Should I learn to read sheet music?

Should I learn to read sheet music?

I’m looking for some input here..
I’ve been teaching myself music mostly by ear, that means I need to learn a piece inside out before I can properly play it. Now some months ago I went to the music school where and Irish music group was and all they used is sheet music, so that didn’t work for me. Couldn’t find the exact version they used online. In hindsight I probably shouldve brought a recorder so I can listen back later on. But everytime a new tune was introduced I couldn’t play along.

Fast forward to last weekend, I was at an Traditional Irish Music Workshop weekend and I even put in my form that I don’t read sheet music. When the workshop starts it quickly becomes apparent that we will be learning from sheet music, great. Now last weekend I managed, I simply went to listen to the tune many times transcribed it in a language I do understand and learned the tune without too much trouble (Tune for a found harmonium, it was a bit of a challenge actually). But then… I did have about 40 hours to get there and at a usual "lesson" you don’t have that time.

So, it feels like I’m limiting myself by not reading and perhaps learning from sheet music. I would’ve expected that not to be the case for Irish trad.. but it most teachers here just give out sheet music and expect their students to learn from that. So, any input there?
Note the problem isn’t so much that I can’t read the notes, I just can’t make music from sheet music as of now.

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Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

"So, it feels like I’m limiting myself by not reading and perhaps learning from sheet music."

Truer words have never been spoken. You can never do better by doing less. No one should be dependent on reading music, but to deny yourself the ability makes absolutely no sense. Get everything going for you that you can. Why wouldn’t you?

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Reading music is a good skill to have. It is not essential, but it is certainly helpful. Beware making it a crutch. There is no substitute for careful listening.

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This thread should be good.

"I would’ve expected that not to be the case for Irish trad.." I’m as surprised as you. That said, I think that if you feel it would be to your advantage, by all means work on the skill. IMHO it can’t hurt, any more than learning to read words would hinder your understanding of poetry.

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"Now last weekend I managed, I simply went to listen to the tune many times transcribed it in a language I do understand and learned the tune without too much trouble"

What language would that be?
If you prefer learning by ear why would need to transcribe at all?

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

you’re making the assumption that the LSO musicians are wanting to sound ‘Irish.’ I’ve played plenty of orchestral arrangements of trad tunes, and I would approach the tunes differently - mainly due to the fact that the composer/arranger is very specific on how it’s arranged. If it’s a good tune, it can stand being played in different ways - even if some of the ways are not to your personal choice.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

that’s the difference between the classical approach and the traditional - in ITM the player decides how it’s to be played, as it’s being played. He or she is the sole artist involved, and doesn’t work to prior third party direction.

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So you reckon the guy ‘playing knuckles’ was reading that from the score ? And that a ‘traditional band’ has not given some thought to the arrangement before a gig ?

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Learning to read music really can’t hurt you. You can still use your ears as a guide on how it should sound.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

I recommend learning to read music. It’s not difficult and it’s particularly useful when learning to play a new instrument. Once you are able to read music, your will be able to play and hear a tune often enough so that you will soon be playing it by ear. You will also then be able to play a multitude of pieces you’ve never heard or hear only rarely, for example, when you hear a piece you like being played in a pub when you don’t have a recording of it. Never be afraid that learning to read sheet music will somehow then lock you into one particular way of playing a piece. No one should feel enslaved to written notation since you can change anything about it to express your own musical style or to match your particular mood at the time. Knowing musical notation also enables you make your own visual record of any experimental embellishments or alterations you may wish to try. I find the ability to read music most useful when converting a tune from a major key into a minor key, from Dmaj to Dmin, for example. Purists may be appalled that I do this but but I’ve found that many tunes sound better to me when played in a minor keys rather than their traditional major keys.

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Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

To the op: I’ve never (yet) heard a good argument for why one shouldn’t learn to read music, only arguments for why one should be able to learn by ear. You’ve already demonstrated that you can learn by ear. Learning to read notes as well won’t break that, but it will open some doors that were previously closed.

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Fiddler3 said it all.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Earl - It’s a language similar to ABC that I made up myself, I use it to remind myself how a tune starts. Transcribing a tune helps me remember a tune in two ways 1. Figuring out the notes, listening to it many times. 2. I usually take about a week before I fully embraced a tune in my head and I often forget a tune untill then. It’s a method that works for me and allows me to learn multiple tunes at the same time without mixing them up.

