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A Teacher Speaks Out About Reading Notes
Before we start, let me introduce myself. My name is Mike Ellis. I live in Dallas, Texas, and have been a musicologist in the true sense of the word for forty-three years. I have taught guitar, bass guitar, banjo, keyboard and sitar, and have nineteen years of full time teaching experience and fifteen years of part-time teaching experience. I played by ear in numerous bands for ten years before I began teaching. In 1972, I had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of the late Mr. Terrill Gardner, who taught me music and how to teach it. Terrill took me from playing by ear to the completion of three volumes of “Modern Method for Guitar” from Berklee College, in Boston. This was note reading to the fullest extent. Terrill told me that if I was going to teach, I had to be qualified in all areas, not just playing by ear. He also taught me music theory and chord theory in a manner that allowed me to author two chord theory courses in later years. Now, let us get started.
How important is note reading?
So many parents are told the necessity of note reading and the values of a “classical” approach to learning music. Why is that? I won’t address that until later. First I want to ask you a couple of questions. Who were the most successful contemporary artists of the twentieth century (and maybe of all time)? The answer, of course is the Beatles. The second most successful and undoubtedly the longest lasting artists are the Rolling Stones. How many of them could read notes during the peak of their careers? There were four Beatles and five Rolling Stones and NONE of them could read a note. They spawned the “British Invasion” of which most of the artists could not read a note. How important, then, is note reading? It is certainly not necessary to write monster hit songs like “Yesterday,” “Something,” “Satisfaction,” and a huge list of others. At one time, the Beatles held five of the top ten hits on the charts all at the same time. And they could not read a note.
So what is the importance of note reading? Well, some say it’s so you can communicate more ideas. A young musician can read the dots on the page and play the music written by another musician. A little dispute may be necessary here. In the first place, terms like legato and pianissimo are used to try to convey the mood and emotion of the author. This is supposed to be true, but any musician who only reads dots on a page is not a musician at all. Anybody can play the piano like a typewriter, but very few (comparatively) improvise well. The term jazz implies improvisation on a theme. Its roots lie in the southern United States where the local musicians would get together and jam songs and blues progressions. Therefore, when my son entered “jazz band” in high school and had to read the notes to play, I was appalled, literally. This is the antithesis to jazz as a concept and an art form and I taught him that, as well as how to improvise.
So what is the importance of note reading? The answer is that it is important for people who want to be musicians. It is for people who cannot make music without a crutch, or without the ideas of somebody else to read, instead of improvising and creating their own ideas. Now, do not get me wrong. You do not just spring forth with your own unique ideas. All music is evolutionary in that it is based on learning what others did. Therefore, note reading can be a useful tool in learning what other artists composed, but you can never translate those dots on the page into the absolutely true feel and meaning of the original artist. It is just not possible without hearing the original artist perform the piece. In doing that, imitation becomes much more pure and inflections that give music its true meaning can also be copied.
Should you skip note reading? I did not and I do not ever recommend it. However, be careful how you approach it and with whom you approach it. The worst example I can relate is the graduate of the University of North Texas who held a degree in music, but did not know where a middle C was on the guitar. All the guitar note reading methods I have ever seen pretend that middle C is on the 3rd fret of the 5th string. This is because if you say that middle C is truly on the 1st fret of the 2nd string, all the notes on strings 3, 4, 5, and 6 would be in the bass clef. So what, you might ask, is wrong with that? Well, in grade school, you learn the treble clef. Remember? Every Good Boy Does Fine and F-A-C-E? But most kids do not learn the bass clef, so the music community somehow agreed to all pretend that middle C is on the 5th string, putting all the notes on strings 4, 3, 2, and 1 in the treble clef.
Just a side note, did anybody tell you that if you look at the “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and “F-A-C-E” notes sequentially through the lines and spaces of the treble clef that it turns out to be E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F? That is right, it is just the alphabet! But they never told you that. How much easier would it really have been if you figured that out? It’s just the alphabet! That’s not so hard.
But there is more. It must have been almost half a year of piano lessons before I was introduced to the unnatural black notes; those hard to play notes that were shorter and harder to reach had two names each! And you were supposed to memorize them, the sharps and flats. I had no idea that there was really a note between F and G, but not one between B and C. If somebody asked me (and when I ask my students) the note above F, they always say G until I explain to them the way the notes really move. All this brings up the subject of key signatures and the memorization of them and how many sharps and flats are in each key and more complications. I first heard about the circle of 5ths from Terrill when I was an eleven-year veteran of guitar.
