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I was looking for wether this had adready been asked somewhere, but -to my surprise- people don't even question why we read words even if we "don't try" to read them. The most similar question I found to it was this one on Reddit, which is quite forgotten by the community.

So, my question is:

Similar to how we read written natural languages effortlessly, sometimes even unconciously,

  1. Do you musicians find yourselves reading musical notation just by looking at it even by "mistake"?
  2. What do you guys think about when you do? Maybe the sound of the piece, the execution on your instrument or something else.

The question arised because I'm starting on piano and I know how to read it even with dynamics and accidentals, it's just too tiresome and stressful for my brain and it takes quite long. So I wanna know if the goal should be to aim for a moment where I can read musical notation as effortlessly as I can read written English or Spanish.

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  • Since this is more a discussion question than a simple Q&A question, please consider posting it in the chat room. I have some thoughts I'd love to contribute, and I have to imagine others will, too.
    – Aaron
    Dec 19, 2023 at 0:11
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    I like this question. I think it is good if we restrict its scope specifically "what level of musician achieves this level of proficiency, if any?"
    – Edward
    Dec 19, 2023 at 1:29
  • Edward, I have no problem with your proposal, that's esentially the same question. However, it's as open for discussion as the previous one, as Aaron pointed out. I'll let the moderators decide if the question should be closed or not and, if it's closed, I'll be posting it somewhere else in a discussion board and in the chat link Aaron shared. I won't be posting it only in that link because that chat is kinda obscure and the answer there will be only useful for me, because it's not too visible. If it's not against the guidelines of the stack, please share your thoughts on my question. Dec 19, 2023 at 5:01
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    IDK what is so opinion based on whether you can read music notation as effortlessly as reading letters and numbers when it is such an easy and empathetic yes, I can do so myself and I'm hardly special in this regard
    – Neil Meyer
    Dec 19, 2023 at 15:28
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    IMO it's not the substance but the tone of the question that makes people think it's discussion-oriented. Ignore the word "you" and it becomes a question about musical learning. IMO it passes the test of being able to have a "right answer," especially if the appeal to personal experience is removed. Dec 19, 2023 at 15:40

4 Answers 4

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If I see music notation outside of a regular music context, i.e. on a greetings card, tea-towel, mug, shop display or advertising poster, I will try to read it.

But very often the notation, despite containing musical symbols, doesn't actually make musical sense - there are notes with tails on the wrong side, bars that don't add up rhythmically, notes not beamed correctly, noteheads that have been made 3D and shiny, and so on.

Or the creator has taken correct notation from existing sheet music, but without being able to read it themselves they've mangled it.

As far as the being able to read effortlessly, yes it's possible, but practise is vital.

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This is not actually a good question for the site since it is more like a poll for experiences, as the question is vague enough that I'd be very surprised with an answer being able to cite actual studies.

That being said, I do superficially scan note images and "read" the music in the terms of melodies in my head rather than anything related to fingering or execution (I am multi-instrumental including singing). It also annoys me to no end to see artful pictures of a violin draped before a piano score sheet and similar. I cannot avoid unseeing that kind of nonsense, like I cannot avoid notice how "musicians" in motion pictures who are obviously being paid for their speaking or acting abilities try to pretend they are playing some musical instrument in a manner that defies the most basic properties of the instrument.

It would require a conscious effort not to notice.

But that kind reaction is tied to the execution of music. When glancing over a score without a particular intent, it is more the sound/structure that is apparent to me rather than any way of executing it.

Incidentally, I also play (chromatic button) accordion, another keyboard instrument, and when "translating" music into patterns, those patterns are the buttons I traverse. Fingers don't appear in my mind: I guess the playing reflexes are responsible for keeping me from running out of fingers while depressing the patterns I have in mind.

But most of the time, I am thinking more in terms of notes than buttons.

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    Just btw if you believe there to be technical problems with a question then that should be addressed in a comment.
    – Neil Meyer
    Dec 19, 2023 at 15:33
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Learning to read music and learning to read and write is not similar it is virtually the same.

People don't realise it because you where seven years old when you were taught how to read and write and not many people's memories go that far, but the process is virtually identical.

When I started Music Theory training with 9 year-old's I would start them of with the G-Clef. We started on the G above Middle-C. You would then pick notes and we would with great anguish in our harts count towards the notes. You Would write A-B-C-D-E-F-G, on there workbooks and you would tell them that you count forwards when you go up on the staff and backwards when you go down.

And you would have to repeat this hundreds of times (If not thousands). It was a great test of patience, because children would guess the name of the notes and you would have to force them to count it, because no child just wants to do what his/her teachers asks of him/her.

This has parallels in regards to when we go to primary school. No child just knows how to write letters or numbers. They are given stencils with the numbers and letters in them so they can learn to write the letters and numbers by stencil first.

After a while they just know how to write a 'g' and they don't have to think about it anymore. Just like with sight-reading you can tell what a name of a note is by looking at it, but it all comes from counting notes many times.

You also find shortcuts with sight-reading. Lines operate in third. So if you have the A above the G clef and you want to know the note two lines above, then the line above would be a C and one line above that would be an E. The note on the third ledger line above the G-clef is indeed an E.

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  • The typical age of text reading learning is about 6, but it often begins much before. Sometimes due to required instruction for a certain culture, but also for context reasons (mostly by parent efforts). Most importantly, some elements that become fundamental for text reading are learnt at various levels and even involuntarily or without "awareness". If sufficient and proper learning input is given to the child (including their living context), they may become more familiar with writing patterns of certain symbols (no matter if they're latin letters, ideograms or musical notes). Dec 20, 2023 at 5:13
  • This results in an easier learning experience and, to some extent, easier learning of different or complex writing systems. That's why children are able to read most non latin characters at the age of ten, even if those writing systems are way more complex: consider Japanese children having a vocabulary of thousands of kanji ideograms (and the same goes for similar extended writing systems). It mostly falls into the ability to establish meta-pattern recognition (shapes and contexts) at younger age. It's not so different than seeing a × symbol, or the red color. Dec 20, 2023 at 5:25
  • Even for a young adult, learning those languages may be extremely difficult, if not almost impossible for an acceptable level, unless their childhood experiences created neural patterns compatible with those graphical structures. It's one of the reasons for which learning music as an adult is potentially more difficult: learning unfamiliar (and possibly "incompatible") patterns requires much more efforts, unless the initial learning structures achieved at young age allow so. Even ignoring verbal language patterns, it's easier for a Japanese to learn Chinese than it would be for a German. Dec 20, 2023 at 5:31
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Don't know if 'by accident' is quite right! But, yes, just as most people can scan a line of text and grasp the meaning without examining every word, an experienced musician can glance at a line of music and absorb 'how it goes'.

This is connected with the facility many pianists have to 'play the music, not the notes' when confronted by an over-complex score (or an over-simplified song copy!)

Or, perhaps the ones who can't do this, can't do the first thing either? I can only really speak for me.

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