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Learning to read again
What it feels like to be possessed by music and how you can be too
A comment from Terence Cain on the original version of this post points out correctly that I blurred the distinction between two meanings of “sight-reading”: the strict meaning—playing a music from written notation at first sight of it; and the looser meaning: playing music from written notation after having acquired some familiarity with the piece in question, that is, using the notation as reference for a performance, but not necessarily sole reference. So I have now revised the text of this essay for clarity.
As it happens, the learning/performance software that I recommend, Yousician, teaches you sight reading in the strict sense. I am one single performance test from completing Yousician’s entire course in bass guitar. (Each level contains multiple performance tests, which are scored by the computer listening to you play in real time and counting every correct and incorrect note.)
This last test of the last level (nine of nine) defeats me, not because I can’t read the music, but because the notes are so fast and widely spaced that I’ve so far been unable to play them accurately enough, even though I can read them by sight: I know exactly which notes to play and how they should sound.
I should add that my frustration at this brought me to pay a guitar teacher to help me with my technique, with the result that I have returned to the start of the course and begun working my way through, completing the same exercises, but with an improved string-plucking method.
Don’t look down
When, as a child, I first learned to read English, this gift came with a curse: my needing to read every piece of text I saw—on boxes, on hoardings, on television, on road signs. When I was even younger, as my parents would never tire of telling, I would shout “Motoh-cah! Motoh-cah!” every time I saw a car drive past—this a more tiring habit in industrial parts of Lancashire and the West Midlands of England than up-country in Nigeria, and positively exhausting when alighting from a plane at Heathrow. But no written words anywhere were too small or large or dense or unfamiliar to deter me from at least trying to say them out loud.
Most childhood compulsions aren’t disturbing for the children expressing them themselves. And most basic skills we learn as children we take for granted in adulthood. We all know how dangerous it is to start thinking consciously about the muscle movements we need to make to walk. But what happens when you have to learn to walk as a grown-up? We are just as familiar with difficult scenes, documentary or dramatic, of immobile adults (re)learning the use of their legs.
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Redoing what comes naturally
For decades now, I’ve sung popular music in public for money. Indeed, I long ago resolved to refuse to perform live unless I was paid to. I started in my teens singing covers; then, in my twenties performed original songs that I co-wrote or wrote; but, for most of that time, I’ve covered songs composed by well-known artists.
Except when I have had to perform, say, a gnarly rhythmic pattern or a fast chromatic run in a melody line, I’ve rarely resorted to reading individual notes from sheet music. I’ve simply learned by imitation—the way most songs have been learned for most of human history. But, for a few years now, I’ve been learning to sight-read, to play bass, guitar, keyboard, and, to a much lesser extent, to sight-sing. That is, I have 1) learned to read musical notation with a view to 2) being able to read the written form of a piece upon first seeing it: to “sight-read”.
I’m still not very good at it, but I have done enough of it now to appreciate how it feels. Reading music is still unfamiliar enough to be unnatural to me, but automatic enough now for me to “float off” from the conscious act, to float far enough away to reflect on the process—in exactly the way an able-bodied person making their way down the street doesn’t float off to reflect on the process of walking.
What have I learned from my floating-and-reflecting? More than I expected, about more than music. The following is a mixture of slightly spooked observations and tips that I hope help you if you are setting out on a similar journey.
At first, you think about every step
Adult learning is conscious learning. One important reason adults find it so hard to learn a language is because they are self-conscious in a way children are not. When it comes to any language, including the formal language of music, this is a handicap, because you are both familiar enough with the sounds you are supposed to make to sense when you are getting them wrong, and you care enough about what other people will think about your being wrong that it hurts to try. The point of language is to communicate, so learning a language can only be done in public—for some definition of that phrase. But trying and failing in public is embarrassing.
The flipside of this crippling self-awareness is that, even if you don’t yet know what your efforts are going to reveal to you, you literally know what you are doing on your way there. That meta-knowledge can be used to pole-vault over obstacles that children have to climb over. Instead of learning grammar by trial-and-error, you can learn it by description-and-drill. A child teaching herself to play a piano can infer the rules of harmony by hammering her way through near-infinite dissonant scales and chords. An adult wanting to sound tuneful can follow explicit rules and work through directed exercises, ensuring that at least the target she is aiming for is a harmonious one; an unsupervised child doesn’t even know what “harmonious” means.
A Game that’s even more fun after you learn the rules
On my first hearing about them in high-school music classes, the construction of the western diatonic scale seemed insane to me. I was a science geek, who had been told that music was based on physics, but the choice of the standard intervals of a well-tempered piano seemed arbitrary. I wish my music teacher—hello, Mr Elliot!—had related them to the fractional proportions of vibrating string lengths. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this absence of meta-knowledge put me off music theory at a crucial age.
