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.

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.

Breth Studio Pianists Take Their Technique to the Olympics

2012_12_02_1698Every year the Breth Studio holds a Piano Olympics. This is a technique exam, but more than that it is a celebration of students’ accomplishments in a comprehensive, demanding technique regimen. Alexander Peskanov evaluates students on all seven levels of the Russian Technical Regimen. The hard work that every student puts into Piano Olympics preparation, plus the masterful instruction from Mr. Peskanov, make this event both fun and inspiring for students and parents alike.

Alexander Peskanov grew up in Ukraine and came to the US for graduate study at The Juilliard School. He adapted the Russian technique regimen for use in American piano studios and he adjudicates Piano Olympics all over the country. The Breth Studio has hosted Mr. Peskanov every year since 1995. He comes from New York and spends the day evaluating students of all ages in levels 1 through 7 of the regimen.

Mr. Peskanov is a remarkably attentive, involved, and inspiring teacher. Students, parents and teachers alike come away with a whole new outlook on piano technique.

Some quotes from Alexander Peskanov at Breth Studio Piano Olympics:


“What am I listening for in your playing? I am listening for mastery of the sound. When you have that, you will have the ability to express your feelings through sound.”

“Put more thought into how your playing sounds. Use dynamics to make it sound more like music. When we play music, we phrase, giving each phrase a beginning, a climax and an end. It should be the same with scales. Make the scale like a phrase, like a sentence.”

“Play RH louder than LH. Don’t use the same sound in both hands, because then you can’t hear the difference between registers: the notes blend too much.”


“What is the purpose of the technical regimen? To learn how to practice, which means, to learn how to think about important things: counting the pulse, listening to every note, making beautiful music.”

“As you practice the regimen, you’re not just training your fingers, you’re also training your ears. Making music is really the objective. So when you practice, spend more time listening to the quality of your sound. Make comments to yourself like, ‘That was a good chord’ or ‘My tone is weak here.’ Listen to what you play, and react to what you hear.”

“If you always practice fast, you might start playing like a machine.”

“When you play slower you can hear what’s happening between the notes. Younger kids who can’t play fast yet often play more musically than older kids who play fast. That’s because the young ones are still listening to every note and to what happens between the notes.”

“Stay slow until you can hear every aspect of your playing; listen and phrase everything.  Only then should you speed up. If you practice this way you will actually learn at a much faster rate.”


“Play with better sound & articulation. Use a warmer tone—sink more into the keys. Listen for synchronicity, voicing, legato, dynamics, articulation.”

“Challenge yourself musically. Make a crescendo to the top, then diminuendo back down. Make the scale like a phrase, like a sentence.”

Block chords


“As soon as you play one chord, think about the next one. Move your eyes to the next position before you put your fingers there.”

“When you listen to block chords, think of eight different instruments, or eight different singers.”

“Distribute the sound well among the fingers, so that there are no holes in the sound. Then show the melody by bringing out the top notes of the chords. More advanced students: stress each of the four or five notes in one block chord”.

“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.