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I'm learning guitar right now, mostly from Justin Sandercoe's free online lessons, starting from the beginner's course. He has a lot of good tips for how to practice and drill chords, and scales, but he doesn't have much information on how to learn to read sheet music.

I know the basics of sheet music; I can work out the melody if I sit down for a while, muttering mnemonics under my breath and counting frets up the neck while picturing a piano keyboard to figure out where there's a half step between notes instead of a whole step (not to mention trying to work out the rhythm very slowly by counting "one-ee-and-a two-ee-and-a" and getting lost a lot of the time because the rhythm doesn't sound right at that slow a pace). Needless to say, it's a fairly slow and laborious process to translate from the paper into something I can play.

How can I learn to more quickly and fluently read sheet music for the guitar? Do I just need to keep trying it, spending a good chunk of my practice time just struggling to read a few bars of a melody, or are there any good exercises I can do to help develop my fluency in smaller, more manageable chunks?

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11 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

Yes, unfortunately it's all about practice. But there are some things you can focus on to speed up the process: - Learn the notes on the neck by heart, and the associated intervals. That is, learn the notes on the low E-string and the relation between those notes and the notes on the higher strings so that you without thinking can fret a certain interval. When this works, continue with the other strings. - Play scales and say the names of the notes out loud as you play them. This will improve your familiarity with the placement of the notes on the neck. These two exercises help you into thinking in tems of notes rather that fretboard positions.

Why I focus on the guitar neck rather than the sheet reading itself is because playing to sheet music is a twosided thing: Understanding the score as it is written and mapping that onto the guitar. As you are saying you are picturing a piano keyboard for the mapping, but you need to start mapping onto the guitar, and preferrably not do any mental calculations for the mapping at all as the notes position on the neck becomes intuitive. That leaves only the reading of the music and that just takes determination and practice.

Good luck!

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+1 Seems like the way to go!! Thanks :) –  yati sagade Sep 19 '11 at 18:38
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Actually, I'm going to say, don't memorize, read.

Sight reading is working up your short-term memory. So after you make a few mistakes and play it 20 times, maybe memorize it, you're good right? Wrong (Ha!).

Scour the internets for sheet music. Suggestion: Search google images and start looking for music pdfs. I say go through many pieces, don't play them more than 3 times, and move on, but play them as boringly slow as you have to to get it EXACTLY right.

Then you can move on. If you mess up after 3 tries, still, move on. Practice reading if that is what you are after.

Thanks for listening.

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heh. +1 for google images, I hadn't thought of using it as a resource to find stuff to sight-read –  Babu Dec 12 '11 at 20:56
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from your description of how you "work out the melody" i.e. "muttering mnemonics ... counting frets up ... picturing a piano ... figure out ... half ... whole step", your mental process for that involves 4 procedural steps IN SEQUENCE. That takes too long. What you want to do is to reduce that down to 1 step that accomplishes all the procedures required IN PARALLEL.

How is that possible? Through practices: you can reprogram your mind (and fingers) to use what you already have JUST for checking (or merely to reassure yourself) that the answer you come up with using your new PARALLEL MENTAL PROCESS to be correct. As you practice more, you become more and more proficient at using the do-everything-in-one-step-in-parallel way and the checking becomes less and less frequent, until you can "work out the melody" without much need to use the slower (but guaranteed to be correct) way to figure out what to do.

So, what other say about the need to practice and knowing intervals and places on the guitar etc etc are true. I am just going to break it down in more detail here.

There are two basic ways to know where to put your fingers on the neck. Absolutely, and relatively. The first one means you develop visual and proprioceptive memory of where absolute pitches (i.e. named as A B C D E F G etc) are on the neck. The second one means you find out which finger to put down where (and if you need to move you hand position etc) based on where your hand already is and which fingers you already have pressed on which relative pitches (i.e. named as do re mi fa so la ti in solfeggio, or as 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 in the Nashville Number System).

Why teachers tell you to practice scales is because doing so programs into your mind the basis of using relative pitches to know what to do with your hand, IN PARALLEL TO what your eyeball must do to read music; that is, STAYING ON THE SHEET (as a bonus, you also reinforce in your mind association between visual patterns of pitch movements and movements of your hand; so yes, practicing scales with sheet music of scales can help you read too).

Once you have programmed the motions and spacings of the hand-control process into your mind deeply enough by doing scales, you can apply it without paying attention to it. That is, you can pay full attention to the sheet and yet your fingers will seem to know to go where it should go automatically without requiring your attention. However, for that magic to work well depends also a lot on mental processing of relative pitches.

By that I mean as you read notes on the page, you are NOT translating placements of notes in a staff into absolute pitches names or places on the piano at all. Instead, you read the key signature of a section of music ONLY ONCE to recall in your mind the scale you have practiced. Then as you read, you translate visual ups and downs of melodic shapes into motions of your hands on the neck in analogous direction directly, most likely WITHOUT COUNTING. If you do count, you will not be counting where the half or whole steps are because your hand would have already remembered those for you through scale practices. Instead, you will be counting the number of scale steps (e.g. from 'do' to 'mi' is up a 3rd, or from 7 to 4 is down a 4th, etc.) which has a one to one correspondence to steps of sequential hand motion your have programmed into your hand.

