Music Reading Tips

Last week I made my case for the benefits of learning to read music. This week we'll look at some practical tips that will help you along as you learn to read music.

This list is by no means an exhaustive primer on music reading for guitarists. It's simply practical, proven tips that will save you time and keep you moving in the right direction as you work on your music reading chops.

Here we go.

  • Start with Rhythms. Before anything else, learn to read rhythms. Start with your basic whole, half and quarter notes/rests. Then move on to eighth notes, triplets and sixteenth note rhythms. A methodical approach is helpful. There are tons of books on the market that cover all these rhythmic variations thoroughly.

  • Next, get comfortable with Rhythm Chart/Lead Sheet Notation. This puts your rhythmic reading to the test. It also trains you to read through a roadmap of an entire song, complete with repeats, 1st and 2nd endings, Codas, etc. Rhythm chart reading is an essential skill for the modern guitarist!

  • Finally, you're ready to start reading actual notes on the staff. Many people would disagree with my recommendation that you learn to read rhythms and chord charts before ever learning to read any notes. However, it's simply an issue of what's most commonly required of guitarists.

    Let's break down note reading a bit. The following tips are all related to note reading for guitar.

    1. Start in either open position or 5th position. Open position is where most people begin their reading journey. However, also consider starting in 5th position. The benefit of 5th position is this...it covers a huge range, and it sits right near the middle of the fretboard. If you only learn to read in one position, 5th position is probably your best bet.

    2. Memorize key signatures. Here's a shortcut. For sharp keys, go up a half step from the last sharp to find your key center. Ex. 3 sharps (F# C# G#), go up a half step from last sharp (G#) and you arrive at your root note of A. For flat keys, the second to last flat is your root note. Ex. 4 flats (Bb Eb Ab Db), 2nd to last flat is Ab, your root note.

    3. Learn to recognize intervals both on the page and on your guitar. This greatly speeds up your reading. By learning your intervals, you can simply read the overall contour of lines rather than reading each individual note.

    4. Before you read a section of music, scan it to find the range it covers. By mapping out the lowest and highest notes the section covers, you can then find the best position to play in.

    5. Remember your scale patterns. All those scale patterns you thought you'd never use...yep, they'll come to your rescue when you're reading. Whenever you know your key and the range the section covers, you can map out the scale pattern over that position on the neck. This eliminates the guesswork and gives you an absolute frame of reference.

    6. Don't ignore dynamic markings. Self-explanatory, I hope.

    7. Read everything. The best way to improve is by reading, and reading a lot. Grab whatever music you can find, and get to reading!

    Hopefully this clears up some of the mystery behind music reading for guitar. It's not easy to become a great reader, but it's also not impossible.

    For the readers out there, what other advice can you offer to the guitarists out there who are learning to read music?


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