Writing Down the Note Letters: Good or Bad?

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In today’s episode, I wanted to sit down and have a chat with you guys about something I have seen fairly regularly in my studio – writing down the note letters.

Reading music can be challenging. When you’re learning how to read notes, it can even be difficult to read pieces meant for beginners. So when I see students attempt to tackle more challenging pieces, sometimes the page will come back covered in letters, decoded if you will.

Now the big question is: is it okay to write down the note letters? In today’s episode, we’ll weigh the pros and cons.

Writing down the note letters

Just to show you what I’m talking about, here’s some sheet music with all of the letters scrawled in. This might be something you’ve never done, or something you do all the time, or somewhere in between. So is it okay?

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Let’s make a pro-con list, and we’ll start with the pros.

The Pros of writing down the note letters

The definite advantage of writing down the note letters is that it makes more difficult songs playable when you’re a beginner. Intermediate and advanced songs sound awesome and impressive, but when your sight reading skills aren’t there yet, the dense clusters of notes can be impenetrable. You might be able to struggle through something once or twice, but it’s difficult to retain.

I see this often, actually, and it’s something I have encountered myself. If a song is too difficult, reading it will feel like agony. It will be extremely slow going, and it won’t come together nicely.

If you give it time, though, and let your reading and playing skills develop, you might come back to that same song a year later and suddenly it’s totally doable.

OR – you can write down the note letters, or use some other form of “sheet music simplifying” that allows you to bypass the actual reading of notes.

Ultimately, that is a pro – being able to play songs beyond your level is definitely a decent reason to write in the letters.

Some cons

Now let’s balance that with a con. Writing down the note letters can make songs easier to play, but they can simultaneously become a crutch. By writing in the letters, you’re stalling your note reading progress because you aren’t reading notes – you’re reading letters.

Not everyone cares about reading music, and that’s fine. The biggest reason I encourage learning how to read music right from the get-go, though, is that once you start getting into advanced piano music, it can get too crazy to write in the letters, too crazy to learn by ear, or through a simulation program.

Thoughts on learning via letters or simulators

The way I see it, reading sheet music is initially much more difficult than reading letters or other simulators. As songs get more challenging, though, especially toward an advanced level, it actually becomes easier to read the notes – it just becomes so much more straight-forward, assuming you’ve been building a good foundation of note reading from the beginning. If you haven’t been reading music from a beginner level, reading advanced pieces will be impossible, and reading from simulators or letters will take much longer than if you were fluent in note reading.

Human error

Another con is one I see happen pretty often – human error. So you write down all your letters and then you start learning your piece. But what happens if you wrote down one or more of those letters down wrong?

What happens is that you’ll probably ending up practicing it wrong, over and over again.

Say you’re reading sheet music, and you read a couple notes wrong without noticing. The next day when you’re playing, and reading with fresh eyes, you might notice your mistake and fix it. That has happened to me countless times.

But if you write the letter down wrong, the likelihood of self-correcting is much more slim. You’re more likely to just keep reading the wrong letter – unless it sounds really bad, in which case your ear might guide you to the fact that you’re making a mistake.

Finding a middle ground

Something that I’d include in the pro column is the idea of writing down a few of the notes. It can be a great advantage to mark down the opening letters, and maybe some wild ones that are difficult to figure out on the spot.

Right from a beginner level, I do this with my students. We always look closely at the first notes, and what fingers play those first notes. After that, we generally only write in a letter here or there.

This, to me, is the best of both worlds – it can simplify things a ton just by writing in a couple letters, but it doesn’t get in the way of learning to read music. Writing down a few notes is less of a crutch, and more of an enhancement – think of it like salt. A little salt can make the whole meal go down better, but too much salt is rough on your body.

Pros and Cons

So let’s recap the pros and cons.

The pros of writing down the notes are:

-Difficult pieces become accessible faster

-Writing in a few notes here and there makes the piece easier without sacrificing the development of note reading skills

The cons:

-Spend less time reading actual notes, so you don’t get much better at it

-If you write down the wrong letter, you might not notice for a while

Conclusion

So ultimately I leave the issue up to you. If you have 0 interest in reading notes, then by all means, do what you gotta do. Music is meant to be enjoyed, and everyone enjoys it a little differently.

But if you’re interested in getting better at reading music, I’d reconsider writing down all the letters. There will definitely be some growing pains – it IS harder, at least at first. But eventually you’ll become more fluent, and you will be able to read those challenging pieces.

Or find a happy medium – write down a small sprinkling of notes – enough to simplify things at least a little, but not so much that you forego reading the actual notes.

What do you guys think? Is this a challenge you’re wanting to overcome, or do you feel like the pros outweigh the cons?

xo,

Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.