How many people do you know who read music?
  • RagueneauRagueneau
    Posts: 2,592
    During my life, many, many people have told me that they know how to read music.

    However, when I give them a piece of music to sight-sing, they always say, "Can you please play it on the piano so I know how it sounds? Then I can read it for you."

    How many people do you know who can read music: really read music?
  • rogue63
    Posts: 410
    I've experienced the same thing many times. Good question, indeed. Do you mean how many can play notation on the piano at sight---even something simple-----or do you mean how many can actually sing at sight? The latter answer is quite a bit fewer. The latter answer, in my case, is probably 4 or 5, including my wife, and the organist/choirmaster at the parish where I teach music. Sightsinging is just a lost skill, I think: parents are not so impressed, and neither are administrators. They seem to think we can just read music anyway, with no need to work at it. I am desperately trying to teach it to my students, but who can afford to spend all that time working on such an esoteric skill when much more important things are coming up, like the 4th grade musical!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,279
    I really don't sight sing very well. I tend to not have the same problem in playing the notes. There are maybe 4 or 5 people I know who can sight sing well. Maybe it isn't taught much anymore.
  • In the Catholic Church? A tiny number. this is an amazing tragedy.
  • rsven
    Posts: 43
    I obsess over this question all of the time, as I am a music teacher. An amazing tragedy, yes, but also an amazing opportunity. There is a lot of fear associated with the learning of music, just as in the learning of math. There is competition. There is a misunderstanding of what it means to learn notation. There is a distrust of "learning by ear", and how it relates to learning notation. As the director of a schola, I am aware of the (equal) two sides of music reading: reading the notes, and also the singing by ear. The tie that binds them both is Solfege, sung both by sight and also by ear. We must learn to not judge each other, but just to keep singing. It is all love. Love and patience.
  • I agree that there are way too few people in many different cultures that truly do NOT know how to read and sight-sing music. This is especially true in America! In addition to being a choirmaster, organist, composer and teacher, I am a professional concert, chamber and symphony violist. Anyone associated with instrumentalist (and especially string players and pianists), will testify that we spend and enormous amount of time practicing scales, arpeggios and all kinds of etudes and exercises; not to even mention form and analysis and chords.

    With all due respect to singers (and I am one), singers just simply do NOT spend enough time practicing scales, arpeggios, etudes, vocal exercises and especially in Solfege! This is a cold hard fact and I can personally attest to this since I have been to many music schools, colleges, schools and conservatories. In my opinion, a great deal of Solfege work in such etudes, exercises, scales and arpeggios needs to occur before one can say that they KNOW how to read and sight-sing music.

    When a person can truly sight-sing, they can actually hear the music set before them, in their head; like unto their conscious speaking to them except its singing. Then it is only a matter of using your voice to match that which is heard in your head. and THAT is another skill to be developed!
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 9,577
    You are all correct. I know only one handful who can truly sight read anything... and that includes the works of Stravinsky and the likes of his crazy scores.
  • But, Ken- there is an inherent disadvantage for a singer as opposed to an instrumentalist or pianist- all you guys have to do is put your finger (or bow) on the right key or string and there it is- singers have to have a pitch to begin with from another instrument, unless you are simply talking about intervals, not correct pitch as seen on the page. I think it is much harder to sightread as a singer. I can sit down to the piano and sight read lots of stuff, but I certainly couldn't sightread vocally a piece of Stravinsky. Now if everyone had to take piano lessons as a child, as most of us 'older' people did, our task would be much simpler. Children just don't learn this way anymore. So many of them don't even have a keyboard in the home anymore.

  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    Rather than ask how many can sing anything you put in front of them, it’s more useful to ask about those who can sing the music you want to put in front of them, and how much rehearsal time you have to play with (not to learn the notes, but to confirm singers’ readings and address the performance issues). On this board, that probably means plainsong and renaissance polyphony, perhaps with the odd excursion into classical, baroque and some kinds of modern. The answer usually involves a spectrum of skills, from those who sing a mass and motet on half an hour or so rehearsal to those who require more preparation. The beauty of the spectrum is that determined individuals and groups with a good coach can move along it, especially if their interest in making music isn’t confined to liturgical performance.

