Cracking the Code: The Better Way to Read Music

Did you ever have a secret decoder?

I’m remembering the scene in the movie "A Christmas Story” when Ralphie uses his secret decoder pin to decipher the message on the Little Orphan Annie radio show. Ralphie was sure that the secret decoder pin was his entry into the inner circle of Annie’s followers.

Those decoders worked on a very simple principle. When you knew the starting point, you lined up your decoder and then the letter substitutions all fell into place. You could read the secret message. Without the decoder, or without knowing the starting point, the message was just a jumble of meaningless letters.

Music reading is more like a code than you might imagine.

Let’s say you are looking at a blank musical staff, one that has no clef marking. The staff is just a construction of five lines and the four spaces within those lines. Without a clef marking those lines and spaces mean nothing, just as the encoded message is a meaningless jumble of letters.

When you put a clef marking on the staff - for instance a treble clef or a bass clef symbol - then the staff lines and spaces represent specific pitches. Without a clef marking, however, there is no way to know what notes the lines and spaces represent. Actually, the word clef is of French derivation, and it means “key,” as in key to the code. It is the clef marking that tells a musician what the lines and spaces mean.

Most often, clef reading is taught by having students learn the lines and spaces of a particular clef. The result of this teaching method is that those lines and spaces become permanently associated with those names. On the one hand that’s a plus; the student knows the notes they need to know. On the other hand, it doesn't help with ledger lines above or below the staff and it becomes an actual stumbling block to learning a second clef.  This is one of the reasons that learning the second clef (for student harpists it’s often bass clef) seems more difficult. 

The more important skill, far more helpful than just learning the names of the lines and spaces in one or two clefs, is to learn the relationships between the notes on the staff.

Consider the staff as a blank grid. Without a clef marking, you don’t know which notes the lines and spaces represent. But you do know that whatever notes they may be, the spaces are a third apart from each other, as are the lines. If you were asked to write a triad - a three-note chord - on the staff, you could do that without knowing the notes. Or you could write an octave or a scale. The staff alone is all that’s required to tell you the distance between two notes. The clef merely tells you what those notes are. Learning to recognize the spacings, even without specific notes, is the most important foundational skill in music reading.

When I first started at Curtis I was introduced to this method of clef reading. I was so comfortable with treble and bass clefs that I didn’t expect to find any value in this method. But I followed my teacher’s instructions to begin to read patterns of notes, rather than the note names alone. When we began to read clefs that weren’t familiar to me - alto, tenor, soprano, mezzo-soprano and baritone clefs - I found that reading this way was essential for fluency in these unusual clefs. I didn’t have to learn the clef. I already knew the notes and the patterns. All I needed to know was where to start. 

You can imagine how learning to read the note patterns rather than the lines and spaces is of benefit in all your music reading. As you become fluent in reading patterns, your sight reading will improve at the same time. Reading patterns is exactly the skill you need to place your fingers quickly, to read ahead, to see the harmonic and melodic patterns in the music that make reading, practicing and memorizing all easier.

Another benefit - transposition is a breeze!  If you want to change the key of a piece of music, simply find the line or space that represents the key note. Then rename that line or space with the new key note, cover up the clef and read the patterns with the new names for the lines and spaces. It’s the simplest and fastest way to transpose.

Here is a quick idea to help you begin to read the patterns and not just the notes:

Take a simple line of music or an exercise in treble clef. Play it, saying the note names aloud. Look at the patterns, the intervals, the leaps, the scale sections. Then cover up the clef and pretend the line is in bass clef. Play it again as if it were in bass clef, saying the new names of the notes aloud. Use the patterns of notes to help you. Bonus points if you can identify the new key in the new clef and change the key signature to actually transpose it!


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