Saturday, November 9, 2013

How Musicians Train: Score Reading

The term "score reading" came up in the comments on this post. It occurs to me that it might be useful to talk a little about what score reading is. It is just slightly ironic that I should be talking about it because this, along with undergraduate counterpoint courses, was something I managed to completely avoid while at university!

Score reading is one aspect of a whole set of different kinds of musical training that is offered at universities and conservatories. If you just search for "score reading" on the Internet one of the first things that comes up is this site. This is part of the online materials of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. But before we have a closer look, I need to fill in some background for you.

A musical score is one of the great triumphs of human creativity. Just think of it: somehow we have figured out how to put down on paper something as ephemeral as a musical performance:

Lovely music that, but how do you write it down? It may seem simple to us now as we have all seen musical scores, but it took much of human history to find out how to clearly notate music. There were various attempts made in different cultures, none of them entirely successful. But the first important advance was around the year 1000 AD when Guido of Arezzo had the brilliant idea that you could show the exact pitch of notes by notating them in relation to a horizontal line. This was soon refined into five lines, which is what we use today:

How brilliant was this idea? Just one person in all of human history came up with it. We have evidence of musical performance dating back about 40,000 years, but the music staff wasn't invented until a thousand years ago. To my mind it is a discovery on a par with calculus or relativity theory. And this was just how to write down the pitches; how to write down rhythms effectively took another 500 years:

We learn the rudiments of score reading when we take music lessons. In fact, I teach my students that notes are written on a staff right after I teach them how to hold and tune the guitar--about twenty minutes into the first lesson!

But to become fluent at score reading in all its aspects, not just on your own instrument, you need to train yourself. There are a number of challenges. First of all, as a guitarist, you only have to know one clef: the treble clef, that funny shaped thingy at the beginning of the staff. This clef tells you what notes the lines and spaces indicate. The treble clef is a stylized letter "G" and it curls around the second line from the bottom, meaning that this line is G. If you know that, you know what all the other notes are. The space below is F, for example, the letter before G, and the space above is A, because the musical alphabet only has seven letters: A to G.

If you are a pianist, you need to know two clefs because the piano, an instrument with a wide range, is written on two staves known as the Grand Staff:

The top clef is the treble clef and the new one on the bottom is the bass clef. It is a stylized letter "F" and those two dots bracket the second line from the top which is the note F. These two clefs, because of the notes they reference, are sometimes called G and F clefs. They can be placed on different lines of the staff.

Alas, we are not done with clefs quite yet. Not as much now, but historically, a lot of other clefs were also used. Most of these were "C" clefs, meaning clefs that indicated where the note C was. Here is the most common of these, the alto clef:

That stylized bracket indicates that the middle line is middle C. This clef is used for the viola as it fits well with the range of the viola, so excessive ledger lines can be avoided. (Ledger lines are those little lines we use when we go above or below the staff.) Going back a few centuries, the use of a lot of ledger lines was avoided by using a wide range of clefs. Here are all the ones in use, from highest to lowest:

There is a bracket joining the two versions of the baritone clef because the F clef and the C clef work out to the same thing. Nowadays we tend to use more ledger lines and fewer clefs, but a complete musical training would involve learning to use all the clefs shown because they do turn up from time to time.

So that's it, right? Well, not quite, there is another challenge. You may think I am pulling your leg, but not all instruments are written at concert pitch. Another way of saying this is that not all instruments "sound as written". If you hand a written down piece of music showing the note C to a trumpet player with a B flat trumpet, he will play a B flat instead of a C. If you want him to play a C, you have to write a D. He plays a "transposing instrument". All the transposing instruments are wind instruments, but not all wind instruments are transposing. The flute, for example, plays at concert pitch.

So if you want to know exactly what notes will sound when a score including transposing instruments is played, you have to know how to transpose at sight. If you see a D written for B flat trumpet, you know that will sound as a C. To avoid any confusion about transposing instruments, the transposition is indicated at the beginning of the score. It will say, for example, "Trumpet in B flat". You just have to remember what that means.

Now, let's go back to that score reading page from the San Francisco Conservatory. What is this all about? As we can see, the purpose of these exercises is to test your ability to read various clefs and transposing instruments at sight. How you are tested is to play the examples on piano. Since not everyone is a fluent pianist, you may do so at a slow tempo. The important thing is to show that you know how the score should sound. As you can see, roughly the first half of the exercises are devoted to the various clefs in various combinations. The second half are devoted to transposing instruments. Towards the end we have full orchestral scores that have various clefs and transposing instruments. Here is the exercise using the opening of the Symphony No. 39 by Mozart:

So you have to figure out how to play this on piano without leaving out anything important. That itself is an interesting exercise because it means you learn how to distinguish more from less important. For example, in that opening chord there are a lot of doubled notes that you can leave out. All you need to play are E flat, B flat, and G. It is just an E flat triad. That is repeated a few times. Then you have a scale and the good news here is that the first and second violins are playing in unison, so all you have to do is play an E flat scale from B flat down to E flat, one and a half octaves. Then a new chord, F B flat A flat D which is just the dominant B flat with a seventh in second inversion. And so on.

Score reading involves two basic skills: first, recognition of what notes are played despite them being written in different clefs and played by transposing instruments and second, recognition of doubled and duplicated notes enabling you to grasp the essence of what is going on.

Does a virtuoso guitarist or pianist really need to be able to do this? No, of course not, but composers, arrangers and conductors do.

So there you have it: score reading. It takes a lot of practice!

Now let's listen to the Mozart again:


Nathan Shirley said...

I imagine you breezed over this point for the sake of simplicity, but I think it's not well known and quite interesting-

The treble and bass clefs were styled not after the notes G and F but after the solfege (aka sol-fa) notes Sol and Fa. So yes the bass is a stylized F, but the treble is actually a stylized S... which happens to look a lot like a G, making it handy to teach the G and F clefs in countries that don't use Solfege. But long ago those clefs were simply written as plain letters S and F.

The relationship between the treble and bass clef as easily seen in the grand staff is quite a fantastic invention too, with its mirror image of the notes C. And then the notes G in the treble are mirrored by the notes F in the bass. Just another little known but interesting thing about why the clefs evolved the way they did.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathan. Just one of those things I never knew! Probably because up to university level, I taught myself music theory.

Nathan Shirley said...

I don't think these things are hardly ever taught in music theory classes either, at least none that I ever took.

I believe I read about the clef history in the Grove years back, and the mirror image thing I just noticed on my own one day (although since then I've seen the C mirror image mentioned in a piano method book).