    When a person can truly sight-sing, they can actually hear the music set before them, in their head. Actually, sight-singers not only can hear the music in their head – they do. It’s an essential element of read-ahead, even where it’s not entirely conscious. Directors should encourage it and singers should practice it - they will find it immensely rewarding.
  • JamJam
    Posts: 636
    You mean sight-sing? I know plenty of people who can read music. Reading music is more than just pitches: it's also rhythms, dynamics, intervals. Very few people have perfect pitch or the training required to sight-sing. (Edit: I should say, very few choristers, or PIPs)

    I know only two or three people who can sight-sing cold; one of them is best at sight-singing Gregorian chant notation. But there are a lot of people in my family who can sight-sing harmonies if one or two other voices know what they're doing (SATB hymns).
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    In the Catholic Church? A tiny number. this is an amazing tragedy

    Yes, but, Jeffrey. I can't talk about the USA, but I don't think England is all that different, outside the centres of excellence and the converts.
    Yet I find a significant minority of Catholics have some understanding of conventional music notation, even if it's tucked away somewhere in the recesses of their memory. Once they've been interested in good liturgical music, a program of coaching and advice can build on that understanding to develop the skill. The difficulty is not so much in the program, as getting the backing of the Parish Priest for the music and the program in the first place!
  • Good sight-singing usually results from lots of practice--rhythm and pitch, with a bias toward fluency rather than just the reproduction of intervals--and enough knowledge of music theory to understand keys and clefs well.

    The earlier this intensive practice begins, the better; it's very hard to learn to sight-sing after young adulthood.

    Working in various clefs, including C-clefs is very helpful for moving from a decent intermediate level of reading to a secure, resilient sight-singer.

    With choirs, rhythmic precision is far more important in sight-reading and intonation than commonly assumed.

    Confidence and fluency are extremely important, and any instructional method needs to nurture these explicitly.

    Most singers are terrible sight-readers because they were taught implicitly that this skill was not important or was its achievement was attributable to 'talent' rather than instruction.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    it's very hard to learn to sight-sing after young adulthood.

    It's hard to learn excellent sight-singing after this age, but quite feasible to learn enough to be of value to a parish music program, or a community chorus. It all depends on frequency, committment and coaching.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    "With choirs, rhythmic precision is far more important in sight-reading and intonation than commonly assumed."

    I agree completely with this. As for myself, I can't sight-read with much accuracy, but it helps me (as a bass) to be able to see the harmonies going on. I typically write figured bass in my scores or harmonic analysis. If I know my part is doing a ii6-V-I or some variation thereupon, I can sight sing it, and pretty much any part of a typical hymn.
  • with a bias toward fluency rather than just the reproduction of intervals

    DBP, I would add, from my experience, that fluency with the recognition of intervals that is immediately associated with their reproduction is of utmost importance. And I concur that rhythmic accuracy is a skill that fosters the growth of sight-singing ability that is woefully neglected in primary and secondary instrumental and choral education.
  • It is my experience that vocalists are, as a group, greatly inferior sight-readers as compared to instrumentalists. Also, they tend to need more coaching to produce a truly musical result. There is very little that I cannot look at and sight-read or hear in my head without difficulty. Why professional and degreed singers usually cannot do this is strange. Nor do they seem apologetic about it (quite the opposite!). It seems to me that part of being a musician, being musically literate, is being able to look at music and hear it. Also, I have often had greater trouble getting the result I wanted from a paid chorister than from some of the better volunteers!
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 9,577

