Sunday, October 20, 2013

How to cope with sheet music if you don’t read and usually learn songs by ear

As promised in last week’s post (Singers who learn by ear vs. those who use sheet music – what happens when they swap?), this is the first of two posts helping you cope with an unfamiliar way of learning songs.

Many people love to sing, but don’t read music. That shouldn’t exclude them from joining choirs or attending singing workshops.

sheet music
photo by Judy Baxter

In this post I’ll show you how to cope if you don’t read music and usually learn songs by ear, but are asked to learn a song by using sheet music.

my story

I can understand music notation because I had guitar lessons when I was a kid, but there’s no way I can sight read to sing!

In the late 1980s I was fortunate enough to spend a week learning Georgian songs with two ethnomusicologists from Georgia. Most of the singers in the workshop didn’t read music, so we were rather alarmed when sheet music was thrust into our hands on the first day.

We didn’t need to worry as the songs were pretty much taught by ear and we just used the sheet music for the lyrics. However, by the end of the week, even those who knew nothing about musical notation were beginning to get the hang of how it worked.

Earlier this year I spent two weeks in Macedonia learning traditional songs from the region. Sheet music was given out, but again the songs were pretty much taught by ear. In fact, in most cases we had local expert singers who demonstrated how the songs should be sung.

There came a point when I realised that it would be easier to learn the songs if I put the music down! We were really only using the sheets for the lyrics and the notation was only an approximation to the ornamented singing style we hoped to copy. I found myself relying on my eyes and getting caught up in the “why aren’t we singing that as a dotted crochet?” discussions. It was MUCH easier to copy the lyrics out on a separate sheet and LISTEN to the person demonstrating the song.

handy hints for non-readers

Here are some handy hints that I’ve learnt along the way to help those of you who don’t read music and usually learn by ear.

  • don’t panic – even singers in choirs who regularly use sheet music are not all brilliant sight readers. The majority of people will need to hear their part sung or played on the piano. It’s rare that you will be expected to learn a song by just reading the notation.
  • just use the lyrics – if a song is relatively simple, learn it by ear as usual and just use the sheet music for the lyrics. Ignore the notation.
  • know your part – it’s important to figure out which line of music you’re supposed to be working from! Traditionally, in a four-part arrangement, the voices go from highest to lowest as you work down the page. The top row will be sopranos, then altos, then tenors and finally basses at the bottom. When the music moves onto the next set of rows or onto a new page, make sure you don’t slip onto the wrong part! Fingers can help (see below).
  • musical ups and downs – music notation is written on a set of five parallel lines. Whatever kind of blob shape is used (black oval, empty oval, some with sticks on, etc.) to show the note, if it’s on a higher line it’s a higher note than those on a lower line. You can begin to see the shape of a melody from the up and down pattern that a series of notes makes. This is often enough of a hint to help you remember your part (along with the piano or someone singing).
  • finger tracing – a good idea is to follow the notation for your part with your finger. You’ll soon get the hang of it as it goes forward from one note to the next. This means that you can look at your musical director most of the time and just glance back at the music when necessary. It also helps to not get lost as your part moves further down the page.
  • phone a friend – if you’re in a choir that works on a song over a number of sessions and you begin to feel really lost, then find someone who reads music and plays an instrument. They can then pick out your part for you to hear. Maybe even record it.
  • repeat after me ... – one of the hardest things for a non-reader to understand is structure. When do parts of the song repeat, where does the chorus start, how do we move on to the ending? One of the easiest indications is the repeat mark. This effectively brackets a section of music together and tells you that when you get to the end of it, you need to go back to the beginning again. Two vertical lines next to two dots indicate the opening of a section, and two dots next to two vertical lines indicates the end. More complicated structures use words like coda and funny squiggly brackets. Pay attention to your MD and maybe write on your score in a way that makes sense to you.
  • take a class – if you find yourself presented with sheet music a lot, then maybe it’s time you learned to read! Find a class in sight reading for voice. Maybe your choir (or another local choir) offers sessions to its members.
  • pesky Italian! – you will often see foreign words like andante, allegro, crescendo, etc. written above lines of music. These are words in Italian that indicate things like speed, expressiveness, etc. Don’t worry about them too much as your musical director will be sure to tell you what s/he wants when you’re rehearsing.
  • funny symbols – you will also sometimes see funny symbols or abbreviations like mf or p. The abbreviations are Italian again (mezzo forte and piano) indicating things like volume. The symbols (dots, squiggles, sideways brackets with dots in, etc.) are to do with how individual notes are to be articulated (held a bit longer, short and quick) or give an indication of the structure of the song. These are rather like stage directions in plays. When I was an actor I was told to ignore them all as the director would be telling us how s/he wanted things to be interpreted. Similarly, these marks and symbols are a guide from the composer or arranger on how they want things done. It’s all open to interpretation though and your MD will tell you how they want to do it. Just ignore the symbols.
  • notation for dummies – if you become intrigued by the Italian and weird symbols, you might want to learn more about music notation. Easiest thing is to get a beginner’s book which will tell you what all that stuff means.
  • don’t even look! – a fall-back position is to simply ignore the sheet music and put it down. Listen carefully, maybe copy out the lyrics, and I’m pretty sure you’ll still keep up. The danger of sheet music is once you have it in your hands, it’s very hard to put down.

I’d love to hear if you have any other handy hints for non-readers using sheet music. Do drop by and leave a comment.

Next week: How to cope with learning by ear if you usually read music notation.

further reading

You might also want to check out these earlier posts:

Tackling complex song structure without written music

Music notation – do singers need it?

Why basses can’t remember their part

How to learn effectively from a recording of a song in parts

Chris Rowbury’s website:

Chris Rowbury


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