Tuesday, December 18, 2007

6. Dumb Clefs, Smart Clefs

In this post, I'm going to make a simple suggestion that would make piano music much easier to learn, and easier to play. It's probably totally unrealistic, but here we go...

Take a look at this note that you might see written on a page of music:
That symbol represents an "A" if it's on the treble clef, but on the bass clef, it represents a "C". Looks exactly the same, but means different things on different clefs.

Isn't that a strange system? Think of the accidents you'd have if a stop sign meant "Stop" when on the left side of the street, and "One Way" if it were on the right.

So, wouldn't it be nice if the notes were the same on the two clefs?

Here's a suggestion about an alternate version of the bass clef that will result in notes being represented the same way on the two clefs. The change needed to make it this way is a simple one, and it would greatly benefit anyone who has to learn two clefs. Here's a description of the change.

Current System (Dumb Clefs)

There are a lot of clefs that are used in writing music, but there are two that are much more common than others: the treble clef and the bass clef. Combined together they are referred to as the grand staff. This is what it looks like:

This looks nice and neat, but here's the problem. This arrangement results in different notes being represented by the same written notes on the different staves. As I mentioned above, this representation:
refers to an A if it's on the treble clef, but a C if on the bass clef. Looks exactly the same, means two different things.

Here are the note names on the grand staff:

To learn the just notes shown in this figure, you (or a seven-year-old student) would have to memorize 38 different notes.

But much worse, a single representation of a note, like this,

looks exactly the same to your brain whether you are dealing with treble or bass clef, yet it represents two different notes. No matter how well you know your music, your brain still has to go through that extra step and say "OK, if this were the bass clef that would be a C, but we are dealing with the treble clef here, so that is an A."

There's a surprisingly easy to fix this.

Suggested System (Smart Clefs)

Imagine that the grand staff were slightly different, like this:

It looks just as nice and neat as the grand staff you're used to, but with a single note inserted between the two staves. This simple change gives us a tremendous advantage: The notes are in the same places on each staff!

Note that I've called the lower clef a "Smart clef," and it's represented with an "S". Here are the note names on this new grand staff:

So, for example, this:

represents an A, no matter which clef you are reading from. On the upper staff it's an A above middle C, and on the lower, it's an A about an octave below middle C.

Think about what this change would mean. Students would have their memorizing task cut in half (only about 16 notes instead of 38). They'd learn their notes in half the time.

Better, your brain can process the notes faster when sight-reading (OK, I made this part up, but it makes sense).

If publishers could agree to print beginner piano music (or all music) with these new clefs, a lot of time, effort, and frustration would be saved.


I've been surprised to find that if I talk about a change like this, I usually hear some objections. Here's what I've heard:

Objection 1: Once you get used to the standard clefs you won't have problems

Sure, but it will take you longer to learn them. Also, I suspect that your performance would always be a little better if you can avoid that extra processing step.

Objection 2: There are plenty of staves (tenor, soprano, etc.); treble and bass are just two among many

True, but they are the ones used by most, and most piano music is written on them

Objection 3: The current grand staff is symmetrical around middle C, and it makes sense

The smart clef is also symmetrical. It just happens to be symmetrical around a B instead of a C. Some people like the fact that there's only one ledger line between the staves. The new system has two. The two staves are rarely printed so close to one another that there's only room for one ledger line between them anyway. In that regard, the smart clef makes more sense.

Objection 4: You're going to change the piano keyboard??!!

No, no changes to the keyboard or to any instruments are necessary.

Objection 5: I'm already proficient with the current system. I don't want a new clef to learn

There's nothing new for you to learn. The notes in the smart clef are in the same location as on the treble clef. You can probably adapt to it in a day or so. I know this because often music has sections notated with two treble clefs or two bass clefs. This is especially true of music written for four hands. Those situations are not difficult to deal with.

Objection 6: Nice idea, but most music is already written with the standard grand staff

Ah, here's a real problem. Literally billions (with a "B") of sheets of music have been printed with the treble and bass clef.

But, look at the state of downloadable sheet music. On some web sites, you can download songs and print them in any key. Digital displays are used in some applications and will be more common in ten years. We are just entering a period of transition to a newer way of displaying music, and now might be a good time to make a change.

That's fine, you might say, but let's say a kid who's learned piano using the smart clef system wants to get some music from the library and play it? She will be out of luck!

