – like puppy training.


To find out what courses are running - see the Workshops & Courses page. I hope you’ve found this article useful. If you want a PDF version to download to your computer for printing - click below.

Emma George
Noticeboard 29th Novemeber
  • Congratulations to those Slow Tuners (Music Saturday folk music practice) who went along the Northumberland Arms this week and joined in with some of the tunes in the open folk music session which happens on the fourth Tuesday evening of the month. Exhilarating and a real achievement.

  • The last Drop In evening of the year will be on December 18. Christmassy songs, of course, and we'll have a longer and more filling break. Bring along something for a shared mini-feast, and perhaps a bit of liquid cheer? 

  • The Tudor Revels on January 5 are starting to shape up. Everyone, singers and players, of any level welcome to join the music team. Find out more here and email to get involved.

  • It's the last Music Saturday of the year on December 8. See what's planned for this nearly Christmas-free zone on The Calendar.

  • Want to be better at reading music? The Music Literacy Course is going to run again in 2019. No dates fixed yet – they'll be organised round those who want to come, so take a look at the information on the Workshops & Courses Page and get in touch if you are interested.

Emma George
Noticeboard 5th November
  • There are numerous concerts and events all over the region marking the centenary of the end of WW1. Free tickets are still available for the Bridge Singers' concert in St Michael's Church, Felton on November 10  – check the calendar for details. On Sunday 11, Andy Griffin and Clive Richardson are leading the singing at an Armistice Celebration at Gallery 45 at 6pm. Supper included for £6.

  • The next Felton Music Saturday is coming up on November 10th. Check the Music Saturdays page to find out what's planned.

  • At a loose end on a Tuesday evening and fancy an uncomplicated sing? Drop In Singing offers a warm welcome to all comers. Sing yourself silly with a mixed bag of numbers more or less linked by a theme. Better than a night cap.

  • We've got a weekend for Iolanthe. Get away from it all with a good dose of Gilbert and Sullivan at the end of April 2019. More about the group here.

  • Do you have a musical instrument gathering dust or are you looking for something to play? We can use the website to help find lonely instruments good homes. Email Alison with details.

Emma George
Noticeboard: 15th October

This is the fourth noticeboard since the website was refreshed – I hope it's working for you as a means of keeping you in touch with stuff. So far, it hasn't worked well in terms of getting information back from you. In the hopes of making it quicker and easier for you to respond about things please you can click on the BIG BUTTON BELOW. Pressing on this takes you straight into an email. Lots of opportunities to practise using it right now! 

  • Hazel and Chris Metherell are looking for people to sing carols at Care Homes in the Alnwick / Morpeth area on the 17th– 20th December. Day time visits. No requirement to do every session! They need a pool of singers. Readiness to sing in a smallish group is essential and confidence to put in a harmony /descant part (with or without notation) is a bonus. Contact Hazel or Chris directly or email me and I'll pass your details on if you'd like to be involved a little or a lot.

  • I'm longing to hear from people who'd like to be members of the music team for the Tudor Revels on January 5. At the moment, it's going to be very quiet. Sign up now by emailing me. See in outline what's involved on the Dances Page

  • It would be good to get a booking on for the Village Hall for our next Gilbert and Sullivan in a weekend. March/April time or June/Julyish? It's going to be Iolanthe. If you're keen to take part, let me know if you have a preference or would be happy with either. 

  • We've just had a splendid Felton Music Saturday. Many thanks to all who came along, including many for the first time. What did you think of it? What would you like to see included in the sessions? How was the coffee? An outline of what we'll be doing next time (November 10) will appear on the site in a couple of weeks. If you've got a moment it would be great to hear your views.

Emma George
Noticeboard: 26th September
  • It's “The King and I” on Saturday October 6. Come along to Felton Village Hall ready for a 9.30am start. Help yourself to a coffee, put £5 in the box, pick up a score, and sit wherever you want. If you like, volunteer to narrate or read one of the characters so we can tell the story. Costume and props optional! Finish at 12.30 prompt. More info on the Musical in a Morning page.    

  • October 13 is the next Music Saturday with a full morning of activities for singers and an afternoon for instrumentalists. We've moved the starting time to 9am for the reading music session. Check out the full schedule on the Music Saturdays page.

  • Did you hear Woman's Hour on Tuesday September 25, or see Trust Me, I’m a Doctor the following day? Fascinating research into the positive effect of singing by Nottingham University. You can read more on their blog: http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/newsroom/2018/09/24.

  • It's time to start planning rehearsals for the Tudor Revels, which are going to happen on January 5. Do you want to be part of the music team – singing and/or playing (all instruments welcomed)? You can do lots or just a little, difficult or easy. There's music for people to dance to and to listen to. Sign up now by emailing Alison. See in outline what's involved on the Dances page.

  • The Drop-Inners have sorted out all their themes to the end of the year. Take a look on the Drop In Singing page and if you've ideas for songs you'd like to sing, email Alison.

Emma George
Noticeboard : 17th September
  • Have you enjoyed being involved in Gilbert and Sullivan in a Weekend? Would you like to join in 2019? It's going to be Iolanthe. The question is – when. Do we stick to the last weekend in June or should we move to March/early April? Email now with your preference if you have one. Read more about it here.

  • A Confident Singing session has had the thumbs up for Music Saturdays. We now offer a whole morning of interesting activities for singers that complement choral singing. If you know anyone who'd like to come along, do encorage them to give it a go. Not forgetting Ukukeles and Slow Tunes in the afternoon! More details here.

  • Looking for something fun to do on a damp Autumn afternoon? Check out YouTube for The King and I - there's a performance of the whole show there. You'll be up and running ready for our sing through on October 6. More details here.

  • Only 3 months to Christmas! Carols on the Bridge are on December 17, and after the success of last year's Twelfth Night Tudor Revels, we're revelling Tudorishly all over again on Saturday January 5. More details here

Emma George
September Update

After a year marking time the Felton Music website is active again! Here are some highlights. Do sign up to the blog to receive regular updates about what is going on.

  • We've just had September's Music Saturday, next month's date is October 13th. You can read more about what we do here.

  • Enjoy an afternoon at Brinkburn Priory on Saturday September 22 and listen to the Bridge Singers performing in this magical building. See the event details here.

  • Our next Musical in a Morning is only a few weeks away. Saturday October 6 is the date for “The King and I”. Come along to Felton Village Hall for a 9.30 start. More details here.

  • Please note the 6th October Early Music concert at Newton-On-The-Moor has been cancelled. We are hoping it will be happen in the Spring. 

Emma George