Curling Up With a Good Symphony

It feels good to return to the blog after several weeks of hiatus.  Six  performances in three weeks has a way of eating up my time!  As the holidays approach, I look forward to having a bit more time to read and also study music.  Not surprisingly, I find the two pursuits quite similar.

The concept of reading music is well-established.  We learn to read music.  We read through a piece.  Sight-reading is a valuable skill for musicians.  Reviewers praise a particular conductor or soloist’s reading of the score.  All very well, but how often do we actually read the music; not merely learning notes with an instrument at hand, but actual READING?

I encourage all musicians to spend some time with printed music away from an instrument, away from the nuts and bolts of sounding everything out (and analyzing the music to death as a starting point). There is certainly a time and place for this, but the life of the music must also be discovered, nurtured and remembered.

These days we usually first get excited about a piece of music by listening to it.  Too often we jump immediately into learning it.  We pick up our instrument and dive in.  The problem is that, without mind time, we can quickly lose the enthusiasm that that initial hearing by trying to reproduce it.  We need to look at the music through the eyes of both our intellect and imagination.

For me, the act of reading a score involves these two types of brain activity.   I endeavor to read the same score both ways to achieve the desired result.  Here’s the idea:

Reading music as non-fiction: This is looking at the craft of a composition: harmony, melody, phrase structure, form, rhythm.  All can be seen on the surface and then more can be discovered as we dig deeper.  This type of reading is like reading a technical how-to manual or a historical description of battles and political events. You see how something works, how it functions and how is fits in with the style.

Reading music as fiction:  While we must do the above to understand a piece and present it to an audience, this “fiction” approach is by far my favorite.  This is where the imagination soars, where I identify with the composer and define myself through the music.  A musical score can be read as a novel, in time.  The unfolding of events, all described by the non-fiction approach, become a vibrant, emotional story.  The soul of the music is revealed.

Great music is like great literature or poetry.  The deeper you dig, the more you discover about the BIG PICTURE.  I consider this an important aspect of learning music.  After these readings I will begin to mark my music and practice the tricky passages.   When I get discouraged, or when the music loses immediacy, I simply curl up with the score and begin again.  Like a great poem, I am always invited back inside.

Copyright, 2012. Robert Baldwin

36 thoughts on “Curling Up With a Good Symphony

  1. Reading music prior to actually sight reading it does bring a different edge to your sound. Like reading a really good book when you’ve already watched the movie… the story can only get better. 🙂

  2. Being only slightly musically literate, I still found this very truthful. The imagery of a piece is often most important to me, the emotional impact. I will never forget my grade school days listening to Verdi in Music Class. I was always intrigued that others did not have a little camera running in their head when the music played. I forget sometimes, people don’t even have these when they read a work of fiction… Cheers to reading!

  3. While I was reading this, I was thinking of how your reading of music is similar to how I approach literature or poetry.
    I am so glad you brought it up in your final passage. This was a wonderful read.
    Thankyou 🙂

  4. I always like finding out the story behind a piece. Knowing more about different movements or sections helps me play better. I’m constantly amazed by what has been created over the years

  5. I am a young musician, and I concur with your principal. We really should just spend a long time analyzing the music and seeing different versions, aspects, ideals, and representations before we even sight read. I have been meaning to set aside time to do that and now I really see the importance.

    • I encourage you to do this, especially as a young musician. Time exists throughout our day in small and sometimes big chunks. I sometimes do my best score “reading” on airplanes!

  6. Intriguing comments about listening to music. I’ve analyzed some scores in my time with much interest. I’ve reached the point now where I just listen carefully. (It’s hard for me to get fully emotionally involved when I’m following the score but following the score can be exciting in itself for seeing what a composer has done.) (I can’t afford to buy scores of contemporary works I’d like to see in score. The score of a symphony by Alfred Schnittke costs a fortune if you can even get an opportunity to buy it!!!) The sense of fiction-listening is one interesting branch of musicology. I sense the lone voice in many melodic lines of the Schubert piano sonatas. I tried my hand at writing music when I was young but gave it up. I have found my creative outlet in fantasy prose fiction. My interest in music affects my writing in several ways. Sometimes one or more characters are musicians as in my story “The Wand of Golden Leaves” in my collection “From Beyond to Here.” Sometimes music is the backbone of the plot as in my extended story “The White Tree” in “Creatures We Dream of Knowing” A mysterious white tree that grows in the corner of a boy’s backyard is filled with music that receptive people can sense and channel. The opening story of a collection of Christmas stories is about a chorister faced with the daunting task of saving Christmas when all Christmas music is mysteriously silenced. If anyone is interested in checking these out, you can look up my blog “Imaginary Visions of True Peace” at If other aspects of my blog such as teachings in spirituality don’t interest you, you can go from the main page straight to pages for the two books & each book has a sample story.

  7. I have never thought to approach reading music though I enjoy both reading and listen to classical music. I can’t play an instrument but I was taught to sight read in high school choir and I’m sorry to say I’m not very good. Perhaps if I thought of it as a technical manual I would found it easier.

  8. It’s so true: one of my teachers made this a part of selecting a new piece, that I had to read the music away from my instrument and then make my selection for which pieces would be brought to the keyboard/flute. Then I could I sight read through them. It was such an incredible way of understanding a piece before I put sound to page.

    Perhaps this is why I loved transposing scores so much!?

  9. I also enjoy “reading” the music’s history. Delving into the life and times of the composer always brings me a new sense of the piece and is one of my favorite ways to prepare for learning!

  10. Pingback: Freshly Pressed Again | Before the Downbeat

  11. Thrilled to come across this. As a singer, I often read the same way, though I might not realize that’s what I’m doing… and while I appreciate the academia of learning how the music is constructed, it’s the fiction of it that makes me sing it well. Thanks so much! Will be following!

  12. Interesting thought. Seems obvious that we should think before playing, but I am also guilty sometimes of ‘just diving in’.

    Saying that, I make sure I’ve listened to a recording, ideally reading through. Even when I’ve written the music, and know every line in the score, it still takes a moment to realise how to approach it!

  13. As a literature / English major who had many years of piano lessons, this is a thought provoking post. I remember one way I began to ‘get’ Bach was by colouring the score – each voice had a different colour so the music became that much more visual. On a slightly different note, I read lots of Russian novels, poems and short stories when learning music by Russian composers. Maybe there are more links between music and literature to discover…

  14. I am in total agreement on reading music. Recently i took up the violin and my instructor encouraged me to read theory, so i invested in all the ABRSM books and other music related books. I can proudly say i am picking up well thanks to the theory. I will be closely following this blog. Thankyou

  15. Pingback: Curling up with a good symphony (Dr. Baldwin repost) « uosymphony

  16. I think that people who stick to scores only are missing out. I love jamming and improvising. I have played with musicians who were terrified of leaving the score behind. I think jamming is perhaps the second kind of music in your post. Where there is nothing but the living breathing fire of emotion defining the music you pay.

    I think music was invented by people sitting around banging sticks together who found that sharing this experience was fun! I think scores are a tool allowing us to share further afield and allowing the inclusion of intellect offline away from the emotional moment. But such intellect, once internalized and well practiced, becomes a new tool that can be used in improvisational scenarios.

  17. Pingback: Freshly Pressed x3! | Before the Downbeat

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