Music Notation

Being able to read music is not the be all and end all. Many musicians work without notation, using their ability to learn, recall and manipulate music by ear. To play in most orchestras and bands, though, you need to be able to read. A lot of choirs are helped by members who can read and some require it. If you want to engage with music that is usually accessed from written notation and you can't read, you are dependent on others to teach you how it sounds.

If learning to read music isn't on your agenda, just leave out this strand of materials. The others are relevant for you. If you can already read music but would like to do it better, it's worthwhile including this strand from the basic level. There could be some gaps in your understanding that the activities could help fill, and they should be fun and quick to do.

Most people who can read music learned to do it as part of their lessons on the piano, or whatever other instrument they played. Publications for beginners combine reading music with getting to grips with the instrument. This approach is a decoding one – you learn to recognise C on the music lines and how to make C on the instrument and whenever you see the former, you make the latter. Rhythm is taught by a mixture of playing familiar tunes, while seeing how they are written down and working out patterns by counting beats.

If students make good progress, this approach ends up by working well. Gradually, the player shifts from just decoding to being able to really read – knowing how the music sounds in advance of playing it. It works for those who stick at it. It's not so good if one doesn't get to that stage – one needs the instrument to be able to hear how the music goes. That's like a child being able to sound out the words, but not being able to notice what the story is.  As with any lessons, it depends a lot on the teacher. There are people who reached good standards of playing without properly getting to grips with reading – they've learned mainly by ear. That's fine unless they want to join a group that uses printed music.

Something similar can happen to some experienced choral singers who have developed excellent abilities to learn and remember by ear. They use the printed sheets for the words but don't get much information from the notes. I believe such people can face a barrier of feeling deskilled when tackling basic notation tasks.

In different countries, at different times, school children have been introduced to music learning programmes that gradually introduce reading music as part of the mix. They are taught how to read and write and use the notation to think about music. That's real literacy.

The approach taken in these materials is more like that, but not so intense. There's no decoding or “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour”. Instead you'll be using logic to match chunks of notation to music patterns you know and have thought about. You'll be encouraged to play with a starter kit of notated fragments, joining them together and manipulating them. You'll find in the early materials that the notation always follows the Musithinks and Using a Keyboard steps, so you have the sounds in your ears and under your fingers before you are asked to relate them to the symbols.

Knowing about the lines and the spaces and the crotchets and quavers doesn't get you reading, but once you get going it's essential information. You'll find all that stuff in the Musiknows strand.

Music notation projects to download

(coming soon)