    It is an interesting anomaly that I have run into throughout my career that many trained vocalists are often afraid to show what they don't know when challenged to sight read something.
  • It is true that a piano playing vocalist will have a better advantage over a non-piano playing vocalist. And string players generally tend to make even better sight-readers than pianist. I (and others), believe that there is a correlation between the three areas that re-enforce each other - aural, tactile, vocal.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 9,577
    It is my opinion that if you think you only need to be an instrumentalist and do not also 'sing' your way through your profession in parallel, then you are shortchanging your ability to be the best musician you can become. Does that go the other way? Absolutely! Vocalists, get your hands on the keyboard! Something definitely connects in another part of the mind when you are playing AND singing intervals, together and separate. Work all the options. You will never regret it.
  • Yes, my daughter who started violin (and piano) at an early age developed perfect pitch very early , and altho doesn't have time now in her early 30's with a busy job to play much still has it- I have always been jealous of her. Grrr! She can sight read almost anything and also hear stacked chords of almost any number- a great advantage in music theory and harmony classes,which I always struggled with.

    I believe string players have a great advantage over singers
  • Carl DCarl D
    Posts: 992
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    Take heart, gentlepeople, there's amazing room for growth and discovery. TWIIATWIWB*.

    * The way it is ain't the way it will be.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,374
    I would distinguish sight-singing from the ability to read music. Sight-singing is a specific level of reading music.

    That said, in the USA, I would say the portion of the population that can read music has been declining for a generation, due to music education being moved out of core primary education curricula into the fringe.

    As someone who was trained as a horn player, I would say that singers who are not orchestral/wind ensemble instrumentalists find the culture of such instrumentalists harsh. That is, as from the age of 10 to 22, as a horn player, I got inured to (1) competition (auditions, solos, death-matches to rise up a chair on the spot in front of the whole ensemble), and (2) blunt, brusque and even abusive treatment from directors (hurled music/batons/what not). When I sing with non-instrumentalists, the difference is very apparent: instrumentalists tend to seek correction and don't take correction as personally.

    One fun way to deal with reading music is to take one's choir to Sacred Harp sing-ins....
  • Oh we have one of those just about every week in this part of the country.

  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    The remarks on the relationship between a wide range of music-making and good singing are born out by my experience of Spode Music Week in the UK, which is a bit like the Colloquium plus non-liturgical and instrumental music making. Nearly everyone who attends sings and plays something, and that shows in the liturgical music schedule, which involves different masses and motets every day, often quite challenging stuff. Apart from the course Mass, none of it gets more than one rehearsal.
  • RagueneauRagueneau
    Posts: 2,592
    By sight-singing, I mean that they can sing the (theoretically) correct intervals without reference to an instrument.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,374

    I would distinguish sight-singing from the ability to really really read music. I've encountered people who can sing intervals correctly but are not good with rhythms or reading all the other musical notation details. And what level of proficiency would count for sight-singing?

    I remember having a TA in my second year of music theory who transposed in incipit on all sight-singing exercises by a tritone for the folks who had perfect pitch.....
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    And what level of proficiency would count for sight-singing?

    Enough for your program. If you want to sing a different polyphonic ordinary and motet every week, plus plainsong propers, then you'll need people who can read the dots straight off. If you want to sing a new motet once a month plus a known plainsong Ordinary, you'll allow some time for note-bashing. Of course, the argument is circular: the available skills will have a direct effect on the program.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 9,577

    Absolutely the frustration with the present situation where no one reads in this country.
  • Pes
    Posts: 623
    Daniel wrote:

    "Working in various clefs, including C-clefs is very helpful for moving from a decent intermediate level of reading to a secure, resilient sight-singer."

    I agree completely. My sight-singing was okay until I started to learn to sight-sing chant. The change of clef forced me to sing by interval. Now when I sing modern notation I do the same. It's a bit harder with all the accidentals of course, but the shift in overall habit has been made, and that has made all the difference.

    Also, I find it helpful to take five minutes a day and just write down the notes as I hum simple melodies to myself. Vary the clef. It's fun, like working puzzles.

    I long for the day when I can open a full orchestral score and hear all the parts simultaneously. I admire those of you who are my superiors in this! For me, a non-professional, it will probably never happen, but the goal is so attractive that I keep working at it, if only to enjoy the more modest benefit of hearing simpler pieces in my head.