Overall opinion seems to be to just learn how to make music from sheet music, I can already read it.. just not fluently. But even then there’s still a big difference between reading fluently and making music. The latter would, IMO require that I can hear a note in my head when I read it which is pretty far from what is happening right now.

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Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Yes,

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"there’s still a big difference between reading fluently and making music." This is what the ‘dots vs. ear’ debate always comes down to, as far as I can see. Regardless of the genre, notes on a page are just that, just a symbol or visual representation of something inherently nonvisual - not unlike written language, which is why I like that metaphor. Knowing how to turn sheet music for a tune you’ve never heard into something that sounds like ITM is an acquired skill that takes years of listening and playing. It bears repeating that this would be equally true for Brahms or Ellington.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

I too, cannot think of one good reason not to learn (or get fluent reading) sheet music. I’m not sure I can name one famous trad musician who can’t read (notation). We all can cite examples of readers-only who play trad, and have an under-developed ear / memory, but that’s a different topic.

Manxygirl, you make a good point about the LSO doing the tune in a classical style. That clips crops up here a lot (I think it was Toss the Feathers, I don’t have sound right now). If people don’t like it, fine.

I don’t remember any complaints about de Dannan doing a trad version of Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, or Frankie Gavin playing jazz in his trad style (or even the Charles River Valley Boys doing a full bluegrass album of Beatles songs (and yes, that be songs, as in singing words, while playing their instruments) 🙂

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

I think a large portion of the note-reading stigma and the opinion seemingly held that playing by ear is "better" is part of a larger schism between classical and non-classical approaches to music. I think more often than not, when someone is expressing preference for ear over music, it’s about where you’re GROUNDED rather than what you actually KNOW. Classical players who are grounded in note-reading may struggle to acclimatize to the looser conventions of ITM, but this also comes from classical approaches to technique, theory, rhythm and a host of other factors that I see often simplified into whether you play with sheet music or not.

Lots of great ITM players start out with classical or other musical backgrounds but they’ve taken the time to really learn the style and adapt to the nuance and underlying spirit of traditional music. The trouble comes when many players just play the notes as they would a different piece of music and miss what’s really going on within it. It can sound good, but it won’t sound quite right, and it throws off just about anyone who’s more acquainted with ITM.

All that to say, OP, you are golden! If you started out learning by ear, learning to read music as a boon to your playing is a fantastic idea. Nearly all of the anti-sheet music bias really doesn’t apply to you! It’s a great idea and it will help you immensely in the long run. I got better at learning off a sheet so I could learn tunes while I watch TV in the evenings. I’ll go back later and make adjustments based on what I hear in recordings, but I can memorize the meat of a tune in half the time while I’m doing something else! Hope you can find the same joy living in the balance. Good luck!

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"… isn’t so much that I can’t read the notes, I just can’t make music from sheet…" Just about sums up the whole situation. It is playing the notes as they are written that is ‘bad’.
You say you have invented a way to remind yourself of how a tune goes, and that is all musical notation is really: just a shorthand, a mnemonic, a reminder or an indication of how a tune goes. If you can already read the dots, just think of them as another version of your own invention, with the difference that someone else has already invented it, and it’s pretty comprehensive. And the tunes are already written out for you, usually.
It is impossible to learn to play Irish music from the dots alone; but once you know how things should sound, it is quite possible to learn a tune from the dots. Many a tune has been resurrected from old manuscripts. As most people have said, it certainly won’t do any harm, and you will probably find it a great help even if you can’t sight-read a tune from scratch and play it off the score. I doubt if many of us can do that.

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I keep asking myself the same question. I take the OP’s last sentence to mean that it is about sight reading, rather than understanding what the marks on the sheet mean. The trouble is that time spent practicing that would be time spent not practicing something else, which I think puts an important qualification on the ‘all relevant knowledge is of worth’ type of argument.

In are recent radio interview a ‘famous trad musician’ said that to him and another ‘famous trad musician’ a quaver was one of these http://www.quavers.co.uk/products/

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Learning how to read cannot hurt you, especially if you already know how to play by ear. Think of it as a second resource you can use to learn music more thoroughly and quickly.

