Many great singers have never been able to read music. Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Elvis, and Eric Clapton are a few examples. If these musicians could work professionally and at a high standard, is it necessary for today’s contemporary singer to read music notation? In this blog post, we will see it all depends on what you mean by ‘reading’ music and how you learn to do it.
Music Reading in the Music Industry
After returning from one of my study trips to the USA, the topic of reading music was very much in my mind. In New York, I was fortunate to work with some incredibly talented jazz and gospel musicians who could play almost anything by ear. They could easily transpose keys; they could improvise, and they could communicate about their music with other musicians. Although many could barely read music, they were definitely musically literate.
Then I sat in on some rehearsals with the incredible Broadway Inspirational Voices. I was surprised to see that all of the singers in this exceptional choir were reading from written arrangements. So, I asked their director, who is also head of theatre at the prestigious New York University, what the current attitude on Broadway is towards reading music.
He assured me that all graduates of the music theatre course are required to attain a basic level of fluency in reading music and attend regular classes in reading. Also, that performing on Broadway is an incredibly competitive industry and that singers need every tool at their disposal to ensure that they can learn their music quickly and perform it at a high standard.
Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit
Did you ever have to memorise this phrase, “every good boy deserves fruit?” The way I learned to read music in school was formulaic or mathematical. It was about learning rules. I remember many tests where I had to write the correct letter names under notes. I learned scales, intervals, harmony and even melody-writing, all from music theory workbooks. I was even really good at it.
On paper, I was a grade A student in music, but in practice things were different. I lacked confidence and accuracy with reading music. I relied on my teacher to demonstrate how songs should sound and to correct my wrong notes. I also needed to play melodies on the piano to learn them. I lacked independence.
Good music always lives in the space where theoretical and the practical meet. The main problem with my first steps in music reading was that my approach was entirely unmusical, because my ability to hear what I was writing was not being developed alongside my theoretical understanding. I think this is a pervasive problem. Many musicians don’t really understand what reading music is about and even many music teachers don’t know how to teach singers to read in a way that’s relevant and accessible.
Our vocal instrument does not have keys. We don’t press buttons. So learning the names of letters and our “every good boy deserves fruit” is not necessarily helpful if it doesn’t have a connection with the act of singing. There needs to be a change in how we think about the task of reading music if it is to have relevance and if it is to be worth the effort needed to learn this skill.
How you think about reading music
The change I’m advocating has to do with how we think about reading music. A noted music psychologist Edwin Gordon coined the term ‘audiation’ to describe a special type of musical thinking – the process of hearing and understanding music mentally. Prior to this, the Hungarian composer and educator, Zoltán Kodály used the term ‘inner hearing’ to describe the same skill.
Audiation takes place when we hear with our mind’s ear or when we comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when engaging in many musical processes, such as: listening to music; performing; playing by ear; creating (improvising or composing); transcribing or writing down music notation; and when sight-reading. In essence, audiation is thinking in the language of music.
So audiation or inner hearing lies at the heart of thinking differently about music reading. People with poor audiation skills look at music notation and are able only to take theoretical information from the page. For example, they can tell you the letter name of a note, or they can tell you that the type of note is a minim/half-note.
However, people who develop their capacity to think in sound alongside their reading are able to look at music notation and imagine what it sounds like. They become musically literate in the truest sense of the word.
Sight Singing – superior way to read music
Sight singing is the ability to look at music notation and sing it without ever having heard it before. A singer who is good at sight-singing doesn’t need someone to show them “how the music sounds.” They need only a starting pitch and from that, they can sing the music accurately, either “in their head” or aloud.
Sight singing is not the same as reading music. It is a deeper skill that combines several forms of knowlege – ear training, music theory and vocal technique. Sight singing is most important if you are looking to work as a singing professional or teach music. Also, in learning and performing classical music or singing in choirs.
Some contemporary singers feel they can get by on having a good ear. They learn songs by listening to a recording, and mimicking the vocal line. This method works fine for amateur singers. However, important vocal information can be lost in translation with this method. It also restricts you from learning more complex music, from song-writing, and from having a large repertoire of songs. If you want to advance as a singer, it is worth putting in some time to learn the skill of sight-singing.
Methods to Read Music
How do you learn to sight-sing? There are different methods, but all involve learning some sort of naming system for pitch sounds. The two most common systems are scale degree numbers or tonic sol-fa. Both are essentially the same thing. They involve giving the notes in a musical scale a unique name that represents the place of that note in the scale.
For example, using the C-major scale, the number or sol-fa system looks like this:
The difference between solfa/numbers and letter names is that that numbers are moveable. Whatever key you’re in, the first note of the major scale is always 1 or ‘do’. We number the notes like this because it preserves the relationships between the notes. For example the distance from Do to Re will always be the same (two half-steps) regardless of the key you’re in. Only the starting note will change.
Another tool used for developing sight reading skills is a system for naming rhythm patterns. Using the rhythm syllable method, rhythmic patterns commonly occurring in music are given a particular name that aids in their reading, writing. memorisation, dictation and performance. In Australia, the most widely used rhythm system is the Hungarian syllables which are part of the Kodaly system as pictured below
Using a combination of pitch names and rhythm names and a progressive method, singers are able to easily develop the skills to look at music and think in sound.
Resources for Reading Music
The best way to learn sight singing is in groups, choirs or from a teacher. However, if you’d like to impove your music reading on your own, here are a few recommended resources:
- Sight Singing School by Mark O’Leary – an online course
- Practical Sight Singing – book and downloadable sound files
- Sight Singing Exercises – by Hans Oxmond
- Sing at First Sight – workbook
- Sight Singing APP for iOs by Santoru Fukushima
- Sight Singing FULL app for iOs by Santoru Fukishima
Does a contemporary singer of today need to learn to read music? It is possible to be a successful singing professional and not be able to read music. Many recognised artists have achieved this. However, I believe all would have felt restricted at times by their inability to read music.
What you don’t want is to be musically illiterate. So if your accompanist asks you how many bars introduction you want or if you intend to repeat a section. It’s important to be able to talk intelligently about your music.
At Total Voice Studio we believe that a singer should develop their skills on multiple levels – head, heart, hand and ear. If you haven’t seen my YouTube video on this topic, please watch it here and download my free information guide on this topic.
Many singers avoid learning to read music because they imagine it to be difficult. If it’s taught in a way that is relevant to singers, reading music is not difficult. Remember that music reading is a continuum. We are all somewhere on that path and we are all capabale of reading music more fluently than we can now. It may not be necessary that you learn to read on a professional level.