True, but this situation occurs today, since some older music is written in unfamiliar clefs. When playing trombone, I came across exercises and pieces written for tenor clef, a clef I've never learned.

In rare cases, when the music isn't available in smart clef, and can't be converted, the student will have to learn the bass clef, in which case she will be no worse off then she is today. Better off, since she's already been playing a while, and doesn't have to learn two new clefs at once.


Humans have a surprisingly high tolerance for different standards. Here are some examples:

  • Philips head and slotted screwdrivers
  • Standard time and Daylight time
  • Metric and English systems
  • PCs and Macintoshes
  • Driving on the left, driving on the right
  • Calculator keypads versus telephone keypads (take a look!)

That may explain why people have tolerated the current system for so long.

Yes, it may be unreasonable to suggest a change like this, and I'm sure someone else has already proposed it. But at least it's something to think about, and that's why I wrote this post.

Monday, December 17, 2007

5. Am I Dyslexic or Something??

Well, I've been at for about a week, and I'm starting to wonder if I have some kind of undiagnosed dyslexia! Sometimes I'll read the bass clef as treble, or the bass clef in the right hand, etc.

I'd also like to know what kind of sick, twisted jerk came up with the idea of two clefs which, although they look exactly the same, represent different notes. A large part of my learning effort is devoted to inhibiting the bass clef interpretation of a note so that I can read the correct treble clef value. I've learned both, but since I used bass clef exclusively for seven years as a child, that's the one that tries to take charge when I'm looking at a note. For more, see my diatribe on this topic.

There was a famous musician who gave lectures about music to kids. He would start a talk by having a seven-year-old girl come up on the stage, and ask her to rip the Manhattan phone book in half. She couldn't do it, of course, so he'd whisper a few words to her, put her behind a screen, and at the end of the lecture she'd come out with the book in two pieces. She did it by ripping one page at a time.

The point here was that when you have a big task ahead of you, it can help to destroy something. Ha ha. No, the point is that if you can accept small increments of progress, you can eventually solve a big problem.

As I'm playing some of these hymns and other songs at a glacial tempo, I just have to have faith that I will eventually get better. Each day I improve by the thickness of a single, thin piece of paper.

While I'm plodding through some of these easy pieces, it doesn't seem possible that anyone could actually sight-read them at a realistic tempo, but I know, of course that it can be done.

The concept of not slowing down or stopping is much more difficult than you might think, even with the metronome running. The best remedy is to play along with others, but I'll have to improve a lot before I can find some way to do that.

Similarly, looking ahead is not working for me at this point. I can sometimes look ahead a measure, but memorizing the next measure while simultaneously playing the current one is not happening.

I have a few things going for me. My hands generally know where the notes are, so I usually don't have to look down from the music. Bigger jumps are a problem, though, so I try to spend some time each day playing jazz, scales, or other exercises blindfolded.

Also, I'm finding that my theory background helps a lot. That is, I know what accidentals to expect, and knowing what chord is likely to come up helps me play it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

4. Collecting Your Sight-reading Material

If I'm going to sight-read all new pieces, and I'm going to do it two hours per day I'm going to need literally hundreds of easy piano pieces! Here are just some of the books I've collected:

Here's where I got them:

  • Online: Google free easy piano music and you'll find a number of sites with printable music. Unfortunately, you'll need to download and print each piece individually.

  • The Library: Yay!! This is the best resource. I've found lots of music at all levels.

  • Hymnals: A must have for sight-reading practice. Through PaperBackSwap.com, I got a Christian Science hymnal and a Presbyterian hymnal. The first was printed in 1938 but is in great shape (they don't make books like they used to).

Friday, December 14, 2007

3. Sight-reading Tips

[Newsflash: I've just published an eBook based on this blog.  It's based on the material in this blog, and has some additional tips and summary pages.  Click on the image to the right for more information.]

[The tips below are great, but click here for some tips that I posted after working on sight-reading for four years.]

I started my sight-reading quest by finding all the web site tips and tricks I could. Here are the tips I like the most (they are described in more detail in the links below):

  • Practice playing with your eyes closed (exercises, memorized pieces, etc.). If you never have to look down at the keyboard, sight-reading will be easier. Blind pianists can do it, so can you.
  • Play at a steady pace and don't stop to fix mistakes (don't "stutter"). I find this very hard advice to follow.
  • Look ahead. This is something else I have trouble with, but I'm working on it.
  • Learn to recognize intervals instead of individual notes.

