Sight-Reading: The Easiest Way to Read Music Notes | Serena Tang | Skillshare

Sight-Reading: The Easiest Way to Read Music Notes

Serena Tang

Sight-Reading: The Easiest Way to Read Music Notes

Serena Tang

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10 Lessons (27m)
    • 1. Welcome & Course Overview

    • 2. Music Notation: The Staff

    • 3. Music Notation: The Keyboard

    • 4. Music Notation: Middle C & The Grand Staff

    • 5. The First Three Landmarks

    • 6. Note-Reading with Landmarks: 2 Step Process

    • 7. Intervals

    • 8. Note-Reading Examples

    • 9. Additional Landmarks

    • 10. Thank You & Goodbye!

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About This Class

Several years ago, I was taught to read music using acronyms and mnemonics: FACE, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, and the like. This is, by far, the most commonly taught method for reading music. While the catchy sayings were easy to remember, it was a poor method of preparation for an early musician's ultimate goal: sight-reading, the ability to recognize notes quickly and play music fluently. I eventually managed to summit the sight-reading learning curve, but it was a long and unnecessarily tedious climb. 

Upon studying music at Stanford, I came across something called the Landmark System, an unbelievably simple approach to reading music that required way less effort and memorization. All I could think was, "How much faster could I have mastered sight-reading if I had been taught this method instead?"

As you may have guessed, that's how this class was born. It was too late for me, but through this class, I now hope to share this knowledge with as many new musicians as I can!

This class is for you if any of the following apply:

  • You were taught to read music by using acronyms and mnemonics.
  • You are struggling with sight-reading, or simply want to accelerate your journey toward mastery.
  • You are a beginner musician, and want to learn how to read music. 

In this class, we will cover:

  • (For complete beginners) The basic music notation needed to understand this sight-reading method.
  • The Landmark System: hands-down the easiest way to become fluent in reading music notes. This system includes:
    • An easy-to-follow guide to find (and remember) the positions of our 7 landmarks.
    • Explanations of best practices when approaching note-reading (i.e. reading notes in relative, rather than absolute, terms).
  • Easy-to-remember patterns for learning your intervals (unison to octave).
  • A simple, two-step process for using said Landmark System to read music, optimized for the fast pace of sight-reading.

Last thing: this class is meant to be a supplement, NOT a replacement, for a proper education in music theory. Music is so much more than being able to read notes, most of which this class does not even attempt to cover. Rather, this class was designed specifically to absolve the most common pain points of a musician learning how to sight-read. For lack of better words, this class is the Mario mushroom of musical sight-reading.