I know both skills but nowadays I only use sheet music if I can’t find a nice enough recording of a tune I want to learn which happens less often nowadays. I also use it to learn music in other genres for piano when I can’t figure out(or want to check my accuracy of) series of harmonies by ear.

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"I don’t remember any complaints aboutde…Frankie Gavin playing jazz in his trad style"

No? Allow me to be the first then! 😛

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I struggle to play by ear…but I’m improving. I can sightread pretty well, though. The best musicians I know do both, very well. It’s definitely worth learning both. And I suspect learning to read music is easier than learning to play by ear (especially after a couple of decades of only reading music, as in my case).

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Go ahead and learn to read sheet music if you think it will make worthwhile tunes more accessible.

FWIW I’ve been to many workshops from some well-known names, and I’ve never been given sheet music. It was always taught by ear. Well, Yvonne Kane gave once out a rudimentary ABC score, but the tune as she taught it was quite different than what was written.

But Music for a Found Harmonium? As traditional Irish music? Can you sue a workshop for malpractice?

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Learning ANYTHING is always good. I occasionally put a bit of practice into reading music but rarely with an instrument at hand, and I would never play from it. An advantage to me is that I can look at sheet music and work the basic tune out in my head (i.e., without an instrument). For some reason I am fairly illiterate with ABC. This may seem strange but then I hardly ever think where the notes are on my fiddle. Sure, I know if I think about it, but I just don’t.

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Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Boyen, you can play by ear, which is more than I can say for many musicians who started with sheet music. Like the others are saying, learning to read notes won’t impair your ability to play by ear, but it surely helps learning tunes from sheet music.

Having said that, I much prefer being taught by ear, and I’d consider it a bad sign if a teacher distributes sheet music right at the start of the workshop. Not only because I’m a slow reader, but also because eventually you should let go of the dots.

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You dont have to be a sight reader. but it’s very handy to know what the dots mean. I read this somewhere many years ago. I found it useful.
"For every really good busker(who is usually born with a real musical gift and a wonderful ear) there are thousands who churn out the same old monotonous corn with very little idea of phrasing, fingering, or musicianship. In almost every case they can be improved by 100% by the simple process of learning to read music"

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Yes, you should learn to read music.

Knowledge is always better than ignorance. Always.

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"The trouble is that time spent practicing that [sight reading] would be time spent not practicing something else, which I think puts an important qualification on the ‘all relevant knowledge is of worth’ type of argument."

—David50

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I don’t know that I would call it ‘practising’ sight-reading, any more than you would practise book-reading. It just gets easier the more you do it, until you reach a stage where you aren’t really conscious of doing it.

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Plus, you can do it while practising your instrument.

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Reading practice can be an isolation exercise too. At your own comfortable speed, just read the notes and play them. At this time all you need to worry about is that you are playing the right notes.

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"you can do it while practising your instrument" (sebastian) Do you mean whilst working on tunes ?

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Agree w gam completely. Reading ability either is an almost essential tool for the non savant. Either standard notation or ABCs - not to mention other systems born of the fold tradition that have fallen out of favor over the centuries. At any stage or ability, being able to read or merely able to struggle through the notation provides a powerful tool to unlock the music.

The important thing, in ITM, I think is to stop using the "cheat sheet" as quickly as possible. Personally I learn the tune from standard notation - playing slowly with full attention to the note sequence - doing so slowly enough that it can be played error free to avoid imprinting mistakes. As soon I know the tune I can say good bye to the sheet music forever - Playing then along with a recording but now with full attention to the swing and other aspects of the tune. I place very high priority on swiftly and permanently putting away the sheet music. This process has gotten faster and faster and now can add a new tune to session speed in a week.

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Can you then adapt to the slightly different version you may be hearing the very first time you try to play it a session ? If so where does that skill come from ?

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@David50: "Do you mean whilst working on tunes ?"
I mean while working on anything. Read the note, play the note.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

I don’t play in sessions but I have just crossed the threshold to being able to adapt as I play along with different recordings of the same tune. Last night I was playing along with a version of Planty Irwin by Peter Miln and Daniel James - a quirky and beautiful interpretation and it was fun to work out the changes without the cheat sheet. Same for Brian Boru’s March as played by the Chieftains where the key modulates on the second go round.

