0

This is a long explanation (with a question at the end), but I hope it might help some struggling students.

I'm embarrassed that I always shunned reading music. I first learned music a lifetime ago by faking clarinet in band and playing by ear. Then it continued with all the other instruments I learned to play. I always understood the mnemonics for lines and spaces (Every Good Boy... etc.) and understood note and rest duration, so I knew that much, but learning the notes on the clefs was my problem. Many times I tried to study to play the piano the right way and always ran into obstacles in books, such as:

Different mnemonics imply that the F clef and G clef are different (and then they confuse it more by mentioning other clefs such as C clef, alto and tenor clefs, etc.) If someone gets to know the lines and spaces on the treble clef first (like I did), then they find that the bass clef lines and spaces are shifted by two notes compared to the treble clef. That especially seemed confusing when the accidentals of key signatures have to be shifted two places as well between the clefs.

The mnemonics are quite helpful but are words or sentences sequencing in one direction (up) and don't work in reverse (down), and reciting the alphabet backwards is awkward for me (not easy like with numbers). Mnemonics also list the lines and spaces separately from each other and they skip every other key on the keyboard which doesn't make any musical sense.

Another problem is that the pitch of notes on the staff is in the vertical plane, whereas keys on the piano are placed in the horizontal plane. You have to keep track of two different planes among a multitude of other things while trying to play the keyboard to written music. Playing by ear eliminates that problem and may be part of the reason I chose to play only by ear instead of learning to read music.

Finally, Success!

Well, yesterday I read a small comment in a post here that the grand staff lines and spaces are a map of the diatonic keys on a piano. I found another comment suggesting thinking of the grand staff being symmetrical around middle C. I hadn't really known to think about those two aspects before and therefore never focused on them (though they are very obvious now). Reading those made quite an impression on me so I tried two new things:

  1. I thought of the grand staff as a vertical axis continuum with the direction toward the bass being a mirror image of the treble direction. I contrasted that with a number line and somehow thought about using absolute values.

  2. I looked at the interval distance between the C key and the E above it (a third). Then I saw that a sort of inverted form of that is the A key (a sixth) below C. I remembered that the intervals are diatonic only (not involving black keys). I noticed that the E key above C and the A key below C both ended up equidistant from grand staff middle C, and on mirrored spaces. My concept also worked with F key above and G key below C, and naturally with the octaves (and double octaves).

That's when the mirror image became clear to me and the crazy 2-note offset of the bass clef disappeared. It was a revelation how just those simple conceptual changes eliminated all of the obstacles hampering me!

My question is to ask if the problems I mentioned are solved with the mirroring concept that I explained, and is it taught anywhere in addition to the mnemonic system I mentioned (which is all that I've ever heard of or found in books). [edit:] Also, my intention for this post is only regarding learning the lines and spaces on the grand staff, not learning fingerings of piano or other instruments.

13
  • For me the confusing part is remembering which clef you're in. Like the G in the G clef looks a lot like the B on the F clef once the clef is outside your vision. It's almost like I would like to print out the same music but with the clefs on another line than usual to practice this.
    – Emil
    Feb 4 at 3:57
  • 2
    I'm not sure how comfortable I am with what seems like a long statement that only has a question at the end to make it technically a question. Feb 4 at 4:29
  • 1
    Maybe I'm wrong - but do you consider the white keys to be synonymous with diatonic? They are - BUT only with regard to key C! And - piano tag needs to be used - the same logic doesn't apply to many (any?) other instruments.
    – Tim
    Feb 4 at 9:32
  • It may be worth mentioning that in the baroque period, for example in Bach's output, it was more common to use soprano clef for the upper (right hand) staff of a keyboard piece. This puts middle C on the bottom line of the upper staff, so you can use the entire space between the staves as an extra-wide B space, though it was also common to use ledger lines as is done today. If the left hand is to play middle C, therefore, it might be written on a ledger line above the lower staff or it might be written on the bottom line of the upper staff.
    – phoog
    Feb 4 at 12:04
  • 1
    1) Fascinating! 2) I encourage you to read this help page about subjective questions and maybe edit the "question" of your question. I just voted to close because it is exactly what's described there, “I’m curious if other people feel like I do,” but then changed my mind and retracted the vote because your observations are so specific. Similarly, "Why don't people do X more" is a hopelessly opinion-based question, but maybe there are some solid, objective ones, like: "Is this an accurate and useful way of conceptualizing the staff," and... Feb 4 at 14:04

2 Answers 2

5

It is taught in books, just not all of them. One specific example, in the Music Tree series, the first three notes introduces are middle C, treble G, and bass F. These three are symmetrical around middle C — a fifth above and a fifth below. From there, new notes are introduced by distance away from those three "landmark" notes. Thus, the two notes on either side of treble G are not taught as "A" and "F" but rather as being a second above and below. Note names are superfluous in this method.

However, The Music Tree is exceptional in this regard. It's the only method I've found that operates this way. Other currently common methods — like Alfred and Faber's Piano Adventures — and older methods — like Bastien and John Thompson — take approaches informed by a several-hundred-years history of keyboard instruction. There's a great deal of inertia in the field of music teaching.