    Have any of you read a score on a subway, train, or at a bus stop? I remember doing this and catching people's reactions. They were very interesting. Some people smiled and nodded. Others would notice and then express, unprompted, that they so wish they could do the same! I think there's a hunger out there for this kind of literacy. People recognize its value. It's why some adults at mid-life suddenly purchase electric pianos and start playing simplified Chopin.

    Music is wonderful. Period.
  • JamJam
    Posts: 636
    I was able to do that once -- open up a score and read it -- but only because I had heard the song before. I didn't recognize the title or author, but when I looked at the notes long enough they awakened my memory of the piece. It would be really awesome to do that cold from just a random score but... I'm never going to be a conductor, so I'ma focus on Gregorian and Byzantine chant notation.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,374
    Well, as someone trained on the horn, we had to be able to transpose readily - including tritone intervals (Brahms 2d symphony comes immediately to mind). It's one of the blessings of not having so-called perfect pitch.
  • Ted_B
    Posts: 8
    In my undergraduate degree I took a brass techniques class. If you hand me a trumpet I can play accurate pitches and rhythms. However, if you hear a high school freshman trumpet player it will quickly evident which one of us is a true trumpet player. In many ways I think hearing some instrumentalist sight sing is the same way, they get the right pitches and rhythm but the sound quality is lacking.

    Someone earlier mentioned that many trained singers they have come across do not have the ability to sight read. It is inexcusable that a trained singer can not sight read. But.... in their defense trained singers are worried about more then just singing the correct pitches. They are occupied with: correct vocal production, breathing, vowel modification and any number of other technical issues. Quality of the tonal production must also be a consideration in what a good choir sight singing is.

    Sight singing is a skill that takes lots of time. Many of us had many semesters of study in our undergrads with music professors to teach us this very skill. When you consider that most of our choirs have at most with us a couple of hours a week and that only a small percent of that time can be specifically focused on teaching basic musicianship skills like sight singing, then you can see that the teaching of this skill will take a very long time. After all public school teachers struggle with finding the time to teach this skill and they have many more hours in a week that they can teach it.

    I recently heard a prominent choral conductor (she shall remain nameless) that claimed she once taught her church choir to sight sing/ read music in 8 hours! When I hear these clams I am always amazed at how good singers are at faking it and how some conductors are so absorbed in themselves that they can not see the difference.
  • The comments made on this list are very helpful for those interested in creating materials to reach people who are interested in chant.

    I teach a class in which I can get people to read chant in less than an hour using my Beginner's book. No one walking out of there is a finished singer but they can look at a score and see if the melody is rising or falling and connect the notes with the words below. I do think that a talented choral conductor can teach a choir to read music in 8 hours. Part of this process is getting them to look at the music and think rather than sit expecting the director to pound out the notes and beat them into their skulls.

    While there may be some conductors who are absorbed in themselves, there are others who are absorbed in communicating music and teaching it to raise people to a higher level. The entire CMAA faculty for the Colloquiums and Chant Intensives, for example!

    Intended for those who read or do not read music, If You Can Sing JOY TO THE WORLD You Can Learn To Read And Sing Chant will be available shortly. It strips away non-essentials from modern notation and then builds chant reading ability.
  • Blaise
    Posts: 439
    I have training in using solfege in high school choir, and I know which direction a sentence of notes (?) should go (up or down) based on looking at a measure of music. Can I sing something immediately on sight with 80 (or even 50) % accuracy w/o some reference pitch or somebody next to me to assist me? Absolutely not.
  • Ted_B
    Posts: 8
    I guess I should have been more clear. The conductor I was speaking of led us to believe that she had made master sight readers out of a group in 8 hours. It's hard to convey her tone but I guess you had to be there to know what I mean. I think you can train a choir to follow the contour of musical lines in a short amount of time and this is the beginning of sight reading. But it's similar to using hooked on phonics. You may be able to sound out a word or two but does this really qualify as reading? It's a good start and a necessary realization but it is in and of itself not the actual skill.

    Amateurs who sing in choirs are really good at faking that they can sight read. I see it all the time in high school students. They are really good at following the one or two people in a section that can actually read the music. This is the danger with a quick approach to sight singing without a slow and methodical approach that needs to follow the initial instruction.