While writing music on the staff line, it is easier for the author to put the key signature at the start of the piece instead of notating a sharp every time it occurs in the music. This is supposed to be easier. But the player has to remember that when they see an F note in the key of G, for example, it is not an F note at all, it’s really an F# note, any time it occurs. Well, sometimes the author may want an F natural note, so on those few occasions, they can add a natural sign preceding the F dot on the staff line. More confusingly, this F remains natural for the rest of the measure, but not the rest of the song. So an F in a previous measure is really F#, but if the F in a particular measure has a natural sign in front of it, it is played as F natural because of the natural sign, but the next F in that measure that does not have a natural sign in front of it is not played as an F#, it is played as an F natural, then it goes back to being F# after that measure. Did you get all that? Whew!
And all of this detracts from the intent of the creative idea of the original musician. Believe me.
As long as you are thinking about how to play each note, you are missing at least some of the feel of the piece. And I have not forgotten the question in the first paragraph of this section. Why are so many parents told the necessity of note reading and the values of a classical approach to learning music? I will be perfectly honest here. What takes longer, showing a student where to put their fingers to get a cool sound or running them through six months or more of “Mary Had a Little Lamb?” So what will take a week to complete and what will take a semester to complete? Can you say “More Money?” What can they write a test on, how you play something or the memorization of lines and spaces on the clef? Can you say “More Money?” I mean it, can you say “MORE MONEY???” Yeah, the school teachers and quite a few of the private teachers paid big bucks for their music education and by golly it had better pay off, even if you do not know where middle C is. The title of this essay is “A Teacher Speaks Out About Reading Notes” and if you do not want the truth, just stop reading now. I tell my students the complications of note reading to justify why I do not start their lessons with the staff line and note reading. We play music first, then read notes if they ask me to teach them that. Most don’t.
Lastly, consider one other culture. In India, it is customary to go and live with the master to learn to play the sitar. He shows you the physical attributes of the instrument and then dictates the notes you are to play and how you are to play them. Literally, he or she speaks the notes without writing anything. You repeat the process until you master each section of the music. Ours is not the only culture with music or music training and reading notes is not a worldwide practice. When the great Ravi Shankar came to America to perform a piece he had composed in honor of the late George Harrison, he brought about thirty musicians from India with him. They were to perform the piece with American performers. He dictated to each of the Indian performers their part. When he tried to dictate the parts to the American musicians, there was a huge problem. They had to get somebody who could hear the dictation and write it down for them on the staff lines. This was pretty frustrating to Mr. Shankar, as he voiced his frustration in a subsequent interview (see the DVD “A Concert for George”). Later, when he wanted to make a correction or modification, he dictated the change to the Indian musician(s) and it was done. When he went to the Americans, you guessed it sort of, they not only had to have the change written down, they had to re-write the whole piece to include the change so it would not be scribbled in by hand. Mr. Shankar was more frustrated with this and it embarrasses me to this day for all the American musicians that were involved and all that would have made the same requirement of him. That’s most of the educated musicians in America! Again… whew!
What about interval studies? Do players really use them?
Let us be realistic. Of course players use interval studies. You need to be able to tell how far up or down one note is from another. The problem with music educators is in the way that these studies are presented. A quick example is that selecting a note then using the note that is up a major third interval, and then using the note that is up a minor third interval from the last note creates the major trichord. Now did you get that? How about this: playing a note, then playing the notes that is four notes above it, then playing the note three notes above that one gives you a major chord. I mean, trichord just means a three-note chord. Here is a quote from an encyclopedia: “The most commonly used chords in Western music, triads, are the basis of diatonic harmony, and are tertian chords.” What? It continues, “That is, they are composed of a root note, a note which is a third above the root, and a note which is a third above that note, and therefore a fifth above the root.” Well, actually the last interval is a minor third above the second note, but who is counting? Since the type of third mentioned last was not specified as being a minor third then if you used a major third, you would not have been making a major chord at all. You would have been making an augmented chord. If you do not know what I’m talking about, go through my Chord Theory program. If you do know what I meant, then you can easily see that how things are said can be very important.
So we should drop the lingo and talk. A major third interval really is four notes up. If I do not have your definitions, I do not know what you’re talking about. And yes, a minor third interval is three notes up, but the same thing applies here. A seventh chord is made by playing a note, then go up a major third, then go up a minor third, then go up a minor third again. What? How about taking a major chord and add the note that is two notes below the root note (the note you started on)? Is that still true? Of course it is. And what do thirds have to do with sevenths?