Additionally, the symmetry that is revealed so nicely on the piano, does not generally apply to other instruments. Firstly, most instruments tend to read only a single clef, and even the ones that don't, the placement of pitches on the instrument is not symmetrical. For example, with trumpet, notes with the same valve combinations follow the harmonic series. There is a chromatic logic to how the valves work, but it's not physically symmetrical: meaning, for example, the notes a half-step above and below middle C have different fingerings from each other.

4
  • Good answer, thanks! I just looked up the Music Tree series and based on your explanation, something like that would have set me straight in the beginning. I agree with you on the symmetry not applying as well to other instruments, but for my immediate purpose, just learning the notes on the grand staff in a logical manner is what caused me to post my "question." Feb 4 at 19:24
  • @PeterBuxton Glad you found this helpful. Just confirming, in light of your recent edit, that it captures the question your were looking to have answered.
    – Aaron
    Feb 4 at 20:07
  • Thanks, Aaron, yes, it does answer the question. Too bad other books don't take that approach. I realize that my original question was too subjective and probably led people to question the purpose of my post. I am going to add a comment to my post above to explain that purpose. Feb 4 at 20:23
  • I liked your answer and also wonder if you care to say anything about my edited question of, if the mirror concept is a more logical way to teach or learn notes on the grand staff (if you know)? That should have really been my question in the first place. Thank you. Feb 4 at 20:41
3

grand staff lines and spaces are a map of the diatonic keys on a piano.

Well, this needs to be qualified. Any staff, with a key signature of zero sharps or flats, is a map of the white keys of the piano.

This concept is absolutely taught as a beginning idea.

I noticed that the E key above C and the A key below C both ended up equidistant from grand staff middle C...

I think I follow your description, and yes, the steps of lines and spaces on the staff represent interval numbers, so three staff steps up is three diatonic piano keys up, etc. etc.

But, something else should be added. Don't think of this as only working with the white keys of the piano. The critical idea is it applies to the diatonic gamut transposed into all keys. It's true of staff with a key signature of zero sharps/flats and the piano white keys. But it is also true, for example, with a key signature of two flats, and the collection of piano keys white except B natural becomes Bb and E natural becomes Eb.

This leads to the next critical concept: practice all the major and minor scales.

That is the part a lot of people seem to conveniently not hear! But, if you practice all the scales, then playing and reading staff in any key eventually becomes like playing and reading C major, all white keys, zero sharps/flats key signature. You simply transpose what is diatonic. And in tactile terms, the feel on your hands of playing all white keys becomes a new tactile feel, the physical feeling of, for example, A major, where the fingers reach up a bit for the black keys of C#, F#, G#. It's a new tactile and mental map of the keyboard that replaces the all white key map.

Anyway, there is no question that absolutely beginners are instructed to practice all the scales.

That's when the mirror image became clear to me and the crazy 2-note offset of the bass clef disappeared.

What we are really getting into is reading staff notation.

Mnemonics like every good boy deserves fudge - which is what I was taught in elementary school music class - are stupid, because they teach associating staff lines and spaces with fixed letters, and that isn't really how staff is read by good readers.

The right way to read staff is in relative terms: lines and spaces relative to a clef (this isn't just about the grand staff) and the relative distance between lines and spaces, both vertically in chords and horizontally in melodic line.

We don't need to get into detail. Suffice to say if you read, for example, a note on the middle line of treble staff and the next note was on the next line up, you don't want to read "Boy", it's a B, look at the key signature to see if it should get a sharp or flat, then recite "every good boy... deserves", "deserve starts with d, the next note is a D..." etc. etc. All you need to do is play the diatonic third above.

My question is why that concept isn't taught in books.

A lot of that is:

  • the white keys of the piano are a key signature of zero sharps and flats
  • learn all the key signatures and practice all the scales

Based on other questions that come up on this forum about reading staff notation, I have to agree with you this is not taught methodically as a fundamental piano skill.

Why?

Apparently because most piano teaching is orient toward teaching memorized performances, with memorized fingers rather that flexible fingering skills, for piano recitals, competitions, and auditions.

That last one is probably the exception. If you were auditioning for a school, they would ask you to sight read. Maybe if you were on that path, you would have found a teacher who taught sight reading. Or, maybe you didn't and you don't pass the audition. Or, maybe your teacher didn't teach you sight reading, because they thought you weren't on the serious path.

There does seem to be a lot of happenstance how music reading is taught. Me, personally, I was taught "every good boy deserve fudge" and "f.a.c.e." for treble and bass clef, Kodaly type "ta ta ti ti ta" for rhythm, to read staff in elementary school and that was all. Two guitar teachers taught me up/down stroke rhythm reading and foot tap the beat, but absolutely no staff reading. Actually, I never even sight read from guitar tab with teachers. I learned a bit of that much later on my own. High school chorus didn't teach any reading skills. That is literally a complete summary of the teaching I received for reading music. Like you, I'm teaching myself how to read music.

In fairness to teachers, they probably don't teach proper music reading, because most people would give up over the rigor required. Teachers probably make that hedge to keep students playing (but not reading) instead of pushing something that would most likely lead to quitting.

1
  • Thanks for all your ideas. Your last comment about teachers seems backwards, from my point of view, because I've always felt "on verge of quitting" with all the ways I was taught, but the logic I just discovered--thinking of the mirror and number line--would have set me straight in the beginning. Feb 4 at 18:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.