And, now, a word from our non-sponsor
Since then, often separated by intervals of years, I’ve tried myriad teach-yourself-music books/methods for reading-and-playing guitar and piano music. (I learned the physical basics of playing each instrument from an actual music teacher first, and I recommend you do the same.)
But, until recently, all of these autodidactic approaches have missed the single most precious thing a learner, young or old, can have: direct, immediate feedback. If you play on your own, no one else will tell you when and where you’re getting it wrong or how to play better. If you hire a guitar/piano teacher, they can only tell you you’re wrong and help you get better while you’re in a room with them (or they’re watching you remotely).
Several years back, a friend introduced me to Rocksmith, which turns learning to play guitar into a video game, with a real guitar as the game controller—a real guitar plugged into a bundled interface that you connect to your computer or console. But, after my initial enthusiasm for this learning tool that did offer direct, immediate feedback on my playing, I realised Rocksmith had serious flaws: not just the lag between plucking a string and the note being registered, but also its use of non-standard notation—partly, I assume, in order to more resemble the actual video game that inspired it: Guitar Hero.
It was just as I was becoming disillusioned with Rocksmith that I discovered an app called “Yousician” that changed everything.
Why does Yousician work?
As if in an effort to replace a real human tutor—you cannot replace a real human teacher—Yousician does include bitesized videos of real human beings explaining technique pretty clearly. But that isn’t why it’s a gamechanger. It’s a gamechanger because the game it turns learning into is beautifully designed. (And the game also uses standard musical notation.) It’s a gamechanger because it offers, in rough order of importance:
instant real-time feedback on your performance: It tells you how well you played each note, milliseconds after you (are supposed to) have played it.
solid software: Not every device is fast enough or has good enough multimedia drivers to both listen to and play the sounds of the accompaniment, but most recent ones—phones, tablets, laptop and desktop PCs—do. When the Yousician software works, it works brilliantly.
a compelling learning path: Although there are inevitable jumps in difficulty, these are relatively small and well-judged and most levels on every instrument you can learn build logically and solidly on the ones that precede them, with a fair test to be passed at the end of each level before moving onto the next. This really does remind me of how I learned to read, by pushing on through each increasingly difficult level of Ladybird Books.
a brilliant learning interface: It’s effective in itself, but also customisable. You can not only choose what kind of musical notation you see; you can combine multiple kinds in a single view.
almost universality: It runs on iOS, Android, and Windows mobile and desktop.
A Yousician subscription is not cheap, but it’s far cheaper than paying for an equivalent amount of attention from a qualified human being. And software never gets tired or bored or annoyed.
Make it as easy as possible to start, because starting is hard
So, having found a superb way to teach myself to read music to play on an instrument, I then still had to fight all the other psychological barriers to acquiring such a skill. You can’t get there without practice and practice involves seemingly endless repetition and repetition is, by definition, boring.
Playing an instrument to create is spontaneous; playing an instrument to learn to read music is a grind. Expressing yourself is always harder than educating yourself. No one ever called a textbook “unputdownable”. So the most powerful change you can make is to make your instrument easier to pick up.
If you play electric guitar, for example, you should leave it plugged into an amp and close at hand, for whenever you find yourself with a free moment; and the guitar itself should literally be easy to play: you should get a guitar tech/luthier to set your instrument up properly so that it isn’t fighting you.
But, once you have restarted your easier-to-play instrument, it’s surprising how much having prewritten music in front of you clears the path towards the mystical, mythical state of “flow”. You certainly don’t have to clamber over any writer’s blocks to get there.
Not all the hype about flow is fake
The sort of people who call pieces of good advice “life hacks” often also talk with almost-evangelical excitement about “flow”, that grace state of unbroken immersion in the productive/creative moment. I suspect that the use of this term is subject to the same type of descriptive inflation that’s affected other jargon from psychology and medicine. Just as many people routinely call a common cold “flu”, what is usually happening when they talk of “flow” is what people used to call “concentration” or “engagement” or “being absorbed in one’s work”.
But sight-reading fluently, or at least accurately playing a piece you know while you are mostly read it, does feel special. To me, it feels more special than, for example, being gripped by a novel, because it’s necessarily a physically active state, and perhaps because there is a literal flow from the light reflected from the music striking your eyes to the movements of your fingers on the instrument you’re playing: nervous inputs are converted almost mechanistically into nervous outputs without a sense that the conscious part of your nervous system is blocking the current.
Let the music take control
Once you reach even a partial state of flow, the spooky stuff starts.
