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Posts Tagged Reading Music
As a bassist, bandleader, teacher and music copyist I’ve worked with hundreds of singers throughout the years. Though working musicians know hundreds of tunes, singers need to have good charts in order to have their music played the way they want. I define a “good chart” as a piece of written music that effectively tells the musicians what they should play.
Written music comes in seven basic forms: chord charts, sheet music, songbooks, leadsheets, fake books, master rhythm charts and fully notated parts.
As a musician has a responsibility to correctly play the chart before him, the supplier of the chart has the responsibility of providing the right kind of chart. Knowing what type of chart to use for what kind of tune or gig is very important.
This article explains what the different types of charts are, and under what circumstances to use them. I hope you find it useful.
This post is an answer to a question a friend asked me the other day.
“A music copyist prepares written music for performance. A copyist gets the music written down on paper in a fashion that the musicians can easily read.”
Here are some of the jobs a copyist has:
Preparing music for singers: Singers need correct charts of their songs to hand out to musicians. A music copyist works with the singer to make sure their music is written out the way they need. There are many ways to write charts, and a copyist can determine what the singer needs. i.e., piano? full band? style? With good charts, the singer hands the musicians the music, and it’s played the way they want with no guess work! (One of my main gigs as a copyist is helping singers get their books together.)
Working from a score: A composer creates a score (music with all the instruments on it) and the copyist “extracts” each part of the score and prepares it for each instrument. E.g., he’ll take each individual part and make it look great for each player, such as the violin, viola, flute, etc.
Proofreading: A copyist has both the score and the individual parts, compares them and makes sure that everything is correct.
Transcribing: Someone has a recording and wants the music written down. The copyist listens to the music and writes it down in whatever form the client needs. (See my post on “The Seven Different Types of Written Music” and you’ll get the full picture.)
Copyrighting: The copyist listens to the song and writes down the melody, lyrics, chords and form. This “chart” is registered with the Library of Congress for copyright protection.
There are Music Preparation Houses in major cities. In Los Angeles there are mainly two or three large facilities that handle all the chart writing for the movie and TV networks. Freelance copyists are abundant and it’s largely a word-of-mouth business. I mainly get my copywork from people that I know, though occasionally I’ll advertise somewhere, like “Craigslist.com“, and get some new clients. I have some occasional overflow work from the main offices, but my clients mainly consist of original artists wanting their music transcribed and charted well, and singers wanting their songs put in their key and arranged the way they want.
The main ways to start working as a copyist are:
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This is a brief summation of the ten, main chart-writing and chart-reading principles from my upcoming notation book.
The book explains the symbols and abbreviations used to navigate your way through written music (charts). Whether reading simple chord charts, sheet music or elaborate notation (all the notes), these symbols function the same way with few differences in appearance or application. Musical symbols and abbreviations have evolved over many years and musicians are accustom to seeing things written in specific ways. (You can see what all the specific types of charts are at my post, “The Seven Different Types of Written Music.”)
- When in doubt write it out.
- Strive for clarity and simplicity. Use symbols and directions minimally, but realize that much of the time, having many symbols is unavoidable.
- Make the chart easy to read and make repeats and sectional instructions HIGHLY VISIBLE.
- Strive for uniformity. Keep similar things written out the same way throughout the chart as much as possible.
- When using more than one page, write the name and page number on each one.
- Sloppy and unclear charts can make the music sound bad because the musicians are “reading” instead of “playing.”
- Look the chart over before you play it. Get a feel for it and notice the navigation.
- If something isn’t clear — clarify it.
- Learn the layout of the chart before playing it. At least give it a once-over to see where everything lies.
- Realize that reading basic charts is one of the easier aspects of music and the better you play, the better you can read.
These guidelines are VERY useful and work like a charm. Use them when you next read or write some music and you’ll see what I mean. (And of course I can teach you all the information in a relatively short period of time. Reading and writing charts is easier then many people think. It’s just a language to learn. Once you learn the basic vocabulary it doesn’t take long to apply it!)
This post lays out some various gradients to reading music. A gradient, in learning, is a step-by-step approach starting with the easiest thing and progressing to more difficult levels.
Many musicians read music fluidly while others are either stumped by it all, are mildly confused or just don’t really know what’s it’s all about . I’ve been teaching people to read music for years and it’s actually not that difficult a subject. To read well takes a lot of practice, of course, but if approached correctly is a very understandable subject.
There is a hierarchy of things to learn. When you start with the easiest aspect of reading and proceed from there one can learn smoothly. A common difficulty students have is simply not drilling each level of skill long enough to get comfortable before advancing to the next level: too much too soon. When you learn things one step at a time and become proficient with each element before going on to the next element, learning to read well is quite doable.
One of the common difficulties people have isn’t the notes on the page but the notes on their instrument! In order to read well you need to first understand your instrument and, ideally, have a basic foundation about how music is put together. The most basic “theory” is simply knowing what the notes on the instrument are called. How could you read notes on the page and transfer that visual to playing those notes on the instrument without knowing what they are? Well, I’ve had many students who “had trouble reading” when they actually read just fine: they simply didn’t know their instrument well enough. So when they learned their instrument better, like magic they could read. It’s very interesting.
Another common difficulty is lacking basic musical skills such as being able to feel the rhythms they are looking at and playing. Ultimately one should look at a piece of music and hear and feel what one sees. There are many levels of this and the most fundamental skills needed to enjoy reading music can be readily learned with some good instruction.
This is a suggested order of things to learn to get your reading skills up to par:
1. Knowing the definitions of the words and symbols used.
2. Learning to navigate a piece of music. This consists of learning the symbols that tell you where to go. The most basic piece of music to learn to read is a “chord chart.” A “chart” is a slang term for any piece of music. A chord chart is simply a piece of music with only chord symbols and the form written on it. The “form” is the order of the sections, such as verse, chorus and bridge. There are no notes or rhythms written on the paper. To read a chord chart you need to understand what chords are. For example, a “C Chord” is made up of the single notes C, E and G. The chart will just have a C written on it and you need to know the rest. Learning chords is easier to learn then many think, and there are only three or four symbols to learn that tell you where to go on a chart. These symbols just tell you to repeat a section however many times or to jump from one part of the chart to another: like a driving direction telling you what street to go to and which way to turn. You can also take a piece of sheet music for a song and just read the chords without dealing with all of the notes and get use to that.
3. Understanding pitch notation. A “pitch,” for this example, is just a note. There are five lines and four spaces that big dots (note heads) go on that tell you what note to play. If you know the notes on your instrument it is easy to learn what note on the page means what note on the instrument, and the more you know about music the easier it is. When you can speak a word and know how it’s spelled you can easily recognize it on the written page: so it goes with music. When you can play a certain thing you can recognize it when you see it.
4. Understanding rhythm notation. Various lines, dots and shapes tell you when to play notes and for how long to hold them out.
5. Putting it all together on complete pieces of written music. Written music goes from easy to difficult, and learning to read just takes a step-by-step approach to putting it all together.
There are only 6 shapes that make up most of reading music: 6 shapes. That’s not too big a mountain to climb. Combine that with some fundamental instrument skills and musical abilities and you can learn to read music.
You don’t need to read music to play well; playing is playing and reading is reading.
But if you want to improve your reading or get started, start with the above steps, get a few lessons with someone who knows what they are doing and start the adventure!