    As an experiment to see what I mean: have a partner sing a melody with you as you make it up on the spot. Chances are they will be able to produce your improvised melody simultaneously with a very good relative degree of accuracy. Many choir directors do not take the time to realize who is actually reading and who is really very good at instantaneous reproduction.
  • If the criterion is: "Able to get most renaissance polyphony by the 2nd or 3rd time through singing it", I'd say several dozen for sure, because I've done it with them. There are many more who I know have received the training to do so, but I haven't sing with them. if the standard is, "Sings anything at sight flawlessly", then I know very few if any. I am a pretty certain sight-reader and very seldom make mistakes with intervals. But my eyes are not what they used to be. Errors also increase with old clefs, mensurstriche, original notation (esp. in triple time), oddball reduction or barring conventions, or transposition by more than about a step. I can cope with all those, but it might mean an extra time through the music.

    If you're a singer THAT's "reading music", not "I can tell you what note C is." And frankly, I have very little patience with singers who can't read, and have a drive to see universal musical literacy. It is IMPOSSIBLE to sustain a culture based on literacy when the literacy is not there. We're beginning to see that with words. It's already here with music.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,374
    Take choristers to a shape-note sing-in. It does wonders.
  • Ted_B
    Posts: 8
    I just realized how off topic I have become. To answer the original question I know of maybe three people that can really look at a whole piece of music (like a large orchestral score) and hear it in their head. I know quite a bit more that can sing there individual parts with few mistakes. I know a lot more who, with a couple of minutes, can "figure it out". I would love to have a few more people who would be willing to "figure it out" in my choir :)
  • I know of around a dozen singers in my area who can sight-sing their part in a choral piece and have 90% accuracy within 1-3 tries. And how I wish they were in the choir I direct! Alas, they are mostly scooped up by Episcopalian parishes.

    I would be one of those singers now, but upon completing a BM and an MM and testing out of all aural skills I still wasn't there. It took a year of chant immersion to do this. And I'm still better at sight singing chant than modern notation. Typically I can read rhythms much faster than large descending intervals, and sight singing Whitacre, etc. is still a challenge, anything outside modal and tonal systems, really. I guess when I have to do it regularly, I'm fine. But I'm out of practice with that rep.

    I do find the skill of hearing music without singing it very handy. I take my liber and music folder to waiting rooms, etc., and get a good amount of work done.
  • Oh, and coming from the classical singer and voice teacher perspective, I would like to second Ted's assertion that it takes (much!) more than sight singing to craft beautiful singing. Notes and rhythms are only first base, if you ask me.

    How many times have I heard an instrumentalist sight sing something with note accuracy, smiling smugly, but displaying very poor concepts of tone, diction, phrasing, and legato. My dear husband is an excellent classical and jazz guitarist. But he sounds like a broken oboe when he sings. String players seem to do the best, especially with legato and phrasing.

    But there is no such thing as "I'm a good musician and therefore an instantly good singer". Pure hubris. And kinda funny!
  • Often reading skills and singing skills go to different people. I know I've gotten places on the basis of reading that I couldn't get to on the basis of my voice. But the idea that one would or could read a polyphonic line without an attempt at phrasing it mystifies me.

    I'd love to learn much more about the process of aural skills pedagogy. Your school experience MA seems sadly typical...they find some theory majors who need a graduate assistantship, who can do the thing themselves (maybe they have perfect pitch or were a "natural"), but have no idea how to impart the knowledge to others. For me, sight-singing seems to be a dynamic interplay of various elements: pitch memory, scale memory, memory of intervals, muscle memory (why I find I actually have to transpose if the music is transposed in performance, instead of just picking a different tonic), seeing the beat on the page, dividing the beat, thinking by measure instead of beat.