Some people find that saying the relative pitch name of notes in scale practice for each note played help them use the saying of relative pitch name to recall finger positionings when they read music. You may try that using 'do' 're' 'mi' etc or 1 2 3 etc too, depending on which seem more natural for you.

After you can read melody fast enough, you can develop skill for reading chord-melody too. That has to do with knowing how common chord shapes in music appears in sheet music and how they are done with your hand well enough so that you are not reading a chord note by note but instead as a visual shape which you have already associated with a certain hand shape and hand motion. But before you achieve fluency with that, it is necessary to use "a fairly slow and laborious process to translate from the paper into something I can play." The labor you put into doing so is precisely what is needed for you to build a vocabulary of chords-in-your-hand which you can instantly access upon seeing chords-on-the-page. Reading lots of sheets (doing mental practice) with music written as 'tablature on top of standard staff notation‎' also may help.

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+1 for Parallel Mental Processing –  luser droog Nov 16 '11 at 23:57
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I speak as someone who can't sight read on guitar -- so take what I say with a pinch of salt. I can read music to the extent that I can slowly work out what it's meant to sound like, and having done that, I attempt to play that by ear.

On (say) a piano, every note on the stave corresponds to one key, and having learned that mapping -- and how to read rhythms -- the only challenge remaining is how to get your fingers to those keys in the right order.

With guitar, you have the extra challenge that for a given note, you have a choice of strings to play it on.

To be able to sight read effectively, you need to have a mental map so that when you see a note on the page, you can visualise every fretting that corresponds to that note. So practice by calling out a note, and playing it on every possible string.

Next, melodies. With the note positions you've learned, you can play any melody. You could play a melody a naive way, on a single string (and it might sound good), or in one of several positions with less hand movement, or you could hop wildly from string to string and up and down the fretboard (which may itself be a good exercise!). The sheet music may well not indicate what hand position to use. I would experiment to find out what sounds best (or more realistically, what hand position allows me to play it with my limited talent!).

You may already have learned some scales. There are books aimed at rock/blues players which show fret maps of pentatonic scales etc. It would behove you to learn to identify those fret maps with the notes you see on the sheet. The key signature will narrow down which scale to choose. Slurs between certain notes might hint that you want a position where the scale can be played with those two notes on the same string.

So - teach yourself to spot the scales in use in the first few bars of the piece ("Aha, most of the notes there are in Gm pentatonic"), and position your hand accordingly.

You should of course save yourself some learning, by reasoning early on about the movability of these hand positions.

For simple pieces, one position might last the whole song. More often, you'll need to move.

Finally, chords. Although this builds on what has been discussed so far, I think to an extent reading chords from sheet music is matter of learning by rote. A written chord has a shape. Learn what that shape looks like, and how to play it. No real short cuts.

I suspect it would be useful when learning, to use books that combine tabs with staves, in order to compare where you might have chosen to play a note, with what the person who tabbed it chose.

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A lot of these answers involve reading the note name, then finding that note on the guitar.Then you have to remember whether it's sharp or flat, as in the key signature. I'm working on a rather different scheme, which uses total knowledge, initially of 2 octaves major and two octaves minor scale, across the strings. Once you have established the key (letter name & maj/min, ) keep your hand within your 'box'. e.g. if the tune is in Cmaj, use the box fret 7 to 10.Establish your 'base'keynote as being on a line or a space, and read initially from this note. Thus using our example of C =middle C, then it would become a 'line'key, with i,iii and v being on the next 2 lines upwards. Now translate to the scale you know, thinking in terms of numbers, rather than notes. This may sound more complex than it is, but when you realise that the same idea will apply to you playing in 3, 4, 5 # or b s, you may realise that you don't even have to address thet side of the sightreading problem, it's sorted automatically. I have purposely NOT addressed the timing side of things, as this is not the point of the exercise.That is an issue for another thread. I'm still working on this concept, so any thoughts will be gratefully received.

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One proven method, that I'm surprised no one has mention is the book, A Modern Method for Guitar

Yes, there is no shortcut to this, it's painful and rewarding.

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My teacher starts students with coloured notation. The conventional notes have the bodies coloured according to the note - C is yellow, D purple and so on.

I was 55, played folk guitar for years, never been able to read music. After three months of this I was reading. Gradually he gave me pieces where repeated sections were in black and white until eventually I was working with no colour at all.

I'm still trying to improve my sight reading, but I'm certainly doing far more than I ever believed possible.

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The thing that helped me learn to sight read the most was playing with others in ensembles. Especially in orchestra, which unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) requires guitarists to learn another instrument. You learn to sightread well through steady, sustained immersion.

