How to Read Music: An Example of Expert Music Reading

Let’s revisit the first four bars of Bach’s immortal Minuet in G and explore the variety of ways that an expert musician might perceive and conceive of the music:

Note: You are not expected to understand everything below at this point. The intent, for now, is to expose you to the depth of musical understanding that is possible for even a simple piece of music and to give you a sense of the direction as you develop your musicianship.  All this will come together in your studies of rhythm, scales, solfege, chords, and more.

Overall Impressions: The piece looks like classical music. It does not even remotely look like jazz or rock or ragtime or country. In fact, the melodic-looking bass line suggests the use of something called counterpoint, a commonly used device in baroque music.


Phrasing: Judging by both the contour and rhythm of the melody, these four measures are sub-divided into two two-bar phrases.


Melodic Contours: There is a well-defined contour in the melody that has the very same shape in each 2 bar section. You might conceive of it as a doodle of arrows!


Rhythmic Motives: There is also a well-defined rhythmic motive that is repeated identically in each 2 bar section:


Key: Based on the clues below, the piece in the key of G major:


Of course you should always confirm this by ear. Play and sing along. You will discover that the note that sounds resolved, complete, finished, stable is indeed G! Furthermore, simply listen to the overall sound-feeling and notice that it has a definite major-ish quality.

Time & Rhythm: A quick inspection of the time signature tells us that this piece has an essential “three-ness” to it. We want to conceive of the phrases in the context of this “three-ness” and capture that in our rendition of the music.


Also notice how this three-ness is perfectly suited to and coherent with the phrasing, rhythmic motives, and melodic contour!

Harmonic Structure: The chord progression is shown below along with the Roman Numeral Analysis and all chord tones circled:


Notice how many chord tones are in the melody and how many melody tones are in the harmony. You will see this time and time again in every kind of music!

Melodic Analysis: Here is the melody analyzed in functional terms using Solfege.


Fingering: The expert will see a fingering for this passage that makes physical and musical sense. It should be easy to play and consistent with the flow of the phrases. One solution is shown below. Notice the logical five note groupings with pinkies on the highest note in each phrase and thumbs on the lowest notes in each phrase:


Putting it all Together. Every piece of music is simultaneously all of the things above. Every one of these facets is a kind of pattern… a pattern that you can learn to see, hear, and feel with the right kind of study. While there is no shortcut to expertise, just as there is no shortcut to learning a new language, the great news is that expert music reading is a very learn-able skill that will not take as much time and energy as you might think. The know-how and skills you need to get there are sprinkled all over Piano-ology!


About Frank J Peter

A uniquely burdened and blessed citizen of the world thinking and acting out loud!
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