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Serena Tang


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1. Welcome & Course Overview: Hello everyone. My name is Serena. I'm a student at Stanford University studying music and computer science. And this is a course I made in order to share what I believe is the quickest and most effective way to read music notes. The tricks that I cover in this course are going to be especially useful if you are just starting out with music. If you think about it, when a musician is playing through a piece, they don't stop to identify every single note as they play it. Especially not when they're playing fluently. To make this a little bit more clear, let's take a look at the next slide. Alright, let's discuss the two ways that you might have read this sentence. One method would have been to take every single letter, read out R, E, a, D, T, H, I, S, et cetera. But the more probable approach that you took was simply recognizing the three words, read this sentence. And when we compare these two methods, it's pretty obvious to us which one is more efficient and which one we would prefer to use when we're reading. What I'm really trying to drive home here is that reading words is pretty synonymous with reading music, at least in terms of the logic that we would prefer to use. When you read a book, you obviously don't go through it, identifying and naming every single letter as it comes along, that will just be painfully TDS and unnecessary. No, letters are part of a larger whole. They form words which form sentences and so on and so forth. Similarly, music notes aren't meant to be read individually in isolation. They too are part of a larger whole. They form patterns. And it's only when we can recognize these patterns in a piece that we can achieve fluency. And this is why I find it really baffling that is whole mnemonic driven. Every good Boy Deserves Fudge method of reading notes is so commonly used, it's really not intuitive. This is how I was taught to read music over ten years ago. And let me just tell you, after comparing the two methods for myself, I can attest that this method that I'm going to teach is far more intuitive and far easier to grasp. This letter by letter approach is a much more tedious way of becoming fluent in sight reading. The reason for this is that it relies solely on rote memorization. Because of this, it's also a lot easier to lose any progress that you make once you start practicing. You know, it's too late for me now, but when I was first starting out, I definitely would have saved a ton of time had I used this note recognition method that I'll be teaching in this course. So this method is only two parts. It follows super-simple patterns. It's intuitive, it requires way less rote memorization and is overall really easy to learn. As a beginner, sight reading can seem really daunting, but this method significantly flattens the learning curve by helping you recognize notes from a quicker and much more logical approach. If you're a complete beginner and have no musical experience, never fear. The first few videos in this course contain all of the basic information you'll need to fully understand this narrow reading system. If you are a little bit further along in your musical journey, then Lucky you, you can go ahead and skip the first few videos and learn everything you need in an even shorter amount of time. So come along and join me for the ride. I guarantee that by the end of this course, it will change the way that you approach music. And you'll be a much faster and more fluent sight reader. On the other side. 2. Music Notation: The Staff: All right, we are kicking off this course by going over all of the music notation that you'll need to understand this no reading system. If you are already familiar with basic music notation, feel free to skip the first four videos and jump straight ahead into the first three landmarks. Otherwise, let's go ahead and get started. The first thing we're going to be looking at is the staff, which is this interesting looking thing right over here. It consists of five horizontal lines, four spaces, and each line and space, different position that represents a different pitch. A note can either fall on a line or a space, and each position represents a different pitch. So a higher line or space corresponds to a higher pitch. And likewise, a lower line or space represents a lower pitch. To clarify what all of this means, let's take a look at two different notes. So we have this one on the second line, and we have this one on the third space. And the left one is a lower pitch than the right one. It turns out that the musical alphabet only includes seven letters, and it happens to be the first seven letters in the alphabet. So a to G, these seven letters are used to name every single note in music. So another way we can think about every position on the staff is that every line or space represents a different letter. A very natural question you may have is, which line or space represents which pitch? And the very unsatisfying answer to that is, it depends. To get to the bottom of this, we are going to need to look at the piano keyboard and something called the Grand Staff, which is exactly what we're going to be covering in the next couple of videos. 