I’m just over halfway though the Higher Diploma course at the Institute and am doing my best to soak up as much musical genius as I can. Sight reading is currently both my least favourite class and one of my most needed. As a previously self-taught bassist, the Institute course was appealing due to its focus on harmony and theory, fretboard skills and sight reading. These are disciplines I would never have looked at on my own when I was just learning by ear, but I love what my fellow BGM columnist Jeff Berlin spoke about in last month’s issue. He said that music is a language which we grow up learning to hear and speak, and which we then formally learn to read and write through education.
I was told a story the other day by Jerry Brown, a great session drummer, about a time when he was in Japan on tour and was required to play a new song at the last minute with local musicians who never spoke any English. The beauty of it, he said, was that they were given written music and once he counted the band in, they were all speaking the same language. That inspired me to improve my reading.
Without skills in musical language, we can’t communicate effectively or meaningfully, so for the next month or two I’ll include some foundational concepts for reading written music, and some inside tips for making reading a little less daunting. This month we’ll start with the basics of note value.
On the stave below are four different types of notes. They are:
- A semibreve or whole note, which lasts all four beats of the bar.
- A minim or half note, is half a semibreve, two beats of the bar.
- A crotchet or quarter note, value is a quarter of a semibreve, one beat of the bar.
- A quaver or eighth note, value is half a crotchet, half a beat of the bar.
Below is a simple exercise to put these into practice. To make things a little more interesting I have incorporated what Victor Wooten calls the modes of rhythm. This is where you take a simple rhythm and displace it by one beat every time you play it, essentially playing the part from each beat in the same vein as you would a melodic mode. There is a great video on YouTube of Victor and Anthony Wellington demonstrating this with a slap line in a masterclass.