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The trick to becoming a good sight-reader is to read phrases rather than notes. The analogy to text holds up here-someone who is barely literate will usually read one word at a time, while actors, voice-over readers and those who are used to reading out loud will read in phrases and sentences. The same is true in music. You have to force yourself to look at more than just one note at a time. You can do this in stages- try reading one beat at a time,say, in a jig, then one measure, and work up to two measures which is usually a phrase. You also have to do this at very slow tempos at first. If you are already familiar with trad, it’s a lot easier to "see" the phrasing in the score. After a while you get to the point where you can add ornaments as you read, change things around a bit, etc at which point it becomes much more fun to read.

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@sebastian. Does that work with tunes ? Of the people here who can play a reel they have never heard before steadly from the dots on sight how many didn’t either learn to do that as part of learning their instrument or set time aside to work on reading music ? I think that is what the OP is asking about - what would be needed for a workshop where sheet music was handed out at the start.

It has never worked for me. However, practicing scales and arpeggios from the dots (maybe included in what Jim was alluding to in his post that I crossed with above) *has* helped.

(crossing with 5stringfool - that was what I meant by setting time aside to work on reading music)

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

@David50:
"Can you then adapt to the slightly different version you may be hearing the very first time you try to play it a session ? If so where does that skill come from ?"

That works all the time for me, whether I’ve learned a tune by ear or from sheet music/ABC. The kind of written music we find here on thesession and in other ABC collections are usually just snapshots anyway, So that’s pretty much imperative that musicians adapt to what is being played.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

"The trick to becoming a good sight-reader is to read phrases rather than notes."

Another is to read ahead to the next note group - not looking at the note being played. Like when walking, you look ahead not at the step being taken.

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So did anyone here learn to read text a phrase ahead before they could already read a word at a time ? And before that a syllable at a time ?

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Like I said, it’s a gradual process.

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@ David50 - I wouldn’t think so. First you learn the letters, then syllables, then words, phrases, so on. Like learning to walk before you learn to run.

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Agree with most here. I learned to play by ear as a child and only learned to read (,music,) as an adult. These days I find it more expedient to "learn" a tune that I don’t know from the dots however. I get the basics of the tune quicker and don’t have any problem translating to a tune with " proper feel". The problem is that the dots don’t always convey that "proper feel". IMHO, tunes on this site may contribute to the problem by notating reels in 4/4 time when they’re actually played 2 pulses per measure, in cut time (2/2). It’s very confusing for those sight readers new to ITM to get the right pulse just from the dots. A sight player at a local session I attend always wants to tap their foot in 4/4 time on reels. Playing a tune like "Drowsy Maggie", her foot is a blur… hard to watch and maintain concentration. Ear, sight, both are desirable skills (along with a good memory for tunes.)

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"So did anyone here learn to read text a phrase ahead before they could already read a word at a time ? And before that a syllable at a time ?"

No. Sorry if I implied that. But soon after beginning to read I think it would help to try to gain the habit of looking at the note ahead. Looking at the phrase ahead would come latter. Like crawling, walking hesitantly, walking and then running. Forming the "looking ahead" habit is worthwhile. Some who out there who aren’t doing it yet are fully capable now.

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" IMHO, tunes on this site may contribute to the problem by notating reels in 4/4 time when they’re actually played 2 pulses per measure, in cut time (2/2) "

I’ve seen this written all over this site and it confuses me. A reel is written in either 4/4 (4 beats per measure with a quarter note being the duration of one beat) or 2/2 (2 beats per measure with a half note being the duration of one beat).

The time signature has to do with the time, not the pulse. If it is a marking of the pulse then how do you play jigs? They’re written 6/8 so would that be six pulses per measure?

" It’s very confusing for those sight readers new to ITM to get the right pulse just from the dots"
Another point about the detrimental aspect of learning a tune based on dots alone.

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I thought we agreed that you can’t learn this (any) music from dots alone anyway?

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

‘Forming the "looking ahead" habit is worthwhile’ (Tom Connelly). As with reading text, and in the progress
from toddling to running, does that habit form on its own as the previous stage is delegated to the subconcious ?

I think the ‘should I’ aspect of thread is more relevant to the OP than the ‘how should I’ that keeps coming up. There are other resources for that.

