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Trying to learn to read sheet music on my own; the best way to phrase my question is with a quick example: "Canon in D Major". I look at the sheet and I see the scale from this:

scale

I get the whole EGBDF and FACE thing (and the separate ones for the bass clef), and that the sharps show me which notes are sharp in order to fit into D major, W-W-H-W-W-W-H - I get all that. Looking down at the piano I can see that this means the 3rd (F) and the 7th (C) are sharp/black keys. Correct me if I'm wrong but I'm pretty sure I have all that straight.

Now when I look at the actual notes:

notes

What is the best way to "look at this and easily tell what these notes are"? I am used to guitar where its easiest (for me at least) to think about notes in terms of their relationship on the scale (I look at the fretboard and I "see" major scale positions 1,3,5, etc. when I look at where my fingers go). When I try this with sheet music and going "this note is a 6th", I find it very slow going to try to remember anything and I'm counting note positions up and down and lose my place constantly, etc.

Should I instead be "seeing" the lettered notes when I look at the above? Do you look at that first note and go "oh, just below the bottom line, that's a D (just from memory/familiarity/practice) and in this scale its not sharp, and of course I remember that D is the key between the set of two black ones on the piano" ... or what?

I'm trying to figure out what I need to memorize and practice to get good at this.

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  • Seems like you are hoping for a shortcut for the 1000hours of practice. Guess what…? Nov 6 '21 at 7:56
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    Actually I'm trying to find the best way to spend those ten thousand hours...
    – bgp
    Nov 6 '21 at 15:47
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I am a pianist and an excellent sight-reader. As was said above, classical pianists read A LOT of notes in quick succession. I read quickly by recognizing patterns.

The patterns can be broken into two main types: scale and interval. Scale patterns are sections of 3 or more notes in a row that move stepwise. (Just two notes would follow the interval pattern.) The interval pattern can be used to assess two notes in a row that move by any amount, or they can be used to identify chords. I process a chord according to its inversion, which is easy to see by the shape of the intervals. (Even though, technically, a scale pattern is an extended interval pattern, I separate them because the approach to fingering is often different.)

Two notes right next to each other are a step, notes on adjacent lines or adjacent spaces are a third, and so on. I recommend focusing on recognizing how all the intervals look, both stacked (harmonic) and unstacked (melodic.) It is helpful to know, for example, that a 4th will always have one note on a line and one on a space but are not immediately next to each other like a 2nd.

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  • I would add that that for the example in the question, the first thing one thinks is "D major triad," whereupon one places the thumb on D4 and the fifth finger on A4, keeping the hand there for at least six beats. (The example doesn't show the ninth and tenth beats, but they are D4 and A3, so the hand has to move somewhere in there.)
    – phoog
    Nov 4 '21 at 10:35
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Sight reading music is very similar to reading any other written language: symbols represent sounds.

When you learned to read you started making those associations by learning the alphabet. First you had to recognize a letter, then you had to associate it with a sound, and finally you put those sounds together to interpret the written word: "c...a...t...ka-ah-tuh... cat!"

The first step in reading music is to recognize the letter names of the notes. Once you have that down, then you're associating the distances between the notes with their sounds - you see a C note followed by a higher A, and you recognize it as a sixth. In reading English you're merging the two sounds, in music you're building the muscle memory to move up a sixth - for the piano specifically, you're recognizing that you're reaching one step beyond the five finger position to get the next pitch.

As you gain fluency your brain starts processing groups. A fluent reader of English sees "Republican" or "alligator" and instantly converts that into an idea, and a fluent reader of music processes the shapes of a line into a melody, or a stack of notes into a chord as an entire group.

So the method for learning to read music is essentially the same as for any other written language. The first step is note identification, but as you improve you'll no longer rely on it, or even think about it. You'll have internalized the alphabet and you simply put that knowledge to practical use.

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I'm not a guitarist so I don't completely understand what you mean by "seeing 1,3,5" or "this note is a 6th" (6th fret? 6th string?)

Anyway, it seems like on the guitar, you look at a note position on the staff and associate it directly with the position on the fretboard.

As you suggest, you should be aiming to do the same for the piano - i.e. if you see "a note just below the bottom line of the treble staff" you immediately know it is "the white key between two black keys, just above middle C". You don't need to do any "counting" to make that connection, and you don't even need to know the note is called D (though that is obviously a useful thing to know if you want to talk about the music, rather than play it).

After a while this should become as automatic as looking at the squiggle "g" in a page of print and "knowing" its sound when you read it - once again, it's useful to know the name of the letter, but you don't need to know the name in order to pronounce it!

It is certainly useful to notice the difference in pitch between successive notes, but you shouldn't need to explicitly "count" that - just recognize the patterns of notes that are 2, 3, 4 … steps apart, without actually counting the lines and spaces. Recognizing "small" intervals is probably easiest, but you will also learn to recognize some common "larger" intervals, for example an octave.

When you progress to reading and playing chords as well as single notes, again you should try to recognise the "shape" of the whole chord on the staff, rather than reading each note individually.

