Learning How to Read Music For Piano

It may seem formidable to learn how to read sheet music, but it is well worth the effort. Look at it this way…you were able to learn how to speak without having to read or write. But how much of life would you have missed if you had never learned to read a newspaper, a book, a letter, or read and write a text message?

The same is true for a musician. If you play by ear, you can only learn to play the songs you have heard and are able to remember the melody. If you have taught yourself chording, you can really only accompany other musicians or singers, in a simple way. However, if you can read sheet music, you can play anything.

Sheet music gives you more than just notes that play out a simple melody. It does more than simply supply a few chords and chord progressions. It enables you to play music you have never even heard, in any style…from easy listening, to blues, to jazz, to classical. It helps you grasp the theory of music in general.

The first thing you see on the staff when you look at it are the clefs. The two main ones are treble(usually played by the right hand), and bass (usually played by the left hand). The lines and spaces on the staff are where the notes are placed… in the treble clef the lines are EGBDF (every good boy does fine) and the spaces are FACE. In the bass clef they are GBDFA (good boys don’t fall apart) and ACEG (all cows eat grass). These are read from the bottom upon the staff. See…you are already reading!

Between the clefs you find the key signature, which tells you what key the piece is in and whether certain notes are sharp or flat. The sharp and flat notes are played on the black piano keys and the natural notes are the white keys. If a note is going to change from the original signature, it is indicated with a natural symbol in front of the note. This tells you to eliminate the flat or sharp.

The time signature is located just to the right of the key signature, and it tells you what tempo the music is played in. For example, ¾ time is a standard waltz tempo. This may change throughout the music, and will be indicated by another fraction in front of the next series of notes. The top number tells you how many beats there are in each bar (bars, or measures are separated by vertical lines through the staff). The bottom number tells you what kind of beat gets one beat. There are also rests, which indicate a beat in which no note is played at all.

A period over a note tells you to play it quickly and sharply (staccato), but there are many more terms that give you further instructions. Allegro tells you to play in a lively fashion, legato means slow, and andante means at a walking pace. There are symbols below the staff that indicate when to use the foot pedals.

Like reading a good novel, reading sheet music gives you every aspect of the song, from tempo to mood, from romantic to angry, to soothing.

Can Musical Tones Played in the Ear Help With Gait-Freezing in Parkinson’s Patients?

Parkinson’s Disease is the second most common degenerative neurological disorder. The incidence of Parkinson’s Disease, let’s called it PD for short, is growing rapidly with an aging population. The fundamental cause of PD is the death of nerve cells that produce a chemical called dopamine. The loss of these dopamine producing cells occurs in a part of the brain known generally as the basal ganglia and specifically the substantia nigra.

This part of the brain, the basal ganglia, is known to influence movement and diseases or injury of the basal ganglia produces what are known collectively as movement disorders which include Parkinson’s Disease. Parkinson’s Disease is characterized by slow movements known as bradykinesia (brady = slow, kinesis = movements), tremor and other signs of abnormal muscle function. One of the more disturbing symptoms that can occur in patients suffering with PD is called freezing of gait.

Voluntary movement takes place in two basic steps. To move we create the intention to move in one part of the brain. Thus one part of the brain plans the movement and the actual movement commands that activate the muscles occur in a different part of the brain. So we plan a movement and that plan is carried out by other circuits in the brain which then execute that plan.

In many patients with Parkinson’s Disease, planned movements like walking have delayed or failed execution. This is called Freezing-of-gait and it can severely diminish the quality of life in a Parkinson’s patient. Although we call this symptom freezing of gait, it can actually occur with any voluntary movement, like reaching for a glass, brushing your hair or getting up from a seated position to stand. It often leaves the Parkinson’s patient unable to initiate a movement or stuck in the middle of a planned action. It should not be hard for you to imagine how freezing might severely diminish a patient’s functional abilities and interfere with his or her daily activities.

Not surprisingly, freezing has also been linked to falls and injuries in PD patients.

The medical treatments for PD include drugs that replace the dopamine that is lost with degeneration of the substantia nigra. As a general rule dopamine replacement therapies are quite effective for patients suffering with PD with two notable exceptions:

  1. They usually are not particularly effective for freezing-type symptoms and
  2. They usually loose their effectiveness over time

A number of research groups believe they have identified the specific part of the brain which malfunctions and causes freezing symptoms in Parkinson’s patients. It is known as the pedunculopontine nucleus (let’s call it the PPN for short) in the brainstem. This has lead to a number of trials of electrical stimulation of the PPN through the use of surgically implanted deep brain electrodes. There are a growing number of reports that suggest that electrical stimulation of the PPN may produce promising results for patients in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease. This technique appears to activate the PPN and results in reduced gait-freezing in patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. While this is a promising surgical procedure, it does however, require brain surgery and all of the associated risks.