Here are the links to the sight-reading tips that I located through Google:

Tips for Learning Better Sight-reading

Scholarly Paper on Sight-reading along with Reviews of Books

A Page of Tips and Tricks

Excellent Tips, Including "Play with your eyes closed"

A Quick List of Tips

Troubleshooting Chart: Find Your Problem, Read the Solution

Ten Tips from a Book

Sight-reading Tips from Forums

General Tips

Finding a Book on Sight-reading

Discussion of Looking Ahead

More Tips and Discussion

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

2. Readers and Memorizers

In A Soprano on Her Head, the author notes that there are two kinds of musicians: Readers and memorizers.

Readers can sit down and sight-read a new piece well, but wish they were good at memorizing or at playing by ear.

Memorizers, who are often also good at playing by ear, can hardly avoid memorizing a piece of music that they play multiple times, but wish that they could sight-read better.

This makes sense, because if you're a memorizer, you get less sight-reading practice. That is, if you play a piece ten times, you're only sight-reading it once or twice. You may not memorize it completely after one time, but you get some benefit from your memory, and you generally remember what comes next. A reader, however, is (almost) sight-reading it each time, and thus getting 5-10 times more sight-reading practice!

That's my problem: I'm a memorizer. So, to solve this problem, I'll get my hands on tons of easy piano material so that I never have to play the same piece twice.

Monday, December 10, 2007

1. Background

Today I decided to become a good piano sight-reader. Although I'm already a jazz piano player, with a 4-6 gigs per month, my sight-reading is lousy. Really lousy. I'll bet that most seven-year-olds who have had a year of lessons read music better than I.

My plan is to get the best advice on how to improve my sight-reading skills, and then devote 2+ hours per day to sight-reading practice -- for at least one year.

If you are in the same situation, you may be asking yourself what's required to reach this goal, and how long it will take. You're also scouring the web looking for tips on how to jump-start your sight-reading. Well, I'm writing this blog for you. OK, also to show how clever I am, but mostly for you.

[IMPORTANT: before you begin -- click here to read my report and advice from the end of the year.]

Why I Want to be a Good Sight-Reader

I've found that I don't need to be a good sight-reader to play small-combo jazz; the jazz "charts," instead of being standard music with every note written out, consist of single note melody lines and chords. However:
  1. Once in a while I might might need to read standard music to play with, for example, a big band.

  2. I don't feel like I'm a real piano player if I can't read music well.

  3. I'd be embarrassed if someone said "Hey, Al plays piano, let's have him accompany us with this Christmas carol music!"

  4. Occasionally I use some educational material (for example, transcriptions, sample intros or endings), and it would be convenient to be able to read it quickly.

  5. I like the process of acquiring a new skill.
My Musical Background

For you to evaluate whether your experience in learning to sight-read will match mine, you need to know a little about my musical background. So, here's a boring look at my history.

As a young kid I played piano by ear, but never took formal lessons. At age 9 I took up trombone, and studied it seriously until the final year of high school, when a scheduling conflict between chemistry and band ended my studies. I also took lessons in guitar, and played in a rock band.

But I pretty much did nothing with music from college until 1987 (age 34), when my interest in jazz was rekindled.

I took formal piano lessons for a year or two, worked hard, and learned a lot, but the sight-reading just wasn't happening.

In 1992 (age 38) I picked up the trombone again, and got serious about jazz trombone. My sight-reading was better on trombone than piano (hey, only one note at a time!), but I still needed to polish it up for big band playing. I played jazz trombone seriously until 2005 (age 52), performing with a number of large and small groups.

In 2005, I was having some problems with my shoulder, caused by too much trombone playing, so it was time to switch back to piano. This time I concentrated on jazz, and didn't work much on sight-reading. That is, my playing consisted of playing the chord changes, with improvisation in the right hand. That has worked well, and I now lead a jazz quartet (Sax, drums, bass, and piano), and also play in duos (Sax & piano or piano & bass) and trios.

This last November, I reread A Soprano on her Head, and it inspired me to give sight-reading another chance.

Yay, that's the end of the long boring history. Now to find out whether I can learn to sight-read!