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Certainly didn’t expect this many reactions!

Just to echo David’s remark, I doubt I’ll find it hard, I just wanted to know if it’s worth the effort. Knowing full well that it only helps me at workshops and lessons and maybe new sessions that use em. But I read it all, thanks for the replies I’ll make my considerations.

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@Boyen: "Should I learn to read sheet music?"
"Certainly didn’t expect this many reactions!"

Seriously? 😛

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I’ll add to this thread by agreeing that reading music is a very worthwhile skill to develop. It is only one tool in the toolbox, but opens up a whole world. I learned to read music young, and had difficulties making myself practise so developed a skill at sightreading that is useful to this day. (Funny thing, I now LOVE practising). My friend says I read music the way he reads a newspaper, and I can add in cuts or rolls etc on the fly while doing so. But it won’t stay in my head and I have to work at putting it there and ditching the dots asap, which has been my focus over the past few years. And that still isn’t learning by ear, rather memorising (but that doesn’t stop me from adjusting the tunes to match how I hear them from a recording or another player’s version, or making my own variations). Learning properly by ear is for me the hardest still - being able to pick up the notes from the sounds heard, without any writing involved, particularly if the tune is unfamiliar, so easily forgotten. I think the best thing is to develop both reading and ear from the early stages of learning, and also to learn the basics of how scales and chords work. Like riding a bicycle, the skill is never lost, even if not used for a while. I stopped playing any music for 17 years and it was all there when I restarted, even though my fingers felt all rusty at first and my breath control terrible.

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The most common ITM tunes (reels, jigs, hornpipes,) are all "duple meter", meaning they are played two beats to the bar. (Exceptions being slip jigs 3-beat, slides 4-beat and a few other odd ones.) Jigs are written in compound duple meter with each dotted-quarter note getting a single beat. A dotted-quarter = three eighth notes but it’s hard to express a dotted-quarter as the bottom number of a time sig. So jigs are expressed in a time sig of 6/8 with the understanding that each group of three eighth-notes gets one beat. A key aspect of properly written sheet music is to look at the beams that tie the notes together. Reels and hornpipes should have eighth-notes beamed in groups of four, indicating two beats per 8 note bar. (Exception might be slower hornpipes which may actually be closer to dotted 4/4 time and beamed in pairs… another discussion.) Eighth-notes in jigs would be beamed in groups of three, two groups to a bar. If reels were really meant to be played in 4/4, they should be beamed in pairs with each pair getting a beat. I hope I’ve nay added to the confusion but the distinction is important. You are in error if you play reels in 4/4 time.

As one who learns by ear, I can understand the opinion that you can’t learn tunes from the dots alone but IMO if you already know the musical genre, the tune type, (and the dot quirks,) you’re quite capable of rendering a decent version of a tune from just the dots. You can tweek the tune ad infinitum by listening to others in whose playing you place esteem.

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5stringfool mentioned reading ‘phrases’ instead of just notes. I agree. I think that skill comes in time, with a bit of practice. I think of phrases as clusters (eg a group of 4 notes in a reel), and if you read 2 sets of clusters which match your finger clusters (if you subscribe to that technique), then it’s a double-whammy 🙂

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A question that arises from time to time: "Can one accurately render a tune just from the dots?"
I indicated earlier that one could if they knew the genre, tune type and "quirks" associated with the dots. Here’s a little experiment I just did that I find fascinating (I fascinate easily.)
1. Take any hornpipe whose ABC is listed here, say "Liverpool" and copy and paste into one of the abc converters. ( I used mandolintab.net/abcconverter.php)
2. Generate the sheet music and then play the midi file.
3. Change the "R:" in the header from "Hornpipe" to "Reel", regenerate the sheet music and replay the midi file.

The fascinating part for me is that a piece of technology may be more capable of rendering a tune based on "tune type" from the same exact note sequence than some of us are. What’s up with that?

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"2 sets of clusters which match your finger clusters"

Can you explain what you mean by finger clusters?

