learning to play the harp: why marking music matters

What’s My Problem? Why Can’t I Do This?

by Barbara Ann Fackler, May 2012

From time to time my students come to lessons discouraged with a piece of music they can’t master. They may believe that it’s because of a lack of ability when in truth, it’s because the music is formatted in a way that obscures the information necessary for success.

The Spring 2012 issue (#154) of the Folk Harp Journal includes a submission of mine that is, unfortunately, a great example of this kind of problem. Compare each example below. The first is the version with the notational error. Notice that there are seven beats in the measure? There should be only six beats in each measure. Do you see that a bar line missing? It’s impossible to play the first measure in 6/4 because there are too many beats. The fix is fairly simple. Add the barline where it belongs.

learning to play the harp: why marking music matters

The lesson for me? Proofread more carefully. Often I ask others to help proof my music because they catch things that I miss. This time I skipped that process and was reminded that a hurried project is often fraught with flaws.

The lesson for you? There are many things that contribute to how easily music is read. It’s not always lack of ability that makes some music difficult to read. Notational errors can make even the most seasoned sightreader stop for a second look. If you think the music you’re working on is appropriate to your level and you are struggling, take time to evaluate the notation. Ask yourself these questions: Is it aligned properly? Are the proper number of notes and rests in each measure to make the correct number of beats? Are notes beamed in a way that makes finding the rhythmic patterns easy? Common practice rules for music notation make music easy to read in the same way that common practice writing makes text easier to read. When punctuation, paragraphs, spaces between words, and proper spelling are missing, reading is hindered. The same thing happens to musicians when notation errors occur or common practice rules are ignored.

In common practice, how notes are beamed together indicates how the notes fit within the meter. For harpists there’s the added complication of using beaming to indicate which hand to use or to show placing groups. Great care should be taken to beam notes to show placing groups without obscuring the intent of the rhythmic structure. 6/8 is usually divided into two groups of three with strong beats on one and four as seen here in the example below. Notice, however, that the placing pattern works in groups of two, not three like the rhythm.

maybe your difficulty learning your music isn't you, maybe it's awkward notation

If the beaming is changed to make it easier to see the placing groups, it begins to appear more like the pattern seen in 3/4. It’s not a problem if this is the division of weak and strong beats intended.

notation can change the ease with which we read music

Sometimes adding a few placing brackets will help the eye find the placing groups without obscuring the rhythm.

maybe your difficulty learning your music isn't you, maybe it's awkward notation

When the music isn’t aligned properly, with all the beats centered vertically and spaced evenly, reading is impaired as well. Music that isn’t aligned properly makes it difficult to see how the beats line up between the left hand and right hand as shown below:

aligning notation matters

When the music is aligned properly, notes line up vertically between the treble and bass clefs making coordination in reading music easier:

maybe your struggle with note reading isn't your fault

My favorite way of editing notational errors is to use liquid correction fluid. By covering the errors and making corrections, the music becomes easier to read. My students are beginning to do the same and we find that lesson time spent re-beaming notes makes practice at home more productive.

If your ensemble has trouble fitting music together you may want to stop and study the notation. Sometimes the beaming in one part makes it look like it’s in 3/4 instead of 6/8, giving you two differing interpretations of the rhythmic structure. Once the source of the confusion is identified and corrected you can get on with making music.

Next time you struggle with a new piece of music, take time to find the source of the struggle. The struggle might not begin with your lack of skill, the problem might be on the page! Knowing the rules of notation can help you assess your music and streamline your note reading.