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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Predicting Note Movements

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Predicting Note Movements

Last week I sent out a post about tension and release in melodies. If you didn’t read it then you can find it here.

Today I want to delve into notation reading as I know some of you find this difficult (I think we all do in some way). A lot of my students ask me how long it takes to read music fluently. It’s a tricky question to answer. It’s similar to learning a new language and it would depend on how much time you dedicate to it. If you were dropped into a new country with no wallet then you would quickly learn the basics of the language just to survive. Once fully immersed in the language, your rate of learning increases.

First up, I want to give you some good news. Here are a few facts that will hopefully make you feel a bit better about reading music:

  1. I am not the best at reading music. I find reading complicated rhythms and fast passages hard. I once had a 17 year old student who could read much better than me and I had to use a few crafty tactics to avoid embarrassment!
  2. Professional musicians can make mistakes when reading.
  3. For all the guitarists out there: I have it on good authority that guitarists have a legitimate excuse for not reading as well as a pianist or horn player. First of all, most guitarists don’t learn to play music in this way – but this is not the proper excuse – the options for notes on the fretboard is unique to the instrument so choosing which Middle C to play requires more brain power than other instrumentalists.
  4. Everyone can improve and here are a few methods: reading something new everyday (sight-reading), working with a teacher, playing in a group, learning to count as you play, listening to music in the relevant style.
  5. All of the baffling squiggles and markings on the page are there for a reason. In fact, two reasons. To make you play exactly what the composer intended and to simplify the reading process. The latter infuriates some people as they insist that calling the note B a C flat is not making life simple! However, the rules of musical notation are designed to reduce the amount of symbols needed to read and to make the theory consistent. Thats why C flats, E sharps, double sharps and double flats exist. Still, I agree, they’re a swine to read.

So how do you get better at reading?

Well, as I suggested above, actively listening to a lot of music and reading as often as possible will do it. The speed in which you improve will be down to how often you read, how accurate you are (and if you don’t know then you need to get someone to help you check – a teacher) and how closely you listen. It’s a simple as that. The reason I am now fairly good at reading (I still wouldn’t say excellent) is because I’ve done it almost everyday for 25 years! When I started I would say I was well below average so all you average and above people should manage it much quicker!

I want to leave you with this short snippet. It’s not really advice, more an observation. Daniel Gilbert (a Harvard Professor of Psychology) calls it ‘nexting’. The brains ability to predict outcome. He’s using the argument to defend Man’s dominance over other species but it can apply to all sorts of relevant scenarios. When I read a piece of music at full speed, my brain does not have time to accurately process all of the information. In the same way your brain is reading these words as complete words and not as individual letters, I can read a series of notes in one chunk. I can predict the shape, rhythm and pitch of the phrase by allowing my brain to predict the outcome. I have to ride the line of predictions though, as too many assumptions and not enough focus can lead to inaccuracy. However, reading at speed relies heavily on assuming you know what the phrase is doing and not reading one note at a time.

Take the following examples:

The first example is clearly a descending Bb major scale. I can read that phrase quickly because I know what a Bb major scale is and I can see that nothing is surprising about the phrase apart from the resolution to D instead of perhaps a more obvious last note of Bb.

At first glance, example 2 looks very hard, but I quickly realise that the phrase is chromatic. Again, I have played a chromatic scale a thousand times so I don’t need to think very hard.

Example 3 has many twists and turns in the line and has a random F#. When playing jazz, there is less written information and this is where I would suggest you listen to the music in order to predict the outcome. When you first switch to reading jazz music, it will not make a lot of sense. Why on earth would you have an F# in a Bb major scale? If you are interested in getting better at reading jazz then I would suggest joining a big band and/or working through the Charlie Parker Omnibook. Find it here:

Eb Version
Bb Version
Concert Pitch Version

The last example is difficult as it is a ‘Row’ from music described as Serialism. It incorporates all 12 notes and can sound pretty bonkers! It would be very difficult to predict this sort of music. Listening doesn’t help that much and besides, my wife hates me playing it so I have to play it when she’s out!

When reading this blog, you skim through the letters and form them into worms. As long as there are no surprises, you continue…wait…did he just say worms?! This is exactly the same process for reading music. Be focused enough to recognise surprises but rely on your previous experience to guide you through at speed. Remember to ride the line of accuracy over assumption. If playing at full speed then rely more on your predictions and hope for the best, if you are working through it at home then slow it down go for pure accuracy!

Have fun and I hope this helps a bit.



Post a comment below (I read them all)


4 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Dionne
    February 17, 2017

    Ha! I fell into your worm-trap.
    Now that I play mostly jazz, I find I have become very lazy with reading. When reading/playing a new tune, I will use any notation as only a guide, so my accuracy has become very poor, esp. rhythms were I will play what I feel rather than what is written. Might have to find another big band as an excuse to work on this. Thanks for the tips.

    • Jay
      February 17, 2017

      So easy to slip into the lazy approach. I try to catch myself. It happens ALL the time

  2. Roger
    February 17, 2017

    Someone sent me this the other day and I cnlduo’t bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno’t mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh?

    I think this just shows that brain can use all sorts of inputs to make sense of something. Effectively the gobbledegook above is a different language but it has some roots in English so I suspect most English speaking people would be able to read it because the flow of the statement follows certain rules and we predict easily what the word should be when only the first and last letters are correct. And those rules are important so we can communicate with others. The same follows with music, if we want to communicate with others, playing at the same time etc, as in an orchestra or a big band, then being precise in note length, value and rhythm is absolutely vital. Whereas playing in a small jazz quartet where you are the lead instrument with a backing trio, then as Dionne suggests, one can be more relaxed and free to interpret the music his or her own way within the boundaries of more forgiving rules.

    For me I learn to read a piece first, ignoring the 240bpm it should be played at so I know the individual notes. Repetitive practice helps develop the muscle memory. Then I find listening to others playing ensures I develop both an understanding of the style I want to play as well as highlighting those areas of a piece where that odd F# sits and being ready for it so my ear and memory of the piece helps my fingers hit the right key (hopefully).

    In the end how much of each method you use; listening, muscle memory practice, reading practice and observational practice (playing in front of a mirror for example), will depend on what you play and who you play with.

    • Jay
      February 24, 2017

      Great stuff Rogre, thanks for posting!

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