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Roads To Home has done an excellent job of clearing up why reels are in 2/2 and not 4/4, so I have nothing to add. Regarding the playing of tunes from sheet music, when I first purchased Vincent Broderick’s Turoe Stone Collection (his own tunes), I did not have the accompanying cassette to hear how he played them. I don’t claim to be more than a good-to-very-good player, but I like how I play his tunes better than the way he does. If I had gotten the cassette first, I would not have learned his tunes. They are great tunes, but he and I play very differently and I benefited greatly by being able to read the tunes and then adapt them to my own style.

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Ha Cheeky, you asked the question I dared not.
But then I recalled that the great Django Reinhardt had only one "workable" cluster of two fingers on his left hand whilst most of us have two… "clusters" that is.

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" I don’t claim to be more than a good-to-very-good player, but I like how I play his tunes better than the way he does"

What instrument is it you play Ailin, flute or your own trumpet? 🙂

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@ Ailin - one of the wisest teachers I ever had (this is classical, keep in mind, but I think the point still stands) said once that it was a bad idea to listen to a recording first because then you might get stuck in that person’s interpretation. If you learn music directly from the score, which as has been noted ad infinitum is only a very rough skeleton (yes, even in classical), you can learn it your own way. FWIW, and I’m still talking classical, I can relate to learning a piece of music, then listening to a first-rate musician play it, and still deciding I like my interpretation better than theirs. Music is so personal, whatever kind.

I should add before I’m misunderstood that in order to acquire the kind of understanding it takes to turn dots into music of whatever kind, one must listen and learn a lot. Please, nobody should think I’m saying you can learn to play this, or any, kind of music without listening. That would be absurd.

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For me, the ability to read music has helped enormously, although I also do a lot of music by ear. An example of this: I picked up most of the Paddy O’Brien tunes that I play from the book "The Compositions Of Paddy O’Brien" but learnt my small collection of Finbarr Dwyer tunes by ear, as as far as I’m aware he never did a tune book. There are many occasions when being able to read has helped me, such as filling in for someone in a dance band, or learning a bit of ragtime guitar or a jazz song/solo, or as I was the other day, trying to "decipher" a bit of Scarlatti! It helps when teaching, or running a workshop. Reading music is a great convenience for me, and I’m so grateful to my long departed music teacher Bruce Clarke for in siting I learn to read. Mind you, I’ve played with wonderfully skilled musicians who can’t read. I’d be very surprised if the above mentioned Django could read music, but his lack of reading skills, if that is the case, had no effect on his playing skills.

"Roads To Home": Excellent description of time signatures, I hope people read closely your contribution.

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And I wish he’d had have taught me to type as well! "Insisting" I learn to read.

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If you can get away without learning to read music because you are:
utterly brilliant
have a photographic memory for a tune
are descended from 7 generations of gifted musos who didn’t have to eat their instruments during the famine or the clearances
Bully for you!
On the other hand if you are like me and a lifetime student of your instrument, don’t live in a place that resembles an Irish theme bar in Disney land and you want to develop and grow, in your ability to play, it is my opinion that learning to read music will help massively in that desire.

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I thought finger clusters was what happened when you try to run up and down the keys of your accordion too quickly! 😉
(And to answer the original question, of course you should learn to read sheet music. It can be quite a useful tool in learning and remembering the music, and it is far more patient than a friend would be when you want to go over and over and over and over that tune slowly as you are first learning it. It will not, as some people seem to imply, suck your brain out and turn you into a mindless robotic zombie with no life in your playing. Just treat it as a guide, not a mandate; and if you use it to supplement rather than replace your ears, you will be fine.)

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What instrument is it you play Ailin, flute or your own trumpet? 🙂

# Posted by Steve T

Both. If you don’t think you’re any good, it’s a safe bet no one else will.

Still, fair play on the dig. Ouch! 🙂

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Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

[*Can you explain what you mean by finger clusters?*]

Finger clusters (or clustering) is a technique whereby once you have made a ‘cluster’, don’t break that cluster if you will then use those same fingers (usually) in the same order, immediately afterwards. It’s a pretty basic technique, sometimes taught in the early stages, depending on the teacher.

The simplest example would be on fiddle, playing a simple ascending one-octave scale starting on open D. The fingering is 0-1-2-3 (on the D string), then 0-1-2-3 (on the A string). On your first 0-1-2-3, you keep that ‘cluster’ that you have made, then lift the fingers *as a unit*, move your hand slightly and repeat the 0-1-2-3 on the A string. Two advantages - maximum economy of movement, and if done properly will preserve your intonation.