3. Music Notation: The Keyboard: The piano keyboard. This is a standard full-size piano, which has 88 keys. And what we're going to do right now is identify some really crucial patterns that will eliminate a lot of rhyme and reason behind note reading and also musical notation. So of these 88 keys, there are 52 white keys and 36 black keys. As you go from left to right on the keyboard, the notes will correspondingly get higher. At this point, you may be thinking, if there are 88 keys on this keyboard and each of them represent a different pitch. How can we only have seven letters to denote all of them? There are three components to answering this question. Part one involves grouping this clutter of piano keys in a very deliberate and intentional way. This is how we're going to do it. So notice this group of keys right here. It follows the pattern of five black keys, a group of two and a group of 37 white keys. We're actually going to ignore the black keys for now. Let's take a look at the white keys. So the first white key is a, c, the second white key is a, d, then an e, then an f, then a G. And then we go back to a, and lastly to be. So now if we zoom back out from this group of keys and look at the whole keyboard, we see that this pattern basically just repeats itself over and over for a total of seven times. This set of notes is what we call an Octave, which is essentially the interval until a pitch repeats itself. To show you guys what I mean by this, let's take the note C as an example. We can count together the number of notes that it'll take to get from one C to the next C. So if C is the first node, then it follows that D is the second note is the third node, and so on and so forth until we get to our seventh note B. And I'm sure all of you guys will be able to guess that now, after B, note number eight is c. Hence why it's called an octave OCT, meaning eight. Just to recap, we've now answered the first part of this question of why if there's 88 keys on the keyboard, we only need seven letters to denote all of them. And it's because musical pitches are actually just the same 12 notes repeating themselves over and over and over. You can see this really clearly on the piano keyboard by the recurring pattern of seven white keys and five black keys. For those of you who are interested in understanding the relationship between a C in one octave to the sea and the next highest octave. It actually has to do with the sound waves of each note. Interestingly enough, the frequency of the C Now in our original Octave is exactly half of the sea in the octave right above it. So as you go up each octave, the frequency of each note becomes doubled of what it was in the previous octave. Likewise, if you go lower and lower, the frequency becomes half of what it's higher counterpart was. So that's just a little bit of cool extra information. I don't know, I find it really cool. But what we're going to do next is we're going to apply our shiny new knowledge of octaves to get started on the coveted note reading system. 4. Music Notation: Middle C & The Grand Staff: We're going to start off by finding middle C on the keyboard. As we've just learned, the piano keyboard consists of seven octaves, and intuitively, the one in the middle is the middle octave. With that knowledge, it's pretty easy to figure out that the c in our middle Octave is in fact Middle C. You may also hear the term C4 being thrown around. And this is essentially derived from the fact that starting from the left of the keyboard, middle C occurs on the fourth octave. So middle C is actually going to be our first landmark note. Now, you may be looking at the number of notes on the keyboard and think this doesn't add up with the number of notes that can be denoted using a staff. And you're right, there are way more notes on the keyboard than there are lines and spaces on the staff. So now we get to part two of how this is all possible. Turns out we don't actually have enough positions on the staff to cover every single note on the keyboard. So what did we do? We added two steps. This is called a Grand Staff, which you'll most often encountered in piano music. There are two staves with the top staff covering the higher notes and the bottom staff covering the lower notes. A natural question is higher and lower in relation to what? And I have to say, that is a fantastic question. Everything we've just been learning equips us to answer this. It is higher and lower in relation to middle C. And we can really easily visualize that because it is literally in the middle of the two staves. Just to summarize, the Grand Staff, which is most commonly found in piano music, consists of two staves. The staff above the middle c notation corresponds to all the nodes above middle C on the keyboard. And likewise, the staff below middle C covers all of the notes below middle C on the keyboard. Alright, we've introduced our Grand Staff, and now we can start to identify the rest of our landmark notes. 5. The First Three Landmarks: Now we're going to break down the individual components of the grand staff in a little bit more detail, starting with the treble clef. So the treble clef is also known as the G-Clef. And a good way to remember this is to notice that the treble clef kind of, sort of almost looks like a letter g. If I were to overlay the letter G on top of the treble clef symbol. Hopefully you can see what I'm getting at. It's a good idea to remember this fact because it's really going to help us out in about 30 seconds. The function of the treble clef is to contextualize staff. So if you take any blank staff, slap a treble clef on it, then you now know that all of the notes on that staff will correspond to nodes above middle C. The reason that knowing that the treble clef is the G-Clef is that it's going to lead us to our second landmark note, which as you might be able to infer, is a G. This landmark g is going to be right on the second line of the treble clef staff are really helpful way to remember where this is, is to look at the treble clef itself. I like to think of this little swirl right here as a sort of marker for our trouble GI. And now we're going to head over to our lower staff, which is contextualized by something called the base class. The bass clef staff covers all of the notes below middle C. The bass clef is also known as the F clef, which again, we can kind of almost sort of see if we overlay an F on top of the bass clef. And just as we were able to find our landmark G on the second line of the treble clef staff. We can also find our landmark F in the bass clef staff. Again, this landmark is on the second line from Middle C, but instead of going up, we now are going the opposite direction, which is down. Similarly, there's a neat little marker that the bass clef symbol gives us the placement of our landmark. F is on the line right between these two dots here. And this base f is our third landmark. Alright, so now it's time to synthesize the three landmarks that we found so far. Let's see what we can observe. So we have our middle seed are trouble G above and our base f below. Something very, very important to notice is that these two new landmarks are equidistant from Middle C. Take a look at the keyboard and count the number of nodes it takes to get us from middle C to trouble, gee, it's five. Likewise, if we count the number of nodes, it takes us to get from Middle C down to base f. It is also five. So not only can we see this pattern of symmetry emerging on the grand staff, we can also see it with our own eyes on the keyboard. Being able to recognize this pattern is incredibly important in using this landmarks system. Just in terms of being able to remember where all of these placements are. If you know that these landmarks are symmetric about Middle C, it'll make it loads easier for you to remember their positions. I just wanted to pause here really quickly and congratulate all of you because we have officially learned our first three landmarks. We're ready to start tackling some examples and applying this landmark system to actually recognizing notes quickly and intuitively. 6. Note-Reading with Landmarks: 2 Step Process: Awesome. So now that we're equipped with our first three landmarks, I am going to walk you guys through this super simple two-step note reading process. Here again, we have our three landmarks, trouble G, middle C, and base F. And to explain this two-step process, let's just dive straight into an example. Let's say we want to read this note here in red. The two steps that we'll need is to firstly identify our nearest landmark note, and secondly, determined the interval or distance between our landmark note and the desired note. Very quickly, we can see that the nearest landmark node is treble G. And the note we're trying to read exactly one node above our landmark. So what is one note about g? It is a very quickly we were able to read this note and we really didn't need that much prior knowledge other than these landmark notes and the fact that music notes progress from a to G. Another thing that's incredibly advantageous when you use this landmark system is that when you're playing a piece, you don't actually need to know that this note is in a. All you really need to know is that it is one note above G. That is all the information you actually need to play the note. So when your sight reading with the end goal of playing a piece fluidly, the landmark system is so much more useful. It allows you to completely skip that process of figuring out what letter or a note is before you actually play it. It saves a lot of time and energy and helps you progress Wave faster. Let's do one more example. So first we need to identify the nearest landmark note, which we can see is based. And secondly, we need to determine the interval or distance between the landmark now and the desired note. This time, our landmark is two positions away from our desired note. So we can descend from base f together. So let's count from base down to E, And then finally to our desired note, which is a D. Now we're getting really close to the end, but we still have a couple more gaps that we need to fill. What if I asked you to read a note that was much further away from our landmarks, obviously, you could still figure it out. The nearest landmark would be troubled g, but it would just take awhile to manually count the distance between the landmark and our red node. Let's see what we can do to solve this problem. 7. Intervals: In the last video, we were left with this minor problem of having to read notes that were a bit too far away from the landmark notes to our liking. For example, two notes like this or this. They are far away from my landmark nodes, such that manually counting the distance will slow us down a bit too much. A very simple solution to this is learning our intervals. An interval in music is the distance between two pitches. The key thing to remember about an interval is that it is the distance between two pitches inclusive of its start and end notes. For this example, we have our starting node G and R, EndNote a, which is a distance of two. Therefore, making this a second interval. Let's take a look at our next example. So we have trouble g again. But to get to our end note, we have to go from G to a and then to be, which is a distance of three nodes, meaning this is a third interval. So this is the basic logic behind intervals. And from those two examples, we should be able to figure out what the rest of these intervals look like. In this next slide, I have provided exactly that. I've provided the shapes of every single interval from unison, meaning the exactly same notes all the way up to a full octave. As you go from left to right, it's pretty clear that the distance between these two notes are simply increasing by one, which is also reflected in the names of these intervals. So unison, second, third, fourth, fifth and so forth. I highly, highly recommend that you learn these. It'll make sight reading a lot easier. Like we've just figured out, even when we have our landmark nodes, if the node that we're trying to read is too far away, it can really slow us down by having to manually kept the distance every time. Instead, what memorizing these intervals will allow you to do is to look at two notes on the staff and immediately know how far away they are from each other. Just to help you guys out even more, I'm going to share with you some patterns that I used to memorize intervals that will make the whole task a lot easier. So time for a bit of colour coding. Let's take a look at the odd intervals. That's unison, third, fifth, seventh. The observation we should walk away with is that no matter where the notes are on the staff, any odd interval will always have a line to line or space to space arrangement. In other words, when two nodes have an odd interval between them, the notes will either both fall on a line or they will both fall on a space. Now how about even intervals? It then follows that all even intervals, seconds for sixth and octaves have a line to space or a space to line arrangement. What this means is that in an even Interval, OneNote will fall on a line and the other will fall on the space. These patterns are always, always true. So when you're trying to identify an interval, I recommend first identifying whether it's an even or an odd interval. And then from there, the spacing itself is usually a pretty good give away. Once you know something is, say an odd interval, then just visibly, it's pretty easy to distinguish between a third, seventh, or a fifth and an octave. I highly recommend memorizing these intervals, I promise you it's not hard at all. Down in the project section, I have also created a couple of worksheets that will help you guys memorize these. And after, during a couple of these, you'll be able to look at two notes and just now, that's a fourth or a seventh. Seriously, your brain will very quickly pick up on the relative shapes of each interval. 