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  • Thanks, that’s useful info. What I meant by 1,3,5 and 6 are the positions in the scale - if I look at a chord I know (eg G major) i look at which fret positions and I’m used to seeing shapes and going “this shape is the root/1, third and fifth of a major chord”. I don’t read sheet music for guitar. I guess I’m just used to remembering specific chord shapes on the fretboard and then visually looking to see “what is a fifth up from this position” etc.
    – bgp
    Aug 15 '18 at 10:55
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Classically trained pianists spend a lot of time looking at sheets - and there's much more notes to read at the same time than in most other instruments. I don't think anyone sees "letters" there.

Since you asked for personal observations, here's what I felt:

When I saw the two sharps, I felt my right hand adjust itself to the two trickier finger positions: f#-g (fingers 3 - 1) and c#-d (4-1 or 4-5).

Then I looked at the bars and saw a major seventh cord, with passing fourth and second added along the way. It turned out that my initial feelings about the finger change were wrong on one point (no need to switch fingers on g), but spot on about playing f# with my third finger.

I don't know if it's useful for you, but that's how it worked for me :-) Usually reading sheets is a hodge-podge of noticing patterns, music theory and muscle memory. It only decays into counting lines when they are far below or far above the 5 basic lines (which also happens to me... I am not a great music reader).

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Don't think about the abstract notes as only "letters" — with practice, your brain will create an ever-stronger permanently hardwired physical mapping

which unconsciously transforms interval spacings between notes as noted in a score and the literal physical distances on the piano keyboard itself.

I have been practicing piano since ~2004 (age 13)(; I was immediately hooked/obsessed!).

No I definitely remember learning "FACE" and all that, but that's not how I process sight-reading. It's just like you say as with you and guitar -- it's a physical (touch/sensory/3D) mental mapping. I look at middle c and my hand (depends on context which hand!), reflexively, moves in anticipation of needing to strike middle C to the middle of the keyboard. So you sort of must always be a bit ahead of your hands' actual instantaneous motions - but don't think about that (the movement of fingers itself - this can easily cause you to crash/blank in the middle of otherwise smooth playing).

EDIT: All this and what I'm about to say said, it is nonetheless still important of course to know which notes are which "letters"/tones (of which there are only 7, plus 14, - 9 enharmonics [i.e., f is f, not e-sharp, c is c, not b-sharp, while c-sharp is indeed c-sharp (though also d-flat, enharmonically)], accidentals = 7 + 5 = 12 total tones); some people claim to have synesthesia and associate distinct mental colors with these 12 different tones, I know I do that to some partial degree. Ultimately yes I do immediately see notes on the pages, associate them with the keys on the piano, and think "ah thats 'd' 'f#' 'a' 'g' - a major triad followed by a fourth relative to that tonic", and this is where the music theory knowledge comes in. But more intuitively, I think (it's hardly thinking; as I'll explain in more detail below), or rather see, the notes themselves on the piano keyboard and just go straight to them.

Practice until the hand/finger movement becomes autonomic and completely reflexively built into your neural map-mind. In your brain think of the music notation as being a projection that extends the length of keyboard, from left to right, lowest to highest, in 88 equal chromatic half-steps. Reading "ledger lines" (lines extending below or above the main five of the staff) can be a pain (although really you should eventually have those perfectly mentally thoughtlessly mapped, physically, too). However most of the time, though not always, a composer will spare you the difficulty and use what are called ottava (i.e., "8va" for play this +1 octave, "8vb" -1 octave, and technically "15ma" for +2 octaves higher but that is extraordinarily rarely used) - nonetheless you may as well learn all the notes of the ledger lines as well, in creating this bespoke neural spatiotemporal mapping autonomy for reading scored piano music: i.e., where note [on the page → then goes through the mind thoughtlessly due to hours of practice having sufficiently reinforced connections amounting to what is probably quadrillions of synapses (⁂)] flows to hand to finger to note [now the literal note — the key on the keyboard!], in whichever extreme octave it may be...and of course all in between especially so.

⁂:

But the best piano music really does utilize the full range so you'll need to be comfy in all of the 7 total octaves. It's all the same thing: 12 notes, repeated 7 times (as there are hours in half a day, and days in a week; these numbers are important and not coincidentally meaningful in music as in religion/spirituality/science/etc.).

(12 * 7) + 3 + 1 = 84 + 4 = 88

It's 7 twelve-tone octaves plus three extra notes in the bass giving you the full relative minor of C (A0 octave) and C8 to cap things off, in, basic, perfection...

Notice for example that octaves are always opposite in their conjoining with a line (be it staff [so for piano that'd be the treble (𝄞) or bass (𝄢) clef staves, of course] or ledger): one of the two frequencies [of the same note "letter"; e.g., C1<->C2 octave] will always be in between two lines, and the other on a line (e.g. C2 intersects the second line beneath the bass clef staff's five standard lines, while its half-frequency lower partner, 12 half-steps below, will be noted in the position tucked beneath the fifth ledger line below bass clef). You will quickly pick up/literally neurologically create a physical spatial sense of these intervals and autonomically project the spacing of these intervals to the physical distances on the piano itself and the hands are best left doing their thing without "overthinking" about them -- much like skateboarding, or riding a bike - you just do it and your brain is good at that; the bigger picture direction of where you're actually going is what you think about.