If only there was a way to stimulate the PPN in the brainstem non-invasively.

Some recent research suggests that non-surgical PPN stimulation may now be possible. What is even more encouraging is the possibility of stimulating the PNN and reducing freezing through the use of musical tones played through special bone conducting headphones. Let’s see how this might work.

Research has shown that structures in the inner ear called otoliths can be stimulated by tones of highly specific frequencies. These inner ear structures have direct connections with the PPN which as we have discussed are important brainstem structures related to freezing symptoms in Parkinson’s Disease. Stimulating the otoliths with a tone played through special bone-conducting headphones may activate the PPN and has the potential to reduce gait-freezing in patients suffering from Parkinson’s Disease. Other research suggests that neurological rehabilitation and cueing patients with auditory or visual signals can improve freezing symptoms in PD patients. Thus there is the potential to improve freezing of gait through the combination of rehabilitation with auditory cueing using sound frequencies known to stimulate the PPN which is implicated in freezing of gait in PD.

This is very encouraging news for patients suffering from gait freezing associated with Parkinson’s Disease.

Music As A Great Motivator

Ever watch a group of teenagers listening to their music? They are all singing the lyrics in unison as loud as they can. They are motivating each other. We hear the music and suddenly our feet are tapping out the beat. It is not something we consciously do, it just happens. The music takes over our body and soul, so let it. Wherever you go music is always present. We all hear and complain about elevator music, yet we all are humming the tunes. The company Muzak doesn’t put music in elevators for the fun of it or do they. They understand that people get motivated in that cramped quarters and music keeps them occupied. They are making money on pleasing you. Now, that is motivation. Another example of public music is in the grocery store. The customers are always complaining about the old tunes, but there again they are walking around the market and standing in line at the register humming the tunes as if they loved them.

Music gets the body moving and the mind is free to be motivated. While writing this article my music is playing through my computer speakers, energizing me and motivating me to keep on writing. Allow your mind to start thinking and learn to motivate yourself with they help of music. As a child my first motivation that I can recall is watching a movie about a musician, Benny Goodman. This motivated me at the age of 8 to want to play the clarinet. The motivation was so strong that I had to wait one full year before my parents let me take music lessons and I played for 40 years.

Music plays a large part of our lives. Music can make you cry or laugh with joy and even make you feel proud. We all relate to music in some form. Let the music sway you to motivate yourself in very positive ways. We do work harder and better with music. Many years ago a business man who canned pineapples in Hawaii played upbeat music for the employees while they were working. The result was happy people whose production went wild. Motivation through music is great.

Listening to music allows your mind to dream and to motivate. It cannot be stopped. The blood starts flowing and the adrenalin starts pumping and there is the start of your motivation.

When Should My Child Begin Music Lessons? A Comparison of Waldorf and Suzuki Philosophies

I am a trained Waldorf early childhood teacher and have also completed training as a “Music Together” teacher (a music and movement program for preschoolers and their parents) through the Center for Music and Young Children in Princeton, NJ. In addition, I am a Suzuki parent and a strong supporter of Suzuki music education. I have been interested in comparing the similarities and differences between Suzuki and Waldorf pedagogy ever since discovering how much they share in common.

In spite of the number of similarities in approach, one fundamental difference between the two approaches is regarding the age at which a child should begin formal music instruction. Suzuki students are encouraged to begin instrumental lessons as early as age two or three. On the other hand, students in a Waldorf school do not begin lessons with string instruments until third or fourth grade. My personal opinion is that Suzuki, for many children, starts too early, and that Waldorf schools may start too late. Based on my research and observation, I believe that age seven is a more appropriate age for most children to begin private music lessons — for many of the same reasons that make seven the ideal age for a child to begin formal, academic learning at school, according to Waldorf philosophy.

In Waldorf pedagogy, formal academic learning does not begin until, ideally the age of seven. This comes after a period of intense growth during the first seven years of life, after which, according to Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, the child’s “etheric” or life forces are freed up for more cognitive pursuits. As a child of seven is better able to sit and focus on formal “lessons” than a younger child, so a child of this age would be better able to focus on formal music instruction, and to be capable of practicing. I have questioned many different music teachers – Suzuki teachers, traditional music teachers and Waldorf music teachers — on whether there is a great advantage to starting children on an instrument as early as three- to five-years old and, by and large, most teachers I’ve talked to seem to agree that children who start when they are older (say, seven or eight) are not at a disadvantage; they are usually able to catch up quickly with the children who have been taking lessons since they were much younger.