8. Note-Reading Examples: To show you guys how much easier sight reading becomes once you know the shapes of your intervals. Let's go back to those hard examples we were looking at earlier. We'll tackle the higher 1 first. So first, following our two steps, we identify the nearest landmark node, which as we see is trouble G. And then for the second step, Determining the interval or distance between the two notes. Before we had to take a lot of time to count manually each line and space in between the two notes. But now that we know are intervals, this becomes so much easier. So just looking at it immediately, we know it's an even integral because OneNote falls on a line and the other one falls on a space. And then assuming you guys are now well versed with your interval patterns, we should very quickly able to recognize that this is an octave, which therefore means this red node is a G. If you're still getting used to your intervals, at least for me, the way I would approach it is just by looking at the space between the two and knowing that, you know, that space is a bit too big for a six. So what's the next even interval up? It's an octave. Awesome. So, so much quicker and also easier than what we had to do before, right? No more manual counting saves us a ton of time. Now let's move on to the second example in the base class. First step identifier nearest landmark note, which is base f. Second, we need to determine the interval between the two notes. If you've memorized your interval, you would be able to see immediately that it's a seventh. Seventh is one node away from a full octave. So we know that this is a G. And just like that, we've identified our two notes. And these hard examples are actually not that hard anymore. Again, I'm just going to reiterate this because I cannot stress this enough. The landmark system becomes even more efficient when you're trying to play the notes instead of trying to identify their names. Because using these landmarks and intervals allow you to find each note in relation to previous ones. Say you were trying to play this G in the bass clef. You wouldn't even need to know that it was a g in order to play it. You could just see that it is seven notes below base f, and then just play that on the keyboard. Super, super useful helps a time when you're learning to sight read and really helps to flatten the learning curve. 9. Additional Landmarks: The penultimate video in this course. To finish off, we are going to expand your range of sight reading by adding some last additional landmarks. Our process of finding these additional landmarks is going to be a lot quicker than the process we took to find our previous ones. Because we now have knowledge of our pattern of cemetery about Middle C, as well as what an octave interval looks like. First, we're going to start at middle C and move an octave up. And just like that, we found our next landmark, trouble See, just to reiterate, we did this by taking middle C and moving up an octave to find a c in the octave above middle C. So we can see that our new travel see landmark is on the third space in the treble clef up from middle C. Now before I reveal the position of our next landmark, which is going to be based, I'd like you to pause for a second and see if you can figure out where base is going to be. That is the C in the octave below middle C. Alright, so we're moving down an octave from middle C, which brings us into bass clef territory. And our base C landmark is going to be here. You could have found this in two different ways. One is by recognizing the pattern of symmetry and seeing that since treble C is in the third space of the treble clef up from middle C, then bass C is going to be the same distance from Middle C, but in the opposite direction, which is down. Alternatively, you also could have remembered what an octave interval looks like and then found the position of base c from there. Regardless of how you got there, we now have two new landmarks to add to our arsenal. Trouble see and basi. Even after adding these additional landmarks, are still maintaining our pattern of symmetry. So we can still use it to remember where all of our landmarks are. Okay, next, we're going to take our trouble G and our base f landmarks and do pretty much the same thing as we did with middle C to find trouble see and basi for travel G, We're going to move up an octave to find hygiene. And lastly, we're going to take base F and move down an octave to get our final landmark, low F. So what have we just done? We've taken our three original landmark notes, middle C, treble, G, and base f, and found their counterparts in the higher or lower octaves. What this has given us is foreign un mark nodes, which not only maintains this super easy to remember pattern of cemetery, but also drastically expands our range of landmarks, thus making it even easier to read notes and their intervals with these seven landmark notes under our toolbelt. 10. Thank You & Goodbye!: You have officially completed this course are note reading. I really hope you got something out of it. Everything I've included in this course are things that have really helped me. If you also thought it was helpful, please consider leaving a review. I wish you all the best in your future music endeavors, and thank you again.