How to Read Music: Music as Language

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Did you know… that expert music-reading is a highly learn-able skill?

Did you know… that expert music-reading is no more a talent than learning to read English?

Did you know… that expert music readers read music like you are reading these words… in meaningful chunks called words, phrases, and sentences?

Knowing your ABCs is not enough if you want to write poetry. In fact, knowing your ABCs is not enough if you just want to recite someone else’s poetry well. The same is true when it comes to reading and performing music.

Consider the letter M. The letter M is one of twenty-six arbitrary symbols in the English alphabet. By itself, M has no intrinsic meaning. The letter M contributes to meaning only when put into some larger context… as part of the word Music, for example.

Letters are combined into words, which are combined into phrases and sentences, and so on in an upward spiral of meaning.

Likewise, consider the note F#. F# is one of many arbitrary letters in the music alphabet; it has no intrinsic musical meaning. F# contributes to meaning only when put into some larger context… as part of the D Major Scale (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D), for example.

Notes are combined into melodic and harmonic phrases and so on in an upward spiral of musical meaning.

Like the study of any language, the goal of studying music is an expanding sphere of comprehension (to understand), fluency (to speak), and literacy (to read & write).  Be patient with yourself as you learn this unique (and untranslatable) language; you didn’t learn to speak English overnight either!

Your music-reading expertise grows by studying musically-useful patterns: scales, chords, chord progressions, rhythms, solfege, form, chord voicings, phrasing, key signatures, time signatures, key changes, characteristic stylistic devices, and so on.

Learn more… The Un-Musical Way to Read Music



  1. Ha, ha…I like the way you compare learning to play and read music to learning to speak English, as a foreigner (Dutch), indeed I remember how long it took before I could speak like a native. Indeed , after almost 50 years in the UK , I am still discovering new and exiting words…. I have not got another 50 years to learn to play the piano though but will do the best I can!

    1. Thanks and indeed, Paula. The great news is that we can start speaking today AND know that there are years of enjoyable discovery to come. By the way, even though most of our years are behind us, I would like to think that what we’ve lost in QUANTITY of life is more than compensated for in QUALITY… if we have the LOVE (which you obviously have) to make it so. All the best to you in music, photography, and life, my dear!

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