Reading music at sight can be a daunting task for many, as western music notation is densely packed with information.

I myself have struggled for many years to gain fluency in reading music (at any kind of speed) despite spending many of those years learning and creating music. It still takes me a few goes to make sure I’m reading a melody line correctly, especially with the correct rhythm.

So this month I’ll be delving into the current teaching practices on sight-reading, and exploring whether it is important for musicians and music students today.

There is a high level of parallel between reading text and reading music, as when we are reading either we will usually:

  • Read ahead so that we can continuously speak and read
  • Look at a large chunk of information and process them as words and phrases
  • Look at the section as a whole to gain added context to the sentence as a whole

For example when reading to my son I will see the individual letters, but automatically interpret the words they make, look at the end of the sentence to see if it’s a question, statement or exclamation, and read ahead to see who’s talking (so I can do the right voice)

For those with musical fluency a similar approach is taken, as the individual notes will be interpreted into phrases and chords. Articulation, phrasing and dynamic marks will have an influence, as well as the context of the section within the overall structure.

So how do people gain this fluency? As with reading text it takes a lot of time, practice and guidance. Speech and song are taught from birth, with babies allowed to learn by trying, including making mistake in a generous environment. The type of speech is simplified, focusing on simple words or sounds to start with, before attempting more complex words and later, sentences. When starting to read we focus on the individual letters and how they sound before moving on to combining letters together to make simple words.

Musical learning (at least at a formal level) usually comes much later, but the same principles can be applied. Learning about the different notes, and how they move from one to the next forms the basis of almost all basic musical teaching.

The main difference between text and music reading is that most music requires a steady pulse to sound ‘correct.’ A lot more of the overall context of the piece is to do with pulse and rhythm. Although text read very slowly is still coherent, music breaks down if the tempo drops below around 30bpm.

Why is it so important?

If you’re doing exams, or would like to learn a new piece, then getting better at reading music makes a big difference. If you can sit down to a new piece and have a natural fluency with the music you will learn a lot faster. Instead of memorising every phrase for scratch you’ll have a short-cut towards playing it.

Not to mention getting better at the sight-reading section of the exams!

What to do?

Here are a number of things we can look at to improve sight reading:

  1. The number one tip from many teachers when it comes to reading music is keep going! Building up a good sense of pulse, and being sure about how the different note lengths work in the bar gives an instant boost to sight-reading fluency. Clapping the notated line while counting out the pulse is a great way to practice this.
  2. It’s not like riding a bike. Reading music is a skill that you build up from regular practice, so there are quite a few resources available that give you a new piece of music to read every day. The more you do the better.
  3. Learn your scales. The majority of music is written in a particular key (within each section.) If you know your scale for that key it makes it easier to judge what notes could be coming up next, and you’ll find it easier to interpret phrases as a whole when you understand how they relate within the key. Play the scale the piece is in a few times before trying to read the music.
  4. Read ahead. Knowing where you are going is really important to keeping a good flow. Start off by looking at the next note to the one you’re playing, even if you know the piece well. If you’re playing a keyboard instrument try to never look at your fingers (even if you get the not wrong at first!)
  5. Stay relaxed. It’s much easier to learn something when you enjoy it, and you’re not stressed. Get some music you really like (preferably an easy version) and try a different piece every time you play.

And that’s it! If you have any other tips for better sight-reading please let us know. If you would like some more material on sight-reading we have over 200 titles dedicated to just that right over here.

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In the third installment of ‘Ackerman Music Amateur Acoustics’ we test how much difference there is between a metal violin string and its synthetic counterpart.

Synthetic gut strings are usually a bit more expensive, and are supposed to give a more mellow, rich tone. Metal strings are cheaper and are generally regarded as ‘brighter.’

Hidersine Violin Melodioso "Guarneri Design" Instrument Only
Hidersine Melodioso

To give a good baseline we used the same instrument for both test: a Hidersine Melodioso: a hand crafted instrument following a Guarneri design. It’s a new instrument but uses aged tonewood so it has a nice rich tone already, and should give us a good reading to differentiate between the string sets.

On to measuring. Part of the challenge of this endeavor is getting a signal clear enough to analyse (using our usual very scientific methods) so we decided to play the lowest fundamental note, the open G.

Firstly the metal string:

Now the Synthetic:

Just from looking side by side it’s very hard to tell the difference. In this test let’s superimpose the waveforms to get a more direct comparison:

In the following images, the metal string is in white, and the synthetic is in red. Even with a direct comparison the differences seem minor, but there are three main areas we can look at.

The fundamental:

The fundamental note is the note we hear (G3, around 196hz) and it created by the entire string vibrating as one. In this case the metal string is clearly resonating more at the lowest note that its synthetic counterpart.

The mid-tones:

With these initial harmonics the synthetic string seems to have a slight edge, and noticeably so at G5 (784hz.) This may partly explain why synthetic strings are describes as being more mellow.

The upper harmonics:

It is clear that the higher frequencies are must more apparent in the metal string. It seems that the combination of the quieter mid-tone harmonics and louder upper harmonics gives the metal string it’s characteristic ‘bright’ sound.

Conclusion

So it does seem to make a difference. With this knowledge it makes it somewhat easier to pick a mellower or brighter sound when you chose your strings. There are some other things to consider too:

String choice also depends on how the different strings will suit the natural resonance of your violin (or indeed any string instrument.) In general (and we might be able to test this at a later date) the older the instrument the less bright it will become. The theory goes that as wood ages it generally mellows. Because of this, we find that using synthetic strings on a new instrument gives a more rounded sound, and greatly improves many student instruments.

The other consideration is what style and setting of music you will be playing. Will you be playing as a soloist? Will you be playing Pop, Folk or Classical? What sound appeals to you most as you play? These are all very individual choices and because of that it’s usually best to try a few strings before settling on your favourite.

If you found this interesting we have previously done similar tests on Flutes and Trumpets.

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