It has often been said that music is a language. Maybe you’ve heard someone try to explain this concept to you or someone else. Though most of the time we are often exposed to tons of music daily in a more casual way to enjoy for pleasure, there are definitely more linguistic, mathematical, and emotional stimulation elements than one can image. Not only do we as listeners get a chance to hear and decipher what a particular piece of music means to us, but musicians literally are able to communicate with others simply by learning and understanding the way it is transcribed and written by hand. I’m talking about musical notation on sheet music. The idea of writing music down for the sake of recalling it and also for others to read has been discovered to exist as far back as the third century BC. If you’d like to learn more about the extensive history of written notation you can check out more here. In short, the evolution of this standardized way of reading and interpreting music is known and practiced worldwide and gives one the ability to communicate or “converse” with musicians from around the world even if they don’t actually speak the same language. To me that’s pretty amazing and not only has the opportunity to bring different people together but also express ideas succinctly amongst various audiences across the globe.
So….in my experience, the whole learning how to read and understand notation thing is absolutely, bar none, without a doubt, THE biggest gripe among students of all ages and levels, and I totally get it. 9 times out of 10 students just want to learn Pop/Rock songs, look cool, sound cool, and have that sense of accomplishment about themselves for playing one of their favorite songs. And guess what? There’s nothing wrong with that at all if that’s what you want to get out of playing music. But…if you want the freedom to really explore all of your options with style and really become masterful at your instrument it’s totally worth learning how to read music. If you are in your late teens or a grown adult it may seem like you are going back to elementary school when you first start. In a sense, that IS exactly what you’re doing, but don’t ever let that be discouraging to you. Like I said, music is a language and just like any other language in the world, and to start speaking you have to have a solid foundation of the basics to continue natural growth. I’ll be really honest about it, it can be a long journey but with a healthy internal inspiration to learn and play along with a great teacher guiding you, you’ll enjoy it….even the difficult parts.
Of course it’s great to check out as many sources of sheet music and beginning lessons as possible and there are way too many things to even start to cover in one blog post but I want to start you off with some primary basics to get you started. First, a very simple way that I like to conceptualize reading music is to put it into perspective like this: Music exists in the passage of a certain window of time. For instance, a pop song may be 3 minutes long, so in that length of time sheet music manipulates the sound in mainly two ways….in pitch and in rhythm. The sound of the pitch and the length of the notes are the basic meaty information that is being transferred to the audience and also to you as you read and play. To get started delving into this process I’ll give you some basic things to check out. Let’s take a look at some:
– This sign here is called a Bass Clef. This acts as an identifier of the type of music written on the page. Since hopefully a lot of you guys reading are bass players if you see this sign at the beginning of each line of sheet music, then you know you’re looking at/playing the right part. There are other types of Clefs but this one is the one you should look for while playing bass.
– Here we have added the Bass Clef onto five lines that are called the Staff. The Staff works as a road map for music and is what we use to judge the pitch and the length of a note against.
– Within the staff there are vertical lines called Bar Lines. Bar Lines are separation lines that create Measures throughout the piece of music. The Double Bar Line indicates the end of a piece of music.
- This is a Time Signature. The time signature tells us the number of beats in a measure and also the length of each beat IN the measure. Another explanation would look like this:
Put these elements together and you get something like this:
Jam It Out
The final element that I’ll leave you with in this post are four note values. Now we won’t go as far as reading pitches yet, let’s stay strictly with the rhythm or the LENGTH of the note that is being played.
– This is a Whole Note. The whole note tells us to hold the length of a note for 4 beats.
– This is a Half Note. The half note tells us to hold the length of a note for 2 beats.
– This is a Dotted Half Note. The dotted half note tells us to hold the length of a note for 3 beats.
– This is a Quarter Note. The quarter note tells us to hold the length of a note for 1 beat.
Let’s use our newfound knowledge for fun. Check out this free online metronome. A metronome is a device that keeps you in time by generating an audible click. Though this metronome is modeled after a drum set so it makes it a little more interesting. Using any note on your bass. See if you can practice playing Whole Notes, Half Notes, Dotted Half Notes, and Quarter Notes along with the metronome. The goal is to stay nice and steady with each note played. Once you get good at doing that, you can mix up the rhythms and create something a little more complex. Most of all be sure to try and have fun and challenge yourself as well. While this may seem like a monotonous exercise at first, the more you make it fun and challenging, the more skills you will build along the way.