Within a few months of starting cello, I observed that my seven-year-old caught up to the same place as another seven-year-old boy in his class who’d been playing for a full two years. My child, I would say, has fairly average musical ability. He is musical, but not precocious.

I think it is unnatural for a child under seven to be asked to sit down and practice an instrument daily, no matter how short or playful the practice session. I feel strongly that children under seven should be moving, playing and engaged in their imagination without the pressure or stress of practicing, or worse, performing. They are learning an enormous amount — taking in the world through their senses, developing their imaginations through play and the experience of life. This short and precious period of childhood should be free from the pressures of performing and feeling the need to please others.

On the other hand, most Waldorf schools don’t start teaching strings until third or fourth grade. I worry that this is too late. Recent brain research indicates that there is a musical learning “window” of opportunity that closes around the age of nine (similar to the “window” for language acquisition). Based upon my research and observation, I believe that it is more difficult, though certainly not impossible, for children to become proficient at an instrument if they start after the age of nine. Waldorf students are, of course, learning to play the pentatonic flute, and often the soprano recorder, before the age of nine, which is absolutely beneficial and helps to develop the student’s musical ear. There are many Waldorf teachers who would argue that learning to play a stringed instrument or the piano would be inappropriate for a child under nine. I do not agree with them. My own experience with my children has been entirely rewarding and positive, having started them with music lessons at ages seven and eight.

I also recommend waiting until a child begins to show an interest in learning to play an instrument before offering private music instruction. Children are much more likely to be self-motivated when there is a genuine and personal interest in learning to play an instrument. I have observed very few children who have expressed an interest in learning to play an instrument before the age of 5-7. Of course, there are some children who really are musically precocious and may, in fact, prove to be prodigious musical students. If your child is relentless in demanding to learn a particular instrument, I would advise listening to them and taking advantage of his interest.

If you decide to pursue music education for your child under seven I would highly recommend – no, I would BEG you – to find a Suzuki teacher. A good Suzuki teacher, like a good Waldorf, teacher, teaches out of imitation and in a playful, imaginative way. The emphasis should be on the process, not on the product.

Another similarity between Suzuki method and Waldorf education is that children are taught to play beautiful music by memory and ear before they are able to read music — just the way Waldorf students are able to recite beautiful poetry by heart before they are able to read or write. Learning to play music precedes learning to read music, just as in human development learning to speak always precedes learning to read and write. Learning to read music should not be attempted before the child is able to read language.

Readers of Dr. Suzuki’s book Nurtured by Love, will come across much philosophy that is similar to Rudolf Steiner’s. (It is interesting to note that both lived in Germany during the same period of time.) Dr. Suzuki emphasizes that it is far more important for a child to strive to become a beautiful person on the inside, than the most technically proficient musician. By nurturing beautiful feelings in the child, beautiful music will be produced.

The most important thing one can do musically for a child under seven is to expose them to lots and lots music, especially the human voice. Sing to them and with them all the time! Sing even if you think you can’t — your child will not be critical, and will appreciate your effort more than you can imagine. I think it’s also of great benefit to let children hear live music being played so that they learn that music is something that human beings make, and are not just mechanical sounds that come out of an electronic box. Research indicates that that listening to music (and lots of different kinds and tonalities) early in life is what develops a child’s musical ear. So that even if a child doesn’t begin formal music instruction until age nine or later, by having been exposed to many types of music and different qualities of tone, that child will still have developed musically during her early childhood.

Sera Jane Smolen, Ph.D., a cellist who has also taught music in a Waldorf school and wrote her thesis on a comparison of Waldorf and Suzuki methods, once told me that no world-class musician (that is to say, the Yo Yo Ma’s and the Emanuel Ax’s of the world) ever started music instruction later than the age of five. This statement is likely to give many parents pause. But then she asked me, “Is our goal to raise world-class musicians, or Martin Luther Kings?” Do we offer our children music lessons because we want to produce a prodigy, or do we do it to nurture a love of music in child who may fulfill Dr. Suzuki’s vision of bringing about world peace through music?

© Sarah Baldwin, M.S.Ed., 2009

Resources:

Shinichi Suzuki, Nurtured by Love: The Classic Approach to Talent Education, Suzuki Method International, 1986.

For more information on Suzuki music instruction, or to find a teacher.