I highly recommend finding someone else interested in learning to read and going through some duets. A great place to start might be flute duets, Bach inventions, violin duets. Classical guitar duets might be the next step, or if you're playing jazz go through the Real Book and sightread new tunes every day. Meet regularly - at least once per week, or more if you can.

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I feel a need to offer an answer "from the other side." Everybody here is telling you how to make it easier, how to simplify the process.

The other way is to make it more complicated.

Grab the Bb Real Book, and play everything two frets up. Or Eb (three frets down).

Grab some Viola music and read it straight off the alto clef (the middle line is middle C).

Read Bass parts (try playing the left-hand of a piano piece while a horn plays the melody).

When you go back to simple treble clef in C, it should appear marvelously simple and direct.

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As it has been said, thinking relatively is one of the keys to sight-read on the guitar. Another one that still hasn't been suggested here is to strategize your reading. Instead of starting by playing the first note as soon as you take the written music, observating the musical language you've got in front of you by analizing the piece as a whole, for just some seconds, may make you save a lot of time and avoid unnecessary struggling points.

Most music pieces have got their internal logic, so it doesn't make sense dealing with the piece starting from it's small dimensions (like a measure or a single beat). First, the music pages should be observed from their big dimensions, asking yourself about how the piece is structured, how many sections it's got, what rellationships are there between the sections and what kind of possible key or time signature changes happen. If you are reading a music piece that has been specifically written for guitar the task can get even easier by making you aware about guitar-specific technical issues that will interrupt your flow the first time you play the piece, like possition changes.

All this can be done in some seconds, since the sections can be instantly saw by quickly scanning for double bars, key changes or repeated stuff (for example in an ending section that reexposes the begining of the piece). Possition changes are easily localized by barre indications or specific string number marks (with their circled numbers, that are also easy to find at the first glance). All this will help to enclose what you are going to play in certain areas of the fretboard and among certain number of techniques you are going to need.

For example, glancing at Leo Brouwer's first study (from the old Études Simples series) before playing it will make you realize that apart from your thumb, your right hand fingers play along most of the piece the same notes, which are on open strings. The double bar at bar 17 tells you a new section is coming, where it's easy to realize that the first bars are being reexposed. Zooming in a little, down to medium dimensions, you can see two bar modules that are repeated with just one note variation or no variation at all. The music that happens in the middle of the piece is also a variation of things that already happened, which reflect in minimum and easy left hand changes on the fretboard (for example, bars 12 and 13 are just about moving a fifth shape up and down, the same shape you already had at bars 5 to 8).

Summarizing, the final result of this brief observation is that the number of notes that you actually need to read is dramatically lower than the number of notes you actually play. Starting from beat number one and shuting yourself in a narrow tunnel by just reading every single beat one by one to the end will normally make you read much more than what you actually need, slowering down and making harder the whole process. A hardcore way to train this sight-reading strategies is by going ahead with no guitar at all, figuring out in your mind what you would exactly do with your hands at every single bar. This way, you train exclusively your topographic memory on the fretboard without distractions. It's a kind of crazy abstraction excercise that can produce some headache, but if you master that you'll be for sure a guitar sight-reading beast. Hope it makes sense.

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  • I don't think it's hard to find the notes
  • I don't think it's hard to read the rhythms

It's doing both together that's the hard part.

Tommy Tedescoe once said that he only learnt to read the middle position of the guitar and the notes on the thick string and the notes on the thin strings. I think that he was far more skilled than that... He was the most used Session guitarist in history, so I think he knew something about it :)

Music reading should not be connected to type writing either - well maybe on the piano.
On the guitar, there's all sorts of good things and articulations that we should use, because these things are ingrained into the instrument's vernacular - like

  • vibrato,
  • bends,
  • slides,
  • harmonics,
  • open strings.

These things will make it sound much more like music and not simply typing.

In order not to lose your place when you are reading music, I suggest you move your eyes and not your head - also, if needed, hold your guitar so that you can see both the fret-board and the sheet music in the same field of vision. That means you don't need to move your head, just your eyes to see either your fret-board placing or your music. This way, you'll keep your place a lot better!

Getting the ability to read rhythmic chunks is really important. If you can intrinsically link the sound of a rhythm with what it looks like, then you'll just know need to find the notes!

For different keys - try and find either the Locrian or Phyrgian positions for each as they have less finger stretches needed.

and finally, responding to the post by Rene Marcelo, memorizing is not reading - although it helps to look through a piece of music 2 or 3 times before you even attempt to play it - just to get a sense of the form (D.C., D.S, colas, repeats etc...). For getting used to reading having an endless source of new music to practice with - and setting a level directly for what you're having problems (reading ledger lines, whatever) was the reason I made Guitar SightReader Toolbox.

In addition, if you ever want to get tax-free work with good money and free board and food, playing on a cruise ship means you'll have to be able to read notes and chords and play those chords with the top note in the clef as the top note of the chord. It also means that you'll be also transposing what you'd normally play a staff note up an octave to concert pitch. And be able to do this for up to 50 times the first go through. My software will prepare you for this... and what could be better than making money at what we love!

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