I’m not good at following formal dance steps either, but not because I had any better ideas of how to move to tango music than my tango teacher. When you play a piece of music from its manuscript, especially a familiar piece, things are different: You will often hear the accompaniment, and see the arrangement of your part in front of you, but you want to play what you think should be that part and not what is written before you.
This is when, for me, the strangest music-reading experience happens: I see my part, I feel the urge to play the part I want to play; but, in reality, I still play the part that is written for me.
Reader, this playing-against-my-will makes me feel possessed. At the moment the external written music overrides my instinctive internal inclination, there is a sense that someone else is directly responsible for my movements and I have no power to resist.
Practice really does make perfect
The apocryphal saying has Einstein asserting that “Madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.
But doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is exactly how practice works. Moreover, if you really want your practising playing written music to work for you, you have to seek out the parts you keep getting wrong and play them, wrongly, over and over again even more times. (This is also something that Yousician does very well. If you tell it to, it will patiently loop over any challenging passage at any speed you want, with or without playing the part you are supposed to play for guidance.)
This is not unique to playing music that’s written. Even original musical performances have to be practised, but, just as in sport, musical practice is specific. It’s specific to the piece of music you are playing. It’s specific to the instrument you are playing, even specific as to the same instrument with a different number of strings. But it’s also specific in the sense that practising reading is radically different from practising improvisation—even if some famous classical music performers really do learn their “improvised” concert solos note-for-note.
Warm up first—even if you’re not cold
I have rarely had a problem leaping straight in to a rehearsal or performance with my own instrument: my voice. But I continue to be astonished at how much better my bass/piano/guitar playing is five minutes after I start a particular practice session it than when I first picked up the instrument at the start of that same session. This is, I am sure, another quirk of learning as an adult (which is not how I learned to sing.) Part of the problem is that I still don’t believe that I can do what I can do. I don’t think of myself as a bass-player or a guitarist or a piano player. When I start following the dots and recognisable music comes out, it’s a surprise even to me!
Few things are more likely to make you give up playing prematurely than playing badly, but I’ve learned that the most common reason I play a piece of written music badly, even a piece of written music that I’m familiar with, is that I have just started playing it. So one key to breaking through into the most productive part of a practice session is to push through that terrible first five minutes when you think you have forgotten everything the you’ve learned. And, of course, a simple way to do this is to warm up by playing something simple.
Just as I continue to be amazed at how much better I play a familiar piece even only the second time I attempt it in a session, I am amazed at how quickly I can become not-bad at an unknown piece over the course of a single practice session. Something that looks terrifying at first glance quickly becomes merely difficult; then, soon, becomes tractable, albeit with sticky patches. Ultimately, it becomes easy.
I can only read the most elementary pieces “blind” (sight-reading in its strict sense), but the process of “grokking” harder ones I that have never seen before becomes ever faster. And my knowing this is true is calming. After you have learned that, with practice, you can do the “impossible”, you start to see your learning to play written music that is completely new to you as possible. And that is the first step toward being able truly to sight-read.
What do I think of “proper” musicians now?
I’m now both more and less impressed than I used to be by players who can sight-read. When you know how something is done, it seems less magical. But, when you know how hard it is to do it well, it seems more impressive. When you also know how hard it is to read more difficult music cold then your mind is blown.
But I also admire other related feats even more now: I am in awe of classical soloists’ ability to concentrate for the duration of extended pieces when they read them from the music, and still more impressed by their ability to remember such pieces if they play their parts from memory—which surely must be among the greatest achievements of human mental discipline.
Just as learning the science of why the sky is the colour it is or lions are the way they are doesn’t make watching the sun set on a safari park any less magical, so understanding the underlying mechanics of formal music doesn’t make listening to great pieces played by great performers any less sublime.
What can you learn from what I’ve learned?
If you love music, I recommend that you at least experiment with trying to learn how to play it formally yourself. Being inside music can be even better than being moved by music.
If you are going to learn as an adult, Yousician is a great way to learn to play piano, guitar, bass, ukulele, or (to a lesser extent) how to sing. [No one has paid me to write this!]
As well as teaching you something about what music is, learning to sight-read will teach you something about what you are. Some of that new knowledge will be strange to the point of haunting, but it won’t be frightening.
And that’s one of the best things about acquiring even the most basic musical literacy: Even someone who has been paid to make music gets scared of it sometimes—not the notation, but music itself, whether in the form of creative insecurity or stage fright. Learning the formal language of music drives out the aspects of those fears that come from ignorance.
I swear that this is not a paid endorsement—as if any corporation is interested in my relatively small following on this platform.
Until writing music becomes a job. At which point, writer’s block will engulf you and you will long to be a sight-reading robot.