How to Decode a Musical Score

We can learn a lot about a piece without even playing a single note of it. A musical score may look like it’s full of secrets, but we can uncover the secrets if we look carefully and think about what we see.

The composer always gives us hints:

  • The title
  • Tempo marks
  • Descriptive words in the music, such as leggiero, marcato or con fuoco.
  • Overall dynamics. Where is the loudest part, the softest part? Is the piece mostly loud, mostly soft, or constantly changing?

You can ask yourself…

Rhythm questions

  • Which rhythm patterns does the composer use more than twice?
  • Is there a rhythm pattern that only happens once?
  • Is there a rhythm pattern that looks confusing? Write in the count. Start with the simplest part of the measure—the first count, for example, or any long note. Write in the counts for that part; once you’ve done this, you can probably figure out where the remaining counts go.

Melody questions

  • Which hand plays the melody? If there is more than one line, or voice, played by one hand, which voice is more important?
  • Where else can you find this melody in the piece? How many times?
  • Does the melody move mostly by skips or by steps?
  • Do you see a scale, chord or arpeggio that you recognize?
  • Is there any melody that happens only once?
  • Do both hands ever play the same thing?
  • What’s the highest melody note in the piece? The lowest?

Accompaniment questions

  • What is the first note in each measure? Look at the downbeats of four measures in a row. Do you see a pattern?
  • What interval is used most often? Least often?
  • Do you recognize any chords?
  • Does the accompaniment ever look like a melody?

Phrase questions

  • How many measures does each phrase contain?
  • What is the highest melody note in the phrase? The lowest?

Watch Nancy O’Neill Breth demonstrate decoding a musical score.

Don’t Eat Cookies While You Practice

After years of teaching, it dawned on me that there must be a more effective, more pleasurable way to teach students how to practice than the highly repetitive and often ignored sermonettes I found myself delivering week after week.

I asked my students, What tips would you give to friends who want to improve their practicing? Some offered wry suggestions like “Don’t eat cookies when you practice or your Mom will yell at you,” but others came up with shrewd advice like “Pay as much attention to rests as you do to notes.”

Over time, I compiled dozens of simple, effective practice tips—some from my students, some passed down by my teachers (and their teachers), some shared by colleagues. I added these to my own inventions and published them as practice guides for students, parents and for anyone looking for comprehensive practice tips.

The student practice guide serves as a student toolbox. I give every student a guide and over time I show how each practice tip is a tool that can fix a particular problem. I say, #21 will take the bumps out of bar 43, or try #7 to get better balance in the B theme. Then, at home, the student can look up #21 and #7 in his practice guide and follow through.

Eventually students learn to make their own practice prescriptions, matching one or several practice tips to their specific needs. So not only does the practice guide save my breath and our lesson time, it teaches smart practice habits, analysis and problem solving. I see these young people moving toward a level of musical independence that will make their lessons with me merely the first stage in a lifetime of engagement with the piano.

Learn More about the Practice Guides

How to Find the Right Fingering

  1. One hand at a time, play a phrase, or part of a phrase, very slowly. Using the printed finger numbers as guidelines, fill in the gaps with the implied fingering. Use your knowledge of scales and arpeggios to fill in the rest. Try it at the projected final tempo. If the fingering is still comfortable, proceed to step 2.
  2. Add the notes directly before and after the part you’ve just fingered.  Does your fingering fit with them?  If not, make the necessary changes. If so, go to step 3.
  3. Write the fingering in the music: write all numbers if the passage is complicated. Otherwise, write in guide numbers. In the scale and arpeggio passages, for example, the numbers that will help you most are 4, 3 and 1.

General principles to keep in mind

  • Establish a “permanent” fingering early on. Use it every time you play the passage and don’t change it unless you’re sure it doesn’t work.
  • If a passage is difficult to finger, find the spot that can only be done with one possible fingering, and work backward or forward from that spot.
  • Avoid using weak combinations, like 4-5, at important points.
  • When fingering repetitive patterns or sequences, try using the same fingering for each pattern. If keyboard geography makes any one pattern too awkward, change its fingering to fit, but don’t be afraid of using 1 or 5 on black keys.
  • If the printed fingering doesn’t work it can be changed. Have a good reason for changing it, though, and write your fingering in the music.
  • If you mis-finger something during practice, stop and write the fingering in the music immediately. If it’s already written in, circle or highlight it and drill immediately.
  • If mistakes keep occurring in a passage, search for a new “permanent” fingering.