※:

example of octave in ledger lines

Main figure attempting to help illustrate what I'm saying

(Click to expand to larger version, preferably while holding down cmd/ctrl so it opens in a new tab 😉)

A ROYGBIV-Coded Map of the 88 Keys of the Modern Piano, Notated in 11 Equal Measures

physical mental map of piano notation

Here is a link to MuseScore where you can see/hear the above figure I made "played" aloud*, if curious: https://musescore.com/john_collins/music-stackexchange-com-questions-73730-john-collins

*Little Tangent Commentary on LH/RH Piano Notations (re the Above MuseScore Snippet)


It's not a horrible exercise to practice either, in itself (switching hands correspondingly with the clef switch, so, switching from LH† to RH‡ precisely at middle C).

† [confusingly often notated in [older] scores as "m.g." (French main gauche, left hand) or "m.s." (Italian/Latin mano sinistra)]

‡ [likewise, except by coincidence the French and Italian/Latin end up both being abbreviated "m.d." — main droit and mano destra/dextra, respectively]

Tip for remembering this confusing situation:

So, remember that "m.d." always means right hand (I think "dextrus" as in dexterity and for some reason this reminds me of the right hand, I guess because most people are "right-handed" and thus have more "dexterity" in the RH [as pianists we of course give the LH much more focus 🙂]); and then the others you'll ever encounter will be "m.g." or "m.s."

I think "ok not 'm.d.' so must be LH, and I also remember that sinistra means sinister and, fun fact, for centuries if not millennia, at least in Western cultures, everything "left" (e.g. the hand/side of the body) was considered evil for some bizarre reason; undoubtedly very fascinatingly related directly to us having cleanly separated left and right brain hemispheres; but, alas, such full elucidation of those brain details will continue to elude our understanding probably for quite some time.


Appendix

A concluding thought in regards to improvisation, its importance, & the benefits provided to it from being well-versed with the full technicalities of the art of scoring music / sight-reading

As a final concluding remark, I would implore anyone new to learning piano (or actually at any stage), to ponder the following thought experiment (which builds heavily upon all I've alluded to here):

What if you were to just start playing random notes with both hands, improvising, and, although obviously it would not sound like good (let alone great) "music" at first, if you kept at it, and literally "live", in-sync, used your mind as a feedback corrector.. through continual re-iterations fine-tuning certain internal weights of biases for playing with your hands particular patterns of harmonic/melodic/note combinations (e.g., just playing [boldly] and experimenting, essentially, without knowing what overall sound(s) will result [though applying your constant best predictions, based both on previous experience as well as knowledge of music theory], and reacting, as such, "ahhh that sequence or combo sounded horrible, play less of those in future" + "ooo that sounded interesting, play more of sequences like that"), would you not, over enough time, develop a profound ability to improvise and perhaps even then compose great music?

Improvisation, is, IMHO, the most important of all piano practice methods. And the beautiful organization of modern music notation we have inherited implies equally beautiful laws, patterns, principles, etc., which will help aid you in your mind, as you attempt to navigate the entire (endless, as Bernstein, and many others, have been persistent to point out) possible space which is human-perceived music.

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  • I can't see the bunch of emoji you stacked up, I think my operating system can't manage them all.
    – Clockwork
    Nov 4 '21 at 18:09
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    @Clockwork Sorry about that — I've made it into a little reference marked PNG'd footmark now, which you should definitely be able to see 🙂 Nov 4 '21 at 20:24
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    I'm still a beginner, but I can feel this: "Practice until the hand/finger movement becomes autonomic and completely reflexively built into your neural map-mind". However, the way it works with me is: my hands just remember which keys they're supposed to press. But the very instant I happen to forget one chord, I'm lost as to which keys I was actually supposed to press. That, and I still have to do the mapping between new notes on the sheet and keys on the keyboard, until I can manage to memorise them. Guess I just need a few more years of practicing.
    – Clockwork
    Nov 4 '21 at 20:32
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    I've been playing for 17 years and the same happens to me! You'll only ever be able to perform pieces which, actually, you find very very easy to play (this recently happened for me for Beethoven's Tempest sonata, for example -- which when I first started I remember thinking I'd never possibly be able to play; but yes practice makes all the difference). Still, there's no limit/plateau you'll ever reach where you'll truly feel "done". If you're being honest with yourself, you'll know you'll always have so much more room for improvement...which is pretty cool. Most skills max out unlike piano Nov 4 '21 at 20:38
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    But I should add that your understanding of the structure of the music, and the composer's intentions and practically own thoughts in composing, will become more and more evident as the years of practicing go by, and this too (i.e., solid music theory knowledge foundation), helps tremendously in preventing those "crashes" where you suddenly "forget" "what comes next". If you can, just play anything -- the audience is unlikely to know you've played a different note that sounds plausible (although is technically incorrect according to the score) vs. they will for sure notice if you stop! 🙂 Nov 4 '21 at 21:03

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