You could say that to make a tetrachord (four note chord for all of the normal folks out there), such as the dominant seventh chord (like G7), you make the major tertian chord and add the note that is a major second below the tonic note. What? You could say that the dominant seventh tone is five major second intervals above the tonic. What? When was the last time you needed to find the dominant seventh scale note by going up five major second intervals? Ever? Well, interval studies dealing with ear training are very useful. But to make a written test full of “what are the major and minor intervals for so-in-so?” is simply more stuff to take up a semester at school and get a good grade in class. When I hear a flat seven scale note followed by a lower flat third scale note, it is familiar to me because I heard it used in a song and liked it, so I figured out how to play that sound that I liked. Well, if you don’t know what my lingo was talking about, you should go through my Chord Theory program. I concede on the fact that you need definitions, like what a Root is and what a flat third is, and so on, but it can be done so much easier than it is usually presented. The music scholars say that a minor third (or a flat third) scale note is a major second and a minor second above the Root. Major and minor? Second? What the heck? It is true, but a major second interval is just two notes up and a “minor second” interval is one note up. Let us hear that again… a minor second interval means go up one note. Why not say, “Go up one note?” So a minor third note is really just three notes above the root. Oh, that is too easy. You cannot say it that way. A major seventh scale note is a major third, a minor third, and a major third above the tonic note. What? It is a minor second below the tonic. What? Go down one note from your Root. Oh… wait, that is too easy!
So how interval studies are presented is what I’m speaking out against, not the interval studies themselves. I know that a major seventh note is one note below the Root. That is interval study at work, but in a practical way. This brings me to the next point.
Who made music so hard? Is it really so complicated?
There are, I am sure, music historians out there who actually know (or think they do) the answer to the first question, “Who made music so hard?” I have suspicions of my own. In the early days of what we call “Western” music (I don’t mean Country and Western), which is the music of Europe and North America, the music was primarily formally composed for religious reasons, for the Holy Roman Empire. Consider the Roman calendar having twelve months, and the twelve disciples, and the chromatic scale having twelve notes. There is another one for you, chromatic just means every note, and so what is chromatic about it? Consider the Roman calendar having seven-day weeks, and the seven days of Creation, and our major scale having seven notes. Wait, it has eight notes. No, it has seven and you repeat the first an octave higher as the eighth (the octave). Consider the Holy Trinity from the Roman Catholic Church and the major chord (also called the major triad). Now, I cannot say for sure that there is a relationship there, because I am not a music historian, but while the common man sang his little stories while playing a lute or whatever, the guys writing for the Emperor and/or the Church and were writing more complex music were getting paid big bucks! Would they want to share their knowledge and lose that income? If not, how could they protect their income? Maybe by explaining what they did in such a way that the common man just could not grasp it right off. Only with months of studying the lingo they used and following the hugely complex rules and memorization could they ever get it. Well, the girls liked the little story songs, so why get so involved with it all? The ethnomusicology course I took in college said that the average person can retain in memory phrases of about five to seven notes in length, and that is all. Sure, people could hear and appreciate complex music, but they could not remember and reproduce it. This brings up another point. Our contemporary music is still simple little stories, but now they have drums and bass and keyboard and synthesizers and distortion pedals and other effects. But they are still pretty much just simple stories set to music. The common man is still in the majority. Ask yourself, “Is music in other countries this complicated? How about the music in Borneo?” It is music, too.
Now, for the second question, “Is it really so complicated?” If music were really necessarily so complicated, the “British Invasion” would never have happened, the Delta blues players would never have existed, and the minstrels would never have existed. That was in reverse order on purpose. We have not really changed, as said before. No, music can be really easy to understand and fun to play. You do not need to read notes (see the Beatles reference, above) and you do not need to learn all of the extremely complicated interval lingo, and you do not need years of schooling to grasp playing any instrument. You may need to physically practice to become proficient on an instrument. Some people are naturals with the physical aspects. But, if I can do it, you can do it. If he or she can do it, you can do it. Of course there is going to be some complexity to it, but before you go enroll in your community college or local university, try to find a teacher who will present music to you in ordinary terms. It may be hard to find one, but they are out there.
My son was attending Dallas Baptist University on a music scholarship. When writing out the G# major scale, he ran into an F## terminology. Since # means go up one note (you could say go up a minor second interval), then ## means go up two notes. Up two notes from an F note is a G note. He called it G and his professor said, “You must call it F##, John.” John replied, “It is a G.” The professor impatiently said, “You have to call it F##, John.” John replied, “It is a G,” emphatically. The professor said, “I will have to dock your grade unless you call it F##, John.” John replied, “It is a G. Listen to it. It is a G note.” Well, he got his grade docked, but he never called G by the name F## and I was never more proud. By the way, if they had been working on the A flat scale instead of calling that same note a G# to begin with, the F## would have been called a G!
Copyright (c) Mike Ellis 2009
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