Phonics, Reading Readiness and Music


Remember phonics? Whole language? Reading readiness? These are a few of the methods that have been used to teach reading in the past and new methods are constantly being investigated. Although the methods for teaching reading continue to evolve, the teaching of note reading hasn’t changed much over the years, often to the detriment of the music student. Without committing to a whole-music approach and making use of relevant discoveries regarding brain function, attaining musical literacy can become so tedious that music students avoid it altogether. The unfortunate and unnecessary result is that countless musicians are left without skills that would shape and enrich their experience.

We know that improvement of reading skills enhances comprehension, recall and the ability to make connections in the information we acquire. The result is not only new inventions, but also new ways of thinking, perceiving or interacting with one another and the environment. Musical literacy carries many of the same benefits. Research has shown that children who receive music education have an IQ that averages seven points higher than those who don’t and have better connections between the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum. Why, then, hasn’t more attention been given to the teaching the reading of standard musical notation?

Teaching and learning to read music is surely an easier task than teaching or learning to read text, but the principle reason that advances in teaching note reading haven’t been pursued is likely that the study of music is undervalued in our culture and educational system – and more so all the time. As a consequence of not only that attitude, but also of a reliance on technology, note reading is a skill that is increasingly dismissed.

This dismissal may be more prevalent among guitarists than players of any other instrument, and understandably so. More music is available by TAB than ever before and there are plenty of videos online that teach songs and techniques. For a lot of players (blues players, for example), note reading is simply not a skill that will help them achieve their specific goals. But for a lot more, the advantages are too great to ignore.

Anyone can learn to read music without sacrificing either an inordinate amount of time or their passion for music. Those who resist learning to read music on guitar usually cite an unwillingness to invest in something they don’t value – but would they value the knowledge once they acquired it? My observation is that when people learn to read music, they not only enjoy it, they benefit from it in more ways than they might have predicted. (Think about it – have you ever heard someone say “Gee, I wish I hadn’t wasted all that time learning to read music”?)

The most comfortable and effective way to achieve music literacy is to follow a natural, organic and musical approach. Before I describe the approach I use in my teaching, let me share my top five reasons for guitar players to learn to read standard musical notation.


It’s Fun

I’m not kidding. It’s not merely satisfying to be able to read music, it’s a lot of fun! Picture sitting down with another guitarist or a group of musicians you have never met and playing a piece you have never seen or heard. Music seeming to come from nowhere – but it’s coming from your own instrument, like magic! Trust me, it is a lot of fun, and not just when you are playing with other people. I’ve never gotten over the thrill of picking up a piece of paper filled with dots and symbols and transforming it into sound. I guess I never will.


It Grows You as a Musician

Playing songs from written music may not appeal to you, but there are more reasons to read music than learning songs. If you can read standard musical notation, you will always have information and education at your fingertips. You will be able to make sense of theory or ear training instruction and you can benefit from countless transcriptions of solos or exercises for lead playing. If you want to you learn from the greats, note reading is your ticket.


It Provides a Plan for Productivity When You are Uninspired

Everybody hits a slump sometimes. When my heart is tired, dull or sad, but my brain knows that I want to continue to grow, I practice sight reading. When I get up from practicing, I always feel better about myself and my guitar.


It Teaches You the Fretboard

Forget trying to memorize every note on the fretboard – just use them with awareness as you practice your sight reading exercises. One day you will realize you know them!


It Makes You Smarter

The best way to strengthen your brain is to exercise it and studying music is a great way to do that! Evidence shows that early musical training not only helps the young musician’s brain, it can boost cognition later in life. Although the benefits may be less dramatic for those who begin the study of music in adulthood, they are nonetheless present.

You are not stuck with the same connections between your brain cells that you were born with or developed as a child; you continue to modify them throughout your life! When you study and play music, you strengthen particular pathways in your brain. You could do online brain training – or you could learn new skills on your guitar!


How to Make Learning to Read Music an Arduous and Tedious Task

A common approach to learning and playing music written in standard notation is what I refer to as the typing approach. This primarily involves looking at a series of symbols that represent pitch classes and then locating the appropriate places on the guitar to produce those notes.

