Sheet music is an amazing system. It can capture the intricate world of a musical piece in an accurate and non-ambiguous way, detailing every nuance that the composer heard in his brilliant mind. It has been in use for hundreds of years, since medieval times, and has been stable and unchanged for at least 300 years or so. As such, any attempt to point out deficiencies is a risky proposition which can bring a flurry of angry responses… I will take on the challenge, though, but with humility and respect.
A little bit of history:
The first printed sheet music made with a printing press was published in 1473, approximately 20 years after Guttenberg introduced the printing press. Twenty-Eight years later, a full book of 96 pieces was published, written by Ottaviano Petrucci under the title Harmonice Musices Odhecaton (One Hundred Songs of Harmonic Music).
Amazingly, a 21st century reader can look at this 500+ years printed page and identify the familiar lines of the staff and the round note heads. So much has changed in our world since then and yet, the sheet music system has remained a bastion of stability.
Compare this to a modern-day sheet music which represents one of the most famous songs of all time, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen.
If you are a music lover, you may belong to one of the three categories below:
You are one of the fortunate ones who has learned and practiced enough to be able to read and interpret sheet music instantly, even on first sight (prima vista)
You understand the sheet music notation and know the rules, but you are still struggling when playing. You may find it hard to play in rhythm and often make mistakes, unless you have memorized the piece.
You have never played from sheet music before and the notation above seems Greek to you (Pardon, my Greek readers… This is just an expression).
My story is directed towards the second group: Those who have started and are still struggling. I assume that you know the rules, but do face the same problems that many beginners experience. I am here to make you feel that you are not alone, and there is a reason for your agony. However, I will also offer an elegant new solution at the end, so stay tuned.
Note: The story is focused on the piano (or the keyboard) which utilizes more features of the sheet music notation than other musical instruments.
So, for this intended audience, here are the seven hurdles that you have undoubtedly encountered, not necessarily in order of importance or difficulty:
1. Right and Left — two different worlds
When you begin to learn, you usually start with the right hand, where the melody is typically played. You also start with middle C going up. But once you’ve mastered this and proceeded to the left hand, the same sequence, at one octave lower, looks totally different!
Here is the simple sequence C D E F (Do/Re/Mi/Fa if you prefer the European notation) as it is played in both hands simultaneously.
All the reasons for the differences are probably known to you: The right hand is based on the G clef, while the left hand is based on the F clef, so the counting has a different starting point. But that doesn’t change the fact that for the same notes you have to learn two different notations.
2. Sharps and Flats — implicitly defined
You undoubtedly know how to interpret the sharp (♯) and flat (♭) signs. In the vast majority of cases, they indicate that you have to press the black key to the right or left of the designated white key. There are, however, some additional, implicit and complicated rules:
Each staff has in the beginning a key signature which includes a couple of sharps or flats (or none). They will be placed on the specific line of the staff.
When a note is interpreted, you have to remember whether it was marked with a sharp or flat on the key signature, and if so, apply it (though it is not explicitly written!)
A note can have a sharp or flat added (then they will be out of scale, or out of key) and then, this variation applies forward to the same notes, but only till the end of the measure (indicated by the measure bar).
On top of that, both key signatures and explicit sharps and flats can be temporarily removed by using the natural sign (♮).
There are even cases, not very frequent, where double sharps or double flats are used, so ♭♭B is actually an A.
And, to make it even more complicated, some white keys can be specified with sharps and flats. For example, sometimes, instead of writing B, the composer will write ♭C since it fits the key better.
All these rules have reasons and explanations deeply embedded in musical theory but they are still quite daunting for the beginner and very hard to quickly decipher for even the more experienced players.
Here is a terrifying example from one of George Gershwin marvelous songs, Fascinating Rhythm. In particular, I marked with red dots an example of the difficulty: The first C note has a sharp sign and at the end of the measure there is another C note, in a higher octave, and though the key does not require a sharp for C, a natural sign has to be added to it.
3. High and low notes — going way out
The staff lines are best suited to represent notes in the two middle octaves (both sides of center C). Once you go out of these octaves, in either direction, the interpretation becomes harder. Good players memorize it well but it is not unusual to see even experienced players counting the lines…
Here is an example of the same C and G notes (Do and Sol) played simultaneously with both hands in three different octaves (a total of six).
Then, it can get really hairy. Below is a part of Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee (Rachmaninoff piano arrangement) — one of the most beautiful, yet difficult, piano pieces.
4. Multiple simultaneous notes (Chords and intervals)
Just as you have learned and mastered the basic notes in both hands, here comes a whole new hurdle of complexity — multiple notes played at the same time (two are called an interval, three or more are called a chord).
There is no complicated rules here, but the challenge stems from having to read and interpret quickly more than one note.
Here is the beginning of the famous Symphony №5 by Ludwig Van Beethoven, marked where chords and intervals are modestly used. It can get much harder to read and play!
5. Note length and rhythm
Playing in the right rhythm is an essential part of music. Botching the rhythm can totally alter the song to the point of no recognition, even if all the notes are correct. That becomes a much harder task on the piano where each hand may have to play a different rhythm, accurately.
Sheet music provides a beautiful and elegant solution for every rhythm variation. This is not a small fit. The lengths are measured by ‘notes’ and use units as ‘a whole’, ‘half a’, ‘quarter’, ‘eighth’, ‘1/16th’ and in some pieces even ‘1/32nd’!
There is also a method of covering the intermediate lengths: 3/16, 3/8, 3/4, and 1.5 notes.
The rules are extremely well defined but require a lot of practice, especially for the intricate cases.
As an example, here is a part of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Waltz, where the right hand and the left hand use different rhythms at times. This is by far not the most difficult example, but it gives a glimpse of the challenges for the beginner player.
6. Flipping pages — you only have two hands
This may sound like a trivial issue but yet it makes playing difficult. Since sheet music is detailed and elaborate, rarely you’d find a non-trivial song or classical piece which does not encompass multiple pages. And alas, at one point you have to flip a page — and play at the same time with both hands.
Modern technology provides nice solutions like an iPad app that shows the sheet music and uses a Bluetooth pedal to flip, but most people still play from a printed book where such marvels are missing.
7. Repetitions — where to go?
To limit the number of pages, sheet music uses a system of navigation which helps you return to the beginning of a musical segment in order to play it again, typically with a different ending. There are several problems with this method. The beginning point may reside in a previous page, requiring you to flip back, and then search for the point… Also, this method is not totally flexible as sometimes, a piece is composed from a combination of previously played pieces, not necessarily in a sequential order.
Below is the fantastic ragtime piano piece, The Entertainer, by Scott Joplin. It contains 4 segments which are repeated twice each. You can note that the repeat indicator spans pages and requires constant flipping and searching.
Obviously, one can argue that such a piece should be memorized anyway and after that, the issue becomes less important. Ideally, though, we should be able to play freely what is being displayed in front of us, without having to memorize each note in every piece.
We have covered the hurdles, but what now? Do we have a hope of overcoming all these hurdles and being able to just sit and play, prima vista, enjoying the beautiful music that we produce ourselves?
There are two ways. One obvious solution is to put multiple hours at the piano, practicing again and again until sheet music becomes as natural to us as our mother tongue.
An alternative solution was recently introduced in the form of a new, innovative, textual language called PENTA. You can check out the free course book in this website!