Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Reading Music Notation for Guitar (part 1)

Standard notation is the shared language of music for all instruments. Where it can sometimes appear complicated, the process of learning notation is not as difficult as some people assume. The principles of time signatures, key signatures, pulse, tempo, rhythm, and pitch are not at all difficult to understand if they are properly and clearly explained. Musical notation is a language, and like all languages it will take time to learn, understand, read, and write fluently. This is a commonly overlooked aspect of notation which people don’t always understand. In "the west", quick results and understanding are a measure of success. Notation cannot be learned in an afternoon. Time will need to be committed to its study in order that you may benefit from a strong understanding of it.

There are two factors, which make the process of learning to read music for the guitar a little more difficult than some other instruments, but again this should not present too many problems if this is properly and clearly explained:

  1. The guitar has an unusual range. This range doesn’t sit comfortably in any standard musical clef. The lowest note on the guitar would usually be written in the bass clef on a ledger line below the stave! The highest note (which is different for different instruments) can reach up to five octaves higher (usually about 4 ½ octaves higher). Taking this into consideration, music for the guitar is read exclusively in the treble clef and transposed 1 octave higher. This means that the notes that are played from notation, would actually sound one octave lower than they are written.
  1. Most of the notes on the fingerboard of a guitar can be found in 4, or even 5 different places because of the nature of stringed instruments. This makes learning to read notation, taking a holistic view of the instrument, as a point of departure particularly awkward because of the options available to you. Eventually this can become an advantage, and offer many interesting ideas concerning "phrasing" when interpreting notated music, or arranging music for a guitar which has been written for another instrument.

Learning to Read Notation

There are different schools of thought as to how music notation is best learned for the guitar. They have evolved through different pedagogical ideas, but have a tendency to be style-specific. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The culture of "classical" guitar (within which a strong reading ability is considered favourable) offers a range of successful methods of developing this skill (for this style) although I don’t consider practice at reading certain rhythms or phrasing (which are alien to the classical guitar style) to always be adequately covered using these programmes. Some styles of playing require the student of "guitar reading" to offer particular attention to a broader range of ideas than to just follow any one reading method or course. Here are four examples of different approaches to the study of the same subject:

  1. Single string method. This is a good, effective method of learning to read notes. It is based on the idea that you learn how to read the notes in the same way that the guitar has evolved over the years. Once there was an early incarnation of the guitar with only one string, so why not learn to play and read notation in the same way that the guitar has developed over the centuries? Disadvantages include the time it takes to reach the point where you can play chords. Chords make up a lot of guitar playing across a range of styles.
  1. Classical positional method. A tried and tested method within which all the notes on one position are learned before moving into the next. This works very well in covering the subject of note duplication but only really offers advantages to players who wish to remain "thoroughbred" classical guitarists. Using standard classical repertoire, more contemporary rhythms and phrases are not always offered sufficient practice without diversifying reading study. There is another school of thought which is very similar although the starting point here is the 5th position. This method is based on the principle that the fifth position contains notes covering the broadest readable range within the actual range of the instrument. There are only 5 notated notes below this position and (practically) only about another 10 above it. It is also the position closest to where many guitarists remain when sight reading (see "sight reading").
  1. Learning between 6 and 8 notes as they appear within different positions method. This is an attempt at a "happy medium" between the single string and classical positional method. Simple repertoire is played in different positions using only a small number of notes at a time before learning more. This method works well but again suffers from the time it takes to learn chords.
  1. Scale Position learning. Frequently, the wider applications of learning scales are lost when guitar players practice. Fingerboard familiarity when it comes to scale knowledge is very useful when it comes to reading, as it simplifies key signatures (using many sharps and flats). This is because the notation may be played "off the scale form" rather than for each note to be considered on its own merits (which many players do when first learning to read in different keys). I would however, suggest that too much reliance on shapes and patterns is not good, especially when reading because "accidentals" need to be accommodated as quickly as the piece is moving!

By far the best way to learn would be to combine the best, most effective and useful aspects of all of the methods you can find. There are no rules governing learning to read and no method requires that you stick to it for any given length of time for it to be successful. Any disadvantages of any given method can be quickly remedied by changing what you are doing. A well-balanced approach will offer the best results. You can always start with chords, since chords are the basis of a large amount of the playing within many different styles. Learning chords first using the simple letter notation for chord types would make sense before moving on to notation. Depending on the style, chords are usually the only aspect of notation which appear differently, either in standard notation or as letters and numbers. To some extent, learning to use chords will offer you an insight into some aspects of notation like pulse and rhythm before you learn the notes. Whatever you try, if it doesn’t seem to be working, change it. There are lots of options.

Guitar Tablature

Tablature is a musical notation language that is almost exclusively for the guitar (although it can be used to notate music for other fretted string instruments). Advantages that tablature offers include the clear presentation of where something is to be played on the fingerboard of the guitar. There are many options available as to where something may be played through note duplication and tablature can help to clarify some difficult or unusual chord shapes. Tablature can also assist with clarity where musical passages which are idiomatic for the guitar are notated, especially where the use of open strings or the use of multiple positions for playing the same note are concerned. While it is important to be aware of tablature and understand how to read it there are many reasons why it is significantly inferior to standard notation. Historically, there has been no instrument-specific language of music which has ever survived. In fairness, there are always exceptions to rules and tablature for guitar has enjoyed more success than any other instrument specific language recently. This is largely due to its adoption by contemporary guitar magazine culture as the musical language that is used extensively, although using tablature, there is often inadequate presentation of note values and rhythms. No other musicians (other than guitarists) can write it because no one else has any reason to learn it. Absolutely anyone can read it, but often they won’t be able to play anything that they don’t already know because of the frequent lack of accurate rhythmic information which is an essential part of notated music! Where in the initial stages of learning pieces of music or learning where notes can be found on the fingerboard of a guitar, tablature can be a useful learning tool; in the longer term I would suggest that the use of standard notation is significantly superior.


Dependent on how good you want to become at it, "Sight-Reading" is worth defining first. If you want to be able to play "any" music fluently from notation, then you need familiarity with the notes and note values as they appear in standard notation (together with key signatures and dynamic markings), and a thorough knowledge of the fingerboard on a guitar. Guitarists are actually notorious for being bad sight readers (even classical guitarists who have read notation from the outset of their playing). This is because the real core of "sight reading skills" as people understand them to be are developed in ensemble situations. The classical guitar isn’t in ensembles in the same way that orchestral instruments are, and bands which have guitars in them don’t often read notation, even in rehearsal situations.

There are numerous books which deal exclusively with sight reading but if you want to become a seriously proficient sight reader, (after learning the basics of notation, and familiarising yourself with the notes on the fingerboard of the guitar) in my experience the best method is to actually simulate this ensemble situation. You will need a metronome, quite a bit of patience and discipline, and some music. Take a piece (or a book), set the metronome going at a realistic speed (which, aside from keeping an accurate pulse, is actually serving to simulate the rest of an ensemble), start at the beginning and do not stop until you get to the end of the piece. Remember that you are simulating an ensemble situation. If you make a mistake in an orchestral rehearsal, you keep going no matter what, the conductor will not wait for you, and neither will the other orchestra members. If you engage in regular, disciplined and considered practice in this way (with a clearly defined objective) for just 10 to 15 minutes a day, in a short time your reading skills will have developed considerably.

Nik Harrison

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