    The best way to learn to read is to read, preferably is a group with multiple voices per part. Some singers will get the right note, automatically correcting the ones who don't. Having to do it in real time speeds up the thinking process.
  • JDE
    Posts: 586
    For me as a pianist, the major leap in sight-reading skills came from playing for a couple of years in the Baptist church, where we had to read hymns together on piano and organ (yes, it makes an incredible racket) while the music director conducts the congregation. The pianist is expected to improvise on the hymn tune while the organist supports the singing. And you think the "touchdown cantor" is annoying - imagine a cheerleader conducting 4/4 time for an entire hymn. It looks as if he were speed-blessing the congregation.

    As a singer, I did really well in sight-singing class thanks to the piano background, but it is true that practice is the only way to mastery. If I don't challenge myself with new music fairly often, I find it much more difficult the next time I try. However, the skill always comes back after a few minutes of effort.

    About singers and sight-reading, it is an open secret that many Great Singers (Ezio Pinza and Luciano Pavarotti spring to mind as specific examples) rely on their Chorrepetitor to learn every note they sing in public. This is why Pavarotti had a relatively narrow repertoire (~50 roles, if I recall correctly), while Domingo, who has pretty impressive skills as a pianist, has sung over 120 tenor roles, and is currently working his way through the baritone repertoire as well. This does not take away from the greatness of those who are less proficient with sight-singing -- indeed, who could argue that Pinza was not at the top of the basso cantante heap? -- but it explains a lot. One might even argue that the increased time required for learning solo music for these singers gives them more opportunity to polish the sound and the other musical considerations.
  • Ted_B
    Posts: 8
    Well said JDE. Sight singing is a tool. You can be a successful musician without having a clue how to read or sight read. After all audiences and listeners don't care how long it took you to learn it they only care how good it sounds. That being said it makes our jobs SO MUCH easier when we don't have to spoon feed everything to an ensemble and I think groups have a greater sense of ownership when they can read well and do not have to wait for the conductor to spell everything out for them.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,410
    A better question is:
    How many musicians (amateur, volunteer, or professional) do you know who wish they could read music and sight sing BETTER than they currently do?
    I suspect the answer is: All of us.

    Two things to be done:

    1. I think we all know that singing and learning chant and polyphony makes us better sight readers, especially when it is learned and sung without the aid of instruments and with the aid of solfege.
    So... you know... more of that, please.

    2. I belong to a generation that is significantly less well-off, intellectually and culturally speaking, than the several generations which came before us. I'm increasingly finding people my age who are "mad as hell" that they were not taught certain things when they were children and students (music, foreign languages, philosophy, literature), and are determined that we will not let the same thing happen to our children.
    My point: Children's choirs are (as they have ever been) vitally important. And it is more important than ever that part of rehearsal time (as precious as it is) be spent learning music skills and music literacy, rather than just learning the next piece of music. Most of us probably know that already, but it bears keeping in mind.
    We need to give to our children what we lacked growing up.
  • "You can be a successful musician without having a clue how to read or sight read."
    If you're Pavarotti. Or Andrea Bocelli, Francesco Landini, John Stanley, Joaquin Rodrigo, Jean Langlais, etc. That the former was a software problem and the latter list had hardware problems does not make the non-reading any less of a handicap; indeed, the tragedy was greater, because it could have been cured, and wasn't.
  • Mario Lanza never sang an opera, said to be unable to memorize a role.
  • IanWIanW
    Posts: 749
    Difficulty with memorising can be a downside of sight-singing ability.
  • OTOH, how often does a church musician have to memorize?
  • Memorization comes in handy when singing psalmtone verses in Gregorian or Anglican Chant. Memorization begins the first time you sing any piece as the brain recognizes and begins to remember note and word combinations and tracks them.

    Otherwise it would be sight singing every time you sang.
  • VERY few people do in the United States. I am pretty sure that sight reading is much better in general overseas. I remember my audition for Chanticleer the first time and the sheet of music they handed me with the most atonal, awful passage to sing. It was the first time in my life I felt completely inadequate with sight reading. The next year I actually practiced with 12 tone scores in the practice room beforehand and it helped a TON! It just takes real practice.

    Matthew Curtis
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    "Modus Novus" by Lars Edlund is an excellent resource for atonal sight singing.