“Wish I was better and faster at reading the piano melody from a Lead Sheet” – Q&A with The Piano Guy

In this post I wanted to share my response to a question that is a fairly common “variation on a theme” that I am often asked about. I’m hoping a lot of you will find it helpful, and possibly re-assuring 🙂

Student Question and Answer

Q: Hi Scott, I memorized the names of the notes on the Treble Clef.  My trouble is remembering them when I see them on the music sheet. I find myself often having to stop and figure them out by using “Every Good Boy Does Fine, All Cows Eat Grass,” etc. to be able to figure out which note I’m looking at.  What practice exercise can I do to be a proficient reader of these notes?”

 

A: In sort of a backward way, I am kind of glad that your issue is the note reading at this point. Why? Because it will be one of the easiest things for you to conquer in a short amount of time.

My best suggestion is to simply work on nothing BUT single note (meaning only playing one note at a time, no chords in RH) melody lines in your RH. Totally forget your LH and any chords for a few days.

The important thing is to slowly work through some melodies THAT YOU ALREADY KNOW IN YOUR HEAD. i.e. you could sing them or hum them from memory. That’s super important at the stage you are so you can kind of “self-monitor” whether you are playing the right notes or not by ear.

Behind the scenes mentally there is a lot going on right at this stage in your learning. The big thing getting processed in your noggin is multiple “aha” moments where your brain is connecting the dots (pun intended) between what it knows a melody SOUNDS like already, to what it LOOKS like in music notation. That starts this mental ability to start intuitively being able to “see” the general ups and downs of the flow of a melody line based on what you are hearing, or already know a melody should sound like. That gets you away from the EGBDF and FACE mental gymnastics note after note that you are currently facing.

The end game is that once you get over this initial hump, you’ll quit reading individual notes, but instead read their relationship (i.e. intervals between) to each other. I know it sounds like voodoo, but an analogy is needing to learn to read individual letters before you can put them together in words, and then the words individually before you can string them into sentences. I am sure as you read this response, you are not stopping to “decode” every single letter of every word. Instead your brain is processing “chunks” of things together like words and sentences.  

A huge issue to note though, is the fact that whenever you first learned to read, you didn’t need to get all that “letter, then words, then sentence” sequence figured out before you could start speaking to someone. Your brain figured out the whole talking/communicating thing with no need for knowledge of letters. The reading/writing stuff just gave you the ability to record (write down) what you could say, or “un”-record (read) what someone else had already said and saved by writing sentences down.

Similarly in music, black dots and lines all over a page (i.e. music notation) is not music. It is just a recording of some music. The actual music is what you hear or play, not what is written down. Your brain has (since you were born!) been understanding and memorizing music, and allowing you to communicate through music every time you’ve ever hummed a tune, or smiled when some familiar tune comes on the radio. You’re now simply asking your brain to connect what it already intuitively knows to some crude set of written “code” that we call music notation.

I just bring that up to make sure that you never get the cart before the horse and lose focus on the importance (or in this case as you are just getting started in this style, lack of importance) of learning to become a good note reader. You don’t…  You simply need a basic ability to read a melody line so that you may learn some tune you have never heard before and want to learn to play. If you already know the melody to some tune you are wanting to play go ahead and “hunt and peck” it out if you want. I’ll never tell. 🙂

Getting it learned is the goal and reading the notation is just a tool to allow you to do that more quickly. The whole idea is to NOT need to read something as quickly as possible so you can focus on really “making” music (fun!) as opposed to just regurgitating something you are reading verbatim from a piece of sheet music (not so fun).

So in summary, take a few days and find some tunes in the Gig Book that you already recognize and remember and could hum or sing the melody line to. Then (forgetting everything else) try to play and read your way through the melody line consciously letting your ears tell you whether you are playing the right notes or not. Once your brain starts connecting what it is hearing (something known) with what it is seeing (something not), the note reading will quickly become easier and easier.

