Reading vs Playing

How similar is reading music to reading words? Is playing from written music something like reading a speech or a story out loud? If so, what happens if we read phrase by phrase, or word by word? What does it sound like to play music by phrase, by beat, or note by note?

When someone delivers a speech, it’s more effective to speak from notes, memory or extemporaneously than to simply read a text. Many speakers simulate directness with teleprompters even though they are reading. How does it feel when someone plays music from memory, or improvises, as opposed to reading off a music stand?

We enjoy storytellers and plays, yet we also enjoy having someone read a story or book to us. Which is the best model for music performance, or does it change from one type of music to another?

And what does this say about learning to read music?

It would be interesting to compare notes with teachers who teach kids to read English, though these days everyone seems so specialized that people don’t have time to become acquainted with other disciplines. I spoke to a friend who is prominent in the field of linguistics and he says there’s hardly any work done on the linguistics of music. Now there’s an open field for someone’s thesis!

Sometimes the emphasis in learning to read music seems to focus for too long on identifying individual notes. In learning to read words, we do start with identifying letters, but then move on pretty quickly to reading groups of sounds and small words. A good reader reads a phrase at a time, just as a good musician plays or sings phrase by phrase.

Think of how it sounds when someone reads words out loud while sounding out letter by letter. This is how some students sound when playing music. They have trouble getting up to speed, and can’t quite figure out where the music is. And no wonder: try saying a sentence while visualizing how to spell each word as you say it. You can’t speak at a normal pace, and it takes a huge effort to remember what you’re saying.

If you feel you’re plodding through music, and always feeling uncertain where you’re headed, think of how you might memorize a speech about something you know well.  Do the same with the music: group the notes into beats, the beats into phrases, the phrases into parts, so that you have something to say. It’s not always helpful to play things slowly. Playing a short bit, such as a beat’s worth of music, or a measure, but playing it fast, is a great tool, for getting beyond note-by-note thinking. It helps group notes into recognizable motifs, like saying a word instead of spelling it out. This helps give a feel for the beat, helps build phrases. Playing short bits faster than you can think about each note helps put some musical perspective into your playing, and helps move along–from learning to knowing.

©2017 Ed Pearlman

2 thoughts on “Reading vs Playing”

  1. This presented a really useful way to think about my practice and playing, Ed. Thank you! I’m going to focus on this idea as I work to improve my musicality this week and in the days ahead.

  2. Being a professional speaker this really makes sense to me. This reminds me of when I learned how to speak in public, Going to Toast Masters and so on. Ii also think that this groves nicely into the difference between practice and performance. This helped me realize that I have been spending too much effort on the notes (letters) and speaking in a monotone (playing each note one at a time) rather than using inflection and emphasizing phrases.

    Thanks Ed. This was very helpful

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *