Relearning the (musical) alphabet

If musical and linguistic ability are related (and I think they are), then if I can learn a new language fairly easily (and I can), I should be able to learn a new instrument also (assuming I can manage the physical requirements of the instrument). And in fact I can now play a recognizable rendition of “Hot Cross Buns” (the simpler tune, that uses only three notes) on the euphonium.

The difficulty is remembering the names of those three notes. All of my previous musical experience – singing soprano and alto, playing violin and soprano recorder, trying to learn the guitar, even a few lessons using the Miracle Piano – has used music written in the treble clef. That’s the one where the lines are E, G, B, D, and F – often remembered using the mnemonic Every Good Boy Does Fine, and the spaces are F, A, C, and E (I hope the mnemonic used for that is obvious to you). I have used it so long that I know instantly, looking at a note, which note it is.

Now I have to learn the bass clef. I’ve occasionally tried to make sense of it in the past, such as the time my husband wanted me to sing the men’s part (up an octave) in an anthem we were singing at church. But I just couldn’t do it – he finally had to write my notes out using a treble clef.

I ask myself, if I can learn a language where familiar-looking letters make different sounds, why is it so hard to read music where a D is on the middle line instead the line about that? Unlike a lot of my classmates (and virtually all my students, when I taught French and Spanish), I easily adopted the different pronunciation for vowels and certain consonants. (I’m not saying I sounded like a native, but my approximation of sounds in other languages was reasonably good.)

I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that in the Western European languages I have studied (French, Spanish, German, and a bit of Portuguese and Italian), most of the letters are at least fairly similar to how they sound in English. The vowel sounds may be different, but they’re still vowels, not consonants. The “u” in French did take a good deal of practice, as did the rolled “r” in Spanish (I had already learned the flipped “r” from singing). But most of the letters were just slightly different. I could concentrate on the differences without having to stop to sound out every single letter.

The one language I studied with a different alphabet was Greek. I knew some of the letters already from math and science classes, so it wasn’t hard to learn the alphabet. It helped that some letters both looked and sounded similar, such as alpha and beta. But to this day I still get tripped up by pi and rho, as the pi looks more like an r (at least a lower case cursive r), and the rho looks very much like a pi.

With the bass clef, the notes look exactly the same (as on a treble clef), at least unless there are accidentals (i.e. sharps or flats, or a natural in a key where the note would usually be sharp or flat). If I see sharps or flats in the key signature, they’re in obviously different positions from where they would be on the treble clef, which reminds me to look for a B on the second line instead of the third, or a C in the second space instead of the third. But until I see an accidental, it’s easy to forget.

Imagine if you had to learn a language where the letter D sounded like a B and the letter C sounded like an A. Imagine spelling the word for your furry canine pet FQI instead of DOG. With practice I could decipher words spelled that way, but not fast enough to read aloud.

Fortunately I don’t have to know the name of a note to play it. Perhaps rather than comparing notes to letters, I should compare them to words. After all, when I hear the Spanish word gallo, the first thing that pops into my mind is not the English word rooster, but rather an illustration of a rooster. Likewise, when I am holding the euphonium and I see a note on the second space of the bass clef, I now think “first and third valves.” Assuming I have my lips positioned correctly, I’ll play a C, whether or not I remember the name of the note.

Of course, if I’m going to be helping my son learn to play well (which is a large part of my reason for learning it myself), I need to be able to name the notes correctly, or he’s going to be very confused. I’m hoping that with practice I’ll get used to how to name these notes as well as how to play them.


5 Responses to Relearning the (musical) alphabet

  1. Margaret says:

    In Russian, as in Greek, there are letters that look just like English letters. V looks just like English B, N looks just like English H, and R looks just like English P (since the Cyrillic alphabet is more closely related to the Greek alphabet than the Roman alphabet is). But the strange letters mixed in, and accents, remind me to apply the Russian rules of pronunciation (helped by the fact that many of the letters are the same as in English). I agree that a language that spelled DOG as FQI would be tough, and that is what you have with the bass clef. Do men ever struggle with this? How about when they are singing the first stanza in unison with the sopranos, then singing the second stanza in tenor or bass? Do they have to follow the treble clef for the first stanza? I suppose the presence of both clefs helps.

  2. modestypress says:

    Some of my relatives are extremely talented with music and some of my relatives are extremely talented at learning languages. I am neither. I was out to lunch when the rest of my family was diving into the gene pool and eating hardily.

  3. Margaret says:

    Modesty Press, you’re just being modest. You are talented at offering interesting comments on a blog.

  4. renaissanceguy says:

    Because I play the piano, I can read the notes in both clefs. Somehow your brain is able to keep them straight once you practice.

    When I played the trumpet, I also played the baritone horn (similar to a euphonium). However, the fingerings are different, because the baritone is a C instrument but the trumpet is a B-flat instrument. Fortunately, they print music for the baritone in treble clef and in the key that makes the fingerings the same as for trumpet.

  5. renaissanceguy says:

    Oops! Actually the baritone is a B-flat instrument like the trumpet, but the music for it in the bass clef is non-transposed while the music for it in the treble clef is transposed the way trumpet music is.

    How confusing!

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