Happy playing!
Scott Houston

P.S. If you are interested in “dipping your toes in the water,” check out some of my resources below:


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17 Comments
  • Jay Silverberg
    Posted at 17:52h, 12 March Reply

    Thanks so much for your free beginning course. Even though I have multiple sclerosis I’m going to try. It will become work for me as my brain doesn’t function as well or as fast as it used to. I do okay banging out chords (triads) with the root and the 5th with my left hand. That’s because I’ve been a guitar player for 50 years and I know the notes pretty easily. I hope that I can do it. My wife agrees but if I come out of studio and kick the cat she’ll know that it’s not going well.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 11:12h, 13 March Reply

      Ha! Save the cat! If you played guitar with those Root and 5th chords I bet you called them “power chords” right? Hang in there…

  • Richard Smokey Maxwell
    Posted at 21:33h, 12 March Reply

    I, as a beginning adult learner, am having the same trouble (reading the notes) and it has made me feel terrible that it is not “clicking’ in my brain fast enough. So this is very helpful for me. I have been doing some of the interval thing but still felt like I need to memorize all the notes to be a real piano player. What a relief to read this, thank you

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 11:11h, 13 March Reply

      Like I said in the post – what you are experiencing is not uncommon. Hang in there – you’ll be fine!

  • Gary Johnson
    Posted at 23:27h, 12 March Reply

    Enjoy the course only I miss having someone sitting next to me helping me with fingering, hand position, timing, etc.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 11:09h, 13 March Reply

      Don’t forget Gary that if you really get stuck on anything, we’re here to help you out anytime. Just click on the orange/yellow support tab in the lesson environment and ask away… We’ll get you helped out 🙂

  • Joyce Knake
    Posted at 09:11h, 13 March Reply

    A very good tip to hum the melody line when first playing. It works for me. I just keep plugging away and hope the 2 hands will start working together. I do find that I almost have to have the song memorized before I can be successful with both hands together

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 11:07h, 13 March Reply

      That’s not uncommon at the beginning Joyce … You’re doing fine!

  • Alara
    Posted at 09:42h, 13 March Reply

    Scott – this helps a lot. Thanks.

  • Linda Dean
    Posted at 09:06h, 14 March Reply

    I can read the notes. I want to play by ear – just sit down and play.

  • Sue Morea
    Posted at 12:35h, 14 March Reply

    I purchased your course in 2017 and have been having loads of fun although I’m only in book 4. My question is, do you sell more gig books than what is included in this course that can be purchased so that we can play additional songs?

    • Ryan Eldridge
      Posted at 09:17h, 15 March Reply

      With the Piano In A Flash online method, we have the 3 gig books that came with your bundle. We do not have additional gig books at the moment for sale. But I am glad to hear you are progressing so well through the Courses!

  • Susie Abella
    Posted at 15:14h, 16 March Reply

    I purchased the complete course and included on the package are 3 gig books: Gig Books 1, 2 and Favorites and Holiday Songs Fake Book. Three months ago I bought Scott’s Favorite Piano Fake Book Vol.2 and I’ve been having fun playing the songs I particularly like, applying what I’ve learned so far from the online method classes. Hopefully, someday, Scott will publish a gig book/fake book which contains Christmas/holiday songs and church/Christian hymns…these kind of songs in one fake book. Scott, you already have some of these songs in your gig books, it would be nice to have these songs combined in one gig book with many new additional songs you could think of like How Great Thou Art etc. etc. etc.
    Thanks Scott for teaching me how to play the piano. I’m sure there are lots more of challenges and tricks to learn and I’m up to it. Thanks also to your team.

  • Lorna Murphy
    Posted at 00:47h, 19 March Reply

    Thank you for this explanation it helps a lot. I now feel somewhat less pressure to memorize the notes. Guess I am still struggling but love that I am learning!

    • Ryan Eldridge
      Posted at 08:21h, 19 March Reply

      That’s what it is all about – enjoying your learning. Glad this blog helped!

  • Rev. Walter J Morris
    Posted at 15:50h, 27 March Reply

    I own a keyboard, started with Mary had a little lamb. And I have not done anything with it, I am a Rev. Looking to start a new church. God bless you

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