If you read the music for this simple scale, you will read D-E-F#-G as note cluster 1 (finger cluster 1), then A-B-C#-D as note cluster 2 (also finger cluster 1).

That’s what I meant by the ‘double whammy’.

You’ll come across it in tunes too (D-C-A) (G-F-D) D … 3-2-0, 3-2-0 0 …etc.

Clustering obviously will apply to other instruments too (eg guitar, repeating identical chord shapes in different positions without (unnecessarily) lifting your fingers).

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Thanks Jim, that makes sense.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

For many tutors at workshops or residentials, it’s easier to cater for people who can read the dots, but in my opinion it’s not the right thing to do, and I don’t think it does any favours to anyone. In my classes and workshops, I have no objection to anyone using music if they prefer, but even if everyone can read, it’s still conducted as if by ear. This excludes nobody, it’s a better way of learning and retaining, and if any of the music-readers feel that it’s too plodding, they’re in the wrong place.

I have encountered many, many people who have told me they simply cannot learn or play anything by ear. I don’t argue with them, because I know this is something they believe absolutely. Almost all of those people are astonished and delighted when they realise that they have just learned a tune without music - without realising it. However, doubt often remains, and many learners who have used notation all their lives cannot accept that it’s possible to do without; to do what, in fact, they have just done, and what we all did as toddlers: learn tunes and songs by ear.

I would rather people used the safety net of music in front of them and over time realise that there are other ways of looking at music, than being told notation is wrong and simply disappearing from the class/workshop. I can’t tell you how many people I teach who were told at a young age they were no good at music and only after retiring did they have another go. We must never exclude anyone who can’t read music, and equally - in my opinion - we can easily avoid excluding people who can.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Well said Nigel Gatherer.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Good post, Nigel. At my workshops, I give out music sheets, and most people use them. Those who don’t read don’t normally have a problem. I don’t really do tunes as such - it’s more technique-based than anything else, and there’s usually only one tune printed as a working example.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Although it might be worth some effort to learn sheet music, the real question to you, Boyen, is: Why don’t you start recording your lessons and workshops? I mean… Come on… You suggested it yourself. Anyone who learns by ear in an instructional setting and REPEATEDLY doesn’t bring a recording device is wasting their time.

Even though I am a fluent reader of music I still prefer learning by ear, especially at workshops. If I go to to a music week long music workshop you better believe the sheet music stays in my backpack while I practice along with the recording. I’ll never forget the time I broke my own rule and just learned off the sheet music. The workshop leader could tell right away that I had learned it off the music. He said he could tell because I had learned the notes but none of the actual music within them.

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Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Well, I disagree daiv. During the lesson the recorder doesn’t help me at all, after the lesson I got youtube and midi’s. Not to mention the sheet music which I can use to figure out if I’m hearing the same version or not. The problem is not that I can’t figure out the tunes at home, the problem is that during the lesson when everyone else is using sheet music I can’t catch up, because for that I require to hear the tune instead of the notes.

Bringing a recorder isn’t going to help that as it would record notes instead of the tune. These lessons mostly include everyone playing at the same time straight from sheet music note by note. I constantly hear others make mistakes and replicate those mistakes because that’s what I hear, not having a clue about how the tune should go.

If I would want to learn it by ear it would require the teacher playing phrases slowly so I can figure out what (s)he’s doing, which isn’t happening as it is taught from sheet music. The build up of a lesson or workshop is so fundamentally different from how I learn a tune.

Lessons I’ve had so far:
1. Listen once (hasn’t always happened)
2. Try all together with sheet music, phrase by phrase
3. Move to next tune

How I teach myself:
1. Listen to cd
1a. Listen to another version
1b. Listen to another version
2. Listen to teacher
2a. Listen to teacher again
3. Listen to individual phrase
4. Slowly break down the phrase
5. Repeat what you hear
6. Repeat again
7. Link phrases
(And I’d agree a recorder would be great in this scenario)

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Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Record and noodle. Noodlin is important.

Posted .

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

I say, use your ears first but also learn to read music but like others stated, don’t use it as a crutch.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

At one time, I could only "play by ear" and everyone else has been at that stage even those who think they can’t manage without "the dots".

