Note names are a trap…

TUESDAY, September 29, 2020 – 7:35 PM

Note names are a trap…

Pianists don’t use names to play music. They memorize where the keys are, and they go to them directly. When a professional pianist races up and down the piano, playing many keys, those keys happen way too fast for names. Names just get in the way. It’s just about like trying to read every word on this page by spelling each one. It’s not what we do.

Do we need names for music?

Yes, but we only need them for talking about music. There are 88 keys on a standard piano – 52 white ones and 36 black ones. We need the names to talk about which keys we are pressing. For this we can use letters or fixed-do. I know both systems, but I teach letters because they are about 100 times more practical.

Why are note names destructive?

They are a middle step between the notes on the page and the keys we have to press. They are a translation. They get in the way of visualizing the correct keys that match the notes on the page.

What is the biggest problem with letters or fix-do?

There are either seven or eight of each letter or syllable. If you think of C, there are eight of them. If you call that C “do”, it’s the same thing, there are still 8 of them.

Then you have talk about which one. Which “C”? It’s a trap for beginning students. If you get the wrong C, it’s as bad as playing the wrong letter. If you see that a note is C but play the wrong C, that’s not partially right. It’s totally wrong.

What is the 2nd biggest problem?

It’s naming the black keys. The names we use are linked to the white keys. The black keys have no names of their own. They borrow them from the white keys. Flat (b) means go to the left. Sharp (#) means go to the right.

What do we need instead?

We need a visual map of which key belongs to which note on the page. Advanced readers see the keys instantly that go to any written notes. There is no hesitation, no translation. It’s lightning fast. Any hesitation is deadly for reading music.

Why do line numbers work better?

Because each and every line has only two answers, one for the treble clef and one for the bass clef. On piano this never changes. Line 3 is always B in the treble clef and D in the bass clef. A tiny child has to learn this. So does a beginning adult. It’s also basic knowledge for the most advanced pianists on the planet.

What line is most important, and why?

Learn line 3 first. Why? Because there are 5 standard lines, and each line skips one key. Each line is one jump away from the next one. If you know line 3, you only need two jumps to get to line 1 or line 5.

Why do we NOT want to start with middle C?

Because it’s slow. To get to line 1 in the bass clef and line 5 in the treble clef you have to make 5 jumps. That’s inefficient. The goal is to get the answer ASAP, in the beginning, while you are learning.

Why are letters like numbers – and not really the same as the alphabet?

Because when you count, you count in both directions. Little kids can say: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. But adults can’t say the letters backwards without looking: G F E D C B A. Musicians can say the musical alphabet in both directions. We go up and down in the same way. We use letters like numbers.

Practice your musical alphabet…

Say this until you have mastered it, maybe sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star:

  • A B C D E F G
  • G F E D C B A

Just don’t do this reading the tune, because those are not the notes.

Always get names from your hand, not from the written music. You “read the letters from the hand”…

We form a link between the notes on the page and the keys we press. We play the notes FIRST, even when we name them. You get the keys FIRST. Names come second. So we know them? Yes, we do. Do we use them? Yes, when talking about what we are playing. But do we use them as we are playing full speed? The answer is: NEVER. And the reason is that it slows us down. Names are used to describe music. They are used for communication. They are not used for playing.

What is the biggest mistake made in teaching?

It is this. It is that teachers teach names instead of positions of the keys, and as a result beginners never learn to read fast. It’s the worst trap in reading music. It’s just not what we do.



3 thoughts on “Note names are a trap…

  1. I agree whole-heatedly with this. I started music in 1977 or so, and they gave me little stickers to put on the middle octave’s keys.. That crutch, it never did let me learn to read properly!

    Instead, what they should’ve done is use a chart like Gary’s. No note names, just the picture of what the note looks like on paper, and it’s position on the keyboard.

    My reading using Gary’s line method has progressed so fast sometimes I find myself surprised.

    What I’m actively working on now is: OK, that’s not a C, it’s the first white of the three, which are broken up by two black keys. I’m seeing the positions on the keyboard now, when I read the note on the paper. It only took 43 years to get there…

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