top of page

How Did Musical Notation Evolve? A Brief History of Reading Music

February is reading month and also a time when excitement for piano lessons after starting in September sometimes starts to wane. It starts getting harder especially when focusing on note reading in a big way. Every student is different and has a different learning style so I like to try a variety of strategies to see which one will stick with a particular student. Are you struggling to help your child learn this skill?

Why do we read music?

Since the 1500's, western music has been notating music on 5 lines called a “staff”. Prior to this, music was written down quite abstractly or passed down from generation to generation like stories. The need for written music became especially great when composers during this century were experimenting with polyphony (more than one musical line sung at the same time). An Italian named Guido D’Arezzo was conducting a choir and came up with the idea of indicating the pitch by pointing to a specific spot on his fingers.

first music reading notation

While this worked for the time being, he needed a way to notate this and share it and pass it on. Thus he decided to start putting dots on lines, and as the dots got higher/lower on the page with respect to the lines, the musician would know to play/sing a higher lower pitch.

This was the beginning of western musical notation as we know it. Once this evolved to the 5 line system, it stayed virtually unchanged into the modern era which is quite extraordinary when you consider how much language and many other elements of culture have changed.

Why do young students need to learn how to read notes?

Learning how to read music unlocks the ability to play anything, anywhere, anytime. It frees the mind from needing to memorize. It makes it possible to play with others. It makes it possible to write down and compose your own music to have others play it. It creates consistency between performances. It is the way by which all professional and amateur musicians communicate.

Most piano lessons start with middle C and work out from that point. Middle C has it’s own line in between the treble and bass staff and works well as a landmark by which you can orient yourself. As the notes step from one to the next in order, the notes on the staff move up alternating between the lines and spaces in between the lines. As you go down, the same pattern occurs.

Students must be able to understand the order of the alphabet from A-G. Most young students are quite comfortable with the alphabet and are happy to sing you the entire thing all the way to Z. Where it becomes more difficult is saying the letters backwards: at least from G to A as in music we go back and forwards all the time.

Once they have an understanding of these letters and where these are on their instrument, they can then apply them to where they sit on the staff. Each note has its own place to sit and live, like each house on the street having its own postal code.

Strategies for Practice

When a student is reading music, they should be able to find what their starting note is and then be able to go from there by relationship (up or down to the next note and by how much). Some students like memorizing an acronym like “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” which is the ascending lines of the treble clef staff – but for some this makes the learning process even slower.

Having students write down notes on staff paper can show you how much they understand as well as doing flash cards outside of reading an actual piece.

There are some handy apps on the market which help drill notes: Note Rush shows a note on the screen and the student must play the correct one on their instrument in order to move on. In Piano Maestro the student must play along with a stream of notes on the screen in order to play a song. There are various settings to help reinforce note reading as well like slowing down, stopping when there is an incorrect one, etc.

A few other recommended apps that you can use away from your instrument (in the car, at a waiting room) are NoteWorks, Flashnote Derby, Music Notes and Staff Wars. Some of these are timed, or have other game like elements that keep it fun for kids.

Once they are able to identify the letter names and location of each individual note, the next step is to put these notes together into a structure like a chord or melodic phrase. When a child learns to read a language, they first learn letters, then words then whole sentences and bigger structures. Music works the same way, the quicker one can see how the individual notes fit into the whole, the faster reading and processing takes place. A really good sight reader can take a quick glance at a bar or line of music and be able to perform it right away. Our minds are really amazing that way!

Hopefully this gives an idea of what is involved in learning how to read music and can help start you on your journey or help you progress with your own lessons or your child’s. If you are looking for piano lessons in the Toronto area, please visit my teaching page.

Happy Reading! :)

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
bottom of page