There are a lot of problems with this approach, other than the fact that it is no fun. (Who wants to memorize the dictionary before being allowed to speak?) The biggest problem is that almost every note that can be played on the guitar can be found in multiple places, which can get ridiculously confusing unless you are following a method. (Don’t worry, I have one you can use) Another problem is that merely matching note names to fretboard locations often leaves out common sense and musicality, resulting in mistakes, such as playing a note of the correct name, but playing it in the wrong octave. The results are bizarre, but most people who are making the mistake are so involved in their typing approach, they don’t even hear the sounds they are producing! Remember, if you approach note reading the same way you do typing, you are likely to sound not like a musician, but like a very poor typist.


How to Make Learning to Read Music an Enjoyable Way to Grow Your Musicianship

If you want to avoid tedious learning and mechanical playing, it’s best to give up trying to memorize all of the notes on the fretboard and the notes on the staff with the hope of matching them up fluidly. A step-by-step method of discovering and ingraining the connections between symbols and sounds will serve you much better and you will magically learn the fretboard as you go.

When you begin your study, you will not only be learning time signatures and key signatures, you will be dealing with rhythmic notation, pitches, fingerings and expression markings. When taken all at once, those tasks can be overwhelming, but when broken down and taken in order, they are easily manageable. A key to success is to learn a small bit of information and practice it until it feels natural and easy before taking the next small bit.


Reading Readiness

Before trying to read a piece of music written in standard notation, learn to read rhythms with confidence. Most people want to skip right to playing the notes, which is one reason TAB is so alluring to so many people – and also a reason why reading TAB often results in poor performance. Without correct rhythm, the song just isn’t the song. If you never go any farther into note reading than understanding rhythmic notation, you will be a far better musician for it. It takes very little time to master basic rhythm reading skills and things will go much better when you have.

After making sure you understand the rhythm of a piece, look at the shape of the melodic line. As the notes go higher on the staff, the sound of the melody goes up in pitch; as the notes descend, so does the melody. Notice scalewise movement, small skips or large skips. To the best of your ability, hear it in your mind’s ear. It doesn’t have to be a perfect mental performance, but you should get the idea of the melodic movement. The more you practice doing this, the better a musician you will become. A really good sight reader is essentially looking at the music, hearing it in his or her head, and then playing it by ear. (Practice ear training!)

Analyze the piece in other ways, too, before you touch your guitar. Determine the position you will use, as well as the key signature and time signature. Scan the entire piece for familiar and unfamiliar patterns and musical notations. Decipher and mentally practice the parts that are unfamiliar before you begin playing.

When you do start playing, go more slowly than you are inclined to go and maintain a steady beat. Think in terms of scales and intervals, not one random note followed by another. (Practice scales and intervals!) Knowing the note names is important, but don’t allow that aspect of your overall knowledge be your primary focus when you are playing. Let the music flow. Be musical.

Last but not least, repeat more times than you think you need to, staying mindful with each repetition. And don’t be afraid to get help.


Self-Study or Guided?

No matter how natural and efficient the approach to reading music, it will still require you to commit to practice. You won’t need to spend a lot of time each day working on your reading, but you will need to incorporate it into your practice plan at least a few times a week.

If you are comfortable with learning from books and carrying through with a disciplined course of study, you can easily learn to read music using Moving On. The instruction, exercises and songs in the book cover note reading in the first position and are suitable for self-study. Once you have a firm grasp of the first position, the other positions are easy and fast to learn, but even if you never go further than first position, your musical skills will be vastly improved.

If you are like most people, however, you will have an easier time with the guidance of a teacher (provided your teacher is not a “typing” teacher!). If you want to give it a try, please feel free to contact me for individualized assistance. As I observe your unique style of thinking and approach to playing, I can create tricks and tips that will help you to get the most from your practice. Skype works remarkably well, so distance won’t be an issue. You may get the hang of the process in one or two sessions and be able to take it from there, or you may decide that a series of lessons will give you the support you need. In either case, don’t shy away from reading because it seems too hard. I can help you!