“Practicing the Piano” Review by Fiona Lau

This is a book that should be in every piano teacher’s library; it’s thorough, clearly laid out and very, very practical.

“I have read several music related books this summer and [Practicing the Piano by Nancy O’Neill Breth] is the most useful one for my teaching. I read it in 2 days and kept making mental notes of new and very useful ideas.

“Breth teaches the piano in the USA, in a private practice and taught piano, piano pedagogy and chamber music at Levine School of Music, Washington D.C. She is also a competition adjudicator and has written the very practical The Piano Students’ Guide to Effective Practicing and Parents’ Guide to Effective Practicing.

“The sub-title to this book is “How students, parents, and teachers can make practicing more effective” and it would certainly be a useful read for all of these, either as a whole read or as a “pick and mix” for specific problems. Breth divides the book into 5 parts:  1. Getting Started 2. The Early Stages of Practicing. 3. Polishing a Piece. 4. Finishing Touches.5. The Practice Triangle. Each section has a logical approach and deals thoroughly with the mechanics of practice; whatever your challenge or level there is an answer here.

“Practicing the Piano is a handbook of practice techniques and it would be very useful for grade 5 plus pupils who are 15 and therefore have the mental capability to read it; it would help them develop that all important independence from their teacher. Parents will find ideas to help their children here, pianists will find out how to make practice effective and piano teachers will find it very useful. If you are a young teacher or a teacher preparing for a diploma the book will be invaluable as it deals practically with subjects such as pedalling, memorisation, preparing for performance and organising practising- in a clear and thorough way and with great examples from the core teaching repertoire. More experienced teachers will find that there are ideas in here to refresh their approach- I found the “mapping the terrain of a piece” extremely helpful and will certainly be using this and several other ideas explained by Breth this Autumn!

“This is a book that should be in every piano teacher’s library; it’s thorough, clearly laid out and very, very practical.”

Fiona LauAugust 2012

See also Clavier Companion’s review

How to Practice Sight-reading

Sight-reading music is different from practicing or performing music. The goal in sight-reading is to capture as much of the music as possible without stopping. In sight-reading you are allowed to leave out notes, or one hand, or even an entire measure, but you must keep the beat going.

The best way to become a good sight-reader is simply to do it every day. Here are some hints to help you.

Take it Easy. The biggest mistake people make in sight-reading is using music that is too difficult. Use only pieces that are at least one level below your normal level of repertoire.

Keep Going. We all hate wrong notes. But when you are sight-reading, if you make a mistake and then stop to correct it, you have made two mistakes, not one. Promise yourself that you won’t lose a single beat from beginning to end. Turn on the metronome. Pretend the metronome is your duet partner. Since it never stops, you can’t stop either!

Make Sense. Group the notes and musical ideas together. When you read a book, you don’t spell out each word letter by letter, so don’t sight-read note by note. To make this easier, examine the piece before sight-reading it to discover patterns that you recognize. What key is it in? What chords or scales look familiar? Are there any repetitions?

Look Around. Increase your field of vision: Fix your eye on the tempo mark of the piece. Play the first line of music, keeping the tempo mark in your peripheral vision. When you can do this easily, try two lines. Play an entire piece without taking your eyes off the music.

Count. Find every spot in the music where the rhythm looks tricky.  Clap or tap out the rhythm of each spot, counting aloud. Tap with both hands to show RH and LH parts. Or do this throughout the whole piece. When you play, count aloud.

Cover Up. You will need a partner for this.  Ask your partner to cover a measure as soon as you have played the first note of it. Repeat on every measure as you play through the piece. When your partner isn’t there,  see if you can still keep your eyes one measure ahead of the measure your hands are playing.sight-reading check list. Or, if you don’t have a partner, but you do have an iPad, try this excellent sight-reading app: Read Ahead. 

Keep Score. Give yourself 4 points for perfect continuity, 3 points for perfect rhythm, 2 points for perfect notes, 1 point for dynamics. A perfect score is 10. Anything between 8 and 10 is very good. If you get a score of 5 or below, that’s a poor score.