Nowadays, I’ll use different methods and, of course, if I’ve never heard a tune before I’ve got to rely on the dots to a certain extent especially if I can’t track down a recording or get somebody to play it to me.

However, it’s also about interpretation. If you have been playing music for a while, you should have the skills to adapt the tune into your own style of playing or the style of music you are endeavouring to play. This may require more emphasis to certain notes etc and/or ornaments etc which may not necessarily be on the paper.

Also, it’s not a case of relying on the paper if you are already an "ear player" as you will soon learn the tune from your own playing. It’s not a case of internalising "the dots" or trying to remember these in your head as such. Not for me, any way.

I agree with most of what Nigel says earlier although I do think that *some* tuition by ear in workshops can be a slightly "plodding" experience especially when the tune is broken down into very small phrases. I often prefer to hear and learn it in larger chunks or, sometimes, each part as a whole as this can be less confusing.

Also, I like to hear a whole tune played at least once(Preferably more often) before I start to learn to play it. I can never understand why we should wish to start playing a tune which is completely unfamiliar. Sometimes, if you are just given sheet music there’s no option but there’s no excuse if we are learning by ear.

I realise that every workshop is different, of course.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Most of the workshops I’ve attended, and definitely with those I’m doing, being with the whole tune, and dealing with the parts/phrases comes after wards. Sometimes we even sing it before we start learning it on our instrument(s) of choice, or dance to it. I agree, it is better to know the whole, to experience it whole, before learning it… Thinking on this, at the moment, I can’t remember anyone I’ve had the pleasure of learning from who didn’t start out that way.

I also see a value in that added communication/language of notation, and in workshops, especially on going ones, I also work on teaching notation, dots and ABCs. There is an understanding of value to be had there too, though the main focus is always on the ears. Denying notation is a bit like denying a speaker the written word. Yes, there can be a problem with interpretation, as happens here on site at times, but the more direct experience we have with music, the greater our understanding and skill, the greater our ability grows to interpret dots and ABCs and breath life into them from that experience and understanding. That doesn’t mean that the other evident ill of notation dependency isn’t real ~ dull, plodding and detached notes that almost aren’t music, though there can be different levels this. In the end, with this music, with any music, the want is not to connect the dots, or connect to the dots, it is to connect to the other musicians and to make the music more than just an exercise, to find the emotions and joy and humours in the tune and its history and to give them air, to lift them up and, with dance music, to make it dance…

It’s been a good and constructive thread and I’m in agreement on the whole, use your ears, but also learn to read the music too, just avoid becoming dependant on it. It is, as many have said, famous and otherwise, just a skeleton. It takes much more to put the muscle and flesh on it the veins and the organs, and to get the blood flowing ~ to breath life into it, and to help and inspire others with amd to it ~ in their playing and/or dancing.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Yes, learning to read sheet music works to your advantage. Just as much as hearing music is an aural tool, sheet music becomes a written tool, as a written language.

For instance, if you can not hear me, then I could write it down for you.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

David 5o
I have been thinking about your point; Maybe I got it wrong - but I think you are saying that learning and playing by ear is a different process than learning from the cheat sheets and if you learn it from the cheat sheets your brain still needs to covert to the by ear mode once you leave the printed music. I think you imply that learning by ear is not as difficult as many think - and with commitment it can become easy and that skill will be much for valuable than ability to read or even sight read.

OK. I have thought about it and have spent a few days without the music and I can see that it is a different process and is not that hard.

Just wanted to let you know that I thought about what you said, if I got it right, and I think you are close to the Truth. Thanks.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Ceolachan-beautifully put.

Re: Should I learn to read sheet music?

Yes I think it is a very good idea to learn to read music for your selected instrument. I have been playing ITM for many years, and I have always relied on sheet music. Whilst I agree that it is a great skill to be able to play by ear, the skill of reading has many advantages, not least the ability to set up previously acquired music sheets, and play without the fear of not remembering the full tune. By using sheet music does not preclude the reader from imposing their interpretation on the piece, allowing musical alterations, adding embellishments etc. The ultimate situation would be to be equally competent at both playing by ear and reading the sheet music. I have played ITM for many years with a friend who plays exclusively by ear although he can read music, and this combination works really well