I Suck At Reading Music

Lisa Witt  /  Sight Reading / May 12

I’ll start this post with a confession because I just need to get this out there…

I SUCK at reading music.

You might have gathered that from the title, and if you’ve read any of my other lessons you’ll know that it’s something I’ve always struggled with.

In fact, I was SO bad at reading music that I just wouldn’t do it. Instead, I’d memorize the pieces in the book so that my teacher thought I was reading the notes.

Once they found out, I had to repeat the entire book so I would actually learn to read the notes.

But over the years I learned how to adapt and improve in order to reach the level of pianist I am today.

Here’s how I do it…

I STILL totally fake it!

It’s true! (Don’t tell my old teacher.)

I’ve come to realize that you don’t have to be able to read every note to read and play music.

That’s because music uses predictable and identifiable patterns that you can use to your advantage, once you know how to look for them.

Here’s what I mean.

Take a look at this piece of music. It’s the first line of the song “Riptide” by Vance Joy.

Click here to download your free lead sheet and follow along.

There are a lot of notes there. And it can be daunting to think that you have to read every single one.

Here’s what I do. I read the FIRST note of the line, and then use patterns to play the rest.

So in this song, I’ll look at reading only the first note, which I know is an A from my acronym FACE. For more on the note names, check out this lesson.

Now I know the first note is an A, I’ll look for patterns. And immediately I can see one. Take a look:

Do you see it?

Every note in the first measure moves up by one step. It goes from a line to a space to a line etc.

When notes go from a line to a space, I call that “stepping up”. And it means that the notes are going up one step on the keys. So I can start at the beginning and play the first 5 notes even though I’ve only read one of them!

For more on patterns watch this lesson.

Patterns are one useful way of reading music quickly, but there’s another tip that has helped me over the years.

Landmark Notes

These are notes that I just KNOW. I have learned and remembered them so well that I don’t even have to think about what they are.

For example, I KNOW that Middle C is Middle C. I just know it. When I see that note with the ledger line I recognize it instantly.

It’s the same with high C in the treble clef and low C in the bass clef. I just know that those spaces are Cs. And I use those landmark notes to find my bearings and then look for patterns.

I highly recommend learning your Cs as landmark notes. It has made a big difference for me and I know it will help you.

I have one more bit of advice that I think is important to know.

Memorizing is OK!

This may be controversial, but I am 100% convinced that memorizing music is fine!

Think about it. The world’s best concert pianists memorize songs. So why can’t you?

I use my note reading skills the first few times I play a piece to make sure that I’m playing it correctly. After that, I start to memorize the notes and patterns.

Remember, the goal of playing the piano is not to read music really well. The goal is to play songs really well.

And if memorizing helps you do that — then do it!

I will never be a great sight-reader, and I’ve come to accept that. I work hard to minimize my weaknesses and celebrate my strengths.

And I encourage you to do the same.

Have fun!

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Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for 19 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others.

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