A Theoretical Question: To Read or Not to Read

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And by read, I mean read music.

When I started relearning to play fiddle less than ten years ago, one of the joys I discovered is that bluegrass and old-time musicians didn’t rely on charts, didn’t read, and songs were taught and learned primarily by ear. No more slogging through complicated scores, fixing charts, or transposing incorrectly, as I recall from playing violin as a younger me. (And the younger me quit, sometimes daunted by the chore of reading music, but mostly because I was too lazy to practice.)
These days, I’m finding I want to stretch my musical understanding beyond knowing where to put my fingers on my fingerboard, or how to sing a harmony part I’ve learned just from listening. I’m testing out other genres, especially jazz vocals and choral music, and being able to read would be helpful, even essential. I’m even trying my hand—or rather, my ears—at solfège, but that’s a story for later in this column.
 How does one relearn to read?
I’ll admit to having been a math geek in my younger years, and the mathematics of music always fascinated me. It is a magical code, written in beautiful, mysterious script which results in tunes, songs, symphonies, etc. that can be played by anyone in any culture. It is the ultimate international language.
My younger years are way behind me in the rearview mirror however, and though I’m still fascinated both by math and music theory, relearning to read music is harder for an older brain. I’ve tried various methods.
Let’s start with the apps.

There is a load of apps to teach music theory and reading skills. These are just a few that I have tested out.
Tenuto
Tenuto has different categories for reading and identification, from single note to interval, to chord and scale ID. It also has fretboard identification lessons and ear training. It’s pretty straightforward, and has a quiz-style approach, presenting you with notes or chords, etc., and your choosing the correct answer. It keeps track of your percentage correct to see how you improve (or not).
My favorite part of this app is the ear training, and especially listening for intervals. Of course, this has nothing to do with actually reading music, but is useful in any genre. This app is probably my favorite of the bunch.
Music Tutor
More limited than Tenuto, Music Tutor has the same basic approach, but a simpler interface (it looks nice and works well on a phone screen). It quizzes you on note identification for both the treble and bass scales, and keeps track of your progress.
Earmaster
Earmaster has an interesting twist on the previous two by having a “sing back” option – you see and hear a note and then try to match it by using the mic on your device and singing back. Only the first couple of lessons are free, though, with other lessons being available by monthly subscription.
Theory Lessons
This is pretty much a textbook on your phone or tablet. It shows slides/illustrations and explains them, and has audio to match the images so you can hear what a note or chord sounds like. It’s kind of dry, but if you’re just looking for information, it’s free and clearly explained in bullet-point style.
UCLA Music Theory
As a UCLA degree-holder, I was attracted to the name of this one. It has sight reading, interval, and chord training, as most of the other apps do. It has one additional mode, however—dictation. It plays a piano passage, and you type in the notes you hear. Arggghhh. This one is for a more advanced me.
There are lots more, of course—if you’re interested, it’s worth doing some research at the Apple App Store, or wherever fine apps are sold.
The main issue I have with these apps is that—at least for me—they don’t easily translate to an instrument. While I can learn to identify a G# relatively quickly while playing a game on an app, this doesn’t necessarily mean I can find a G# quickly on my fingerboard.
Which made me turn to classes.
Classes can offer a more personalized and more challenging approach to learning to read. There are a lot of online options for learning music theory—both free (for a list of MOOCs—massive open online courses—for instance, see the MOOC List) and paid ones. Coursera.org offers a popular “Fundamentals of Music Theory” course through the University of Edinburgh, while Berklee College of Music offers several different beginning-level music courses.
Fortunately, here in the Bay Area, there are a few options for learning more about music theory in face-to-face classes. There are individual instructors who teach theory as it relates to bluegrass and old time specifically. Here in Berkeley, I was lucky to attend a couple of sessions in Avram Siegel’s music theory class, which pulled together a number of different concepts. Chad Manning and the Manning Studio also in Berkeley also offer theory class for string instrument musicians.
In addition, the Freight and Salvage, through its educational program, offers a music theory class for songwriters. Local community colleges and other organizations offer classes as well, without having to live in Berkeley.
If you have the time, money, and energy for classes, it is probably a better way to go for all the obvious reasons, either online or in person.

And finally there are books.
In spite of all these resources, I’ve not been proud of my own progress in becoming a better reader. I asked a knowledgeable music instructor for recommendations, and she pointed me at a sight-singing book—which takes us back to the idea of solfège, or singing using the “do-re-mi” scale (solfège is also called sol-fa”, like those notes in the scale). The book she recommended was Music for Sight-Singing by Robert Ottman and Nancy Rogers. It’s an expensive little number, and intimidating as all get out when you first open it up. But, sight singing, and sight playing, may in the end be the best way to learn to read music and have it stick in a meaningful way.
Learning to read music is like learning a foreign language, and just about as challenging. I’m hoping that the apps and books and classes help. But this takes me back to my teenage self, too lazy to practice… And just like learning a foreign language, if you don’t use it, you definitely lose it.

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