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.


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.

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Emma George