How long does it take to learn to read music?

23.12.2021 Ben Maloney Sheet music

Some will become proficient at reading sheet music after two or three months of consistent practice, but it may take a decade to really get to grips with it. On average, it takes a beginner eighteen months to two years to reach that level.

It’s crucial to emphasise that every individual’s musical journey is unique - we all learn in different ways and at different speeds. Those numbers can only ever give you a rough idea of how long it might take you to learn to read sheet music fluently.

What is certain, however, is that it’s never too late - and it should never seem too daunting - to start reading music. To effortlessly understand a piece of sheet music on sight will require a great deal of work and determination. But that’s not to say that familiarising yourself with the basics isn’t just as worthwhile. 

Another thing to stress: reading sheet music is something that you can absolutely teach yourself to do. You don’t need to receive tuition, whether at school or in private. There’s a world of information out there that’ll tell you everything you need to know, every step of the way.

There are even articles available on this blog that can guide you through parts of the process, including how to read piano sheet musicsheet music practice and the sheet music cheat sheet.

You’ll find out more about them all below - what they’re on and how they can help you. But for now, let’s find out a little bit more about that process.
 

Learning to read sheet music: what’s involved and how long does it take? 
 

We’ve already acknowledged that this is a complex question. Before we try to answer it, it’s worth bearing a couple of things in mind. 

First, the distinction should be made between learning to read, and learning to read and play. Some beginners learn to read sheet music so that they can play an instrument, while others just want to understand staff notation. 

The first of those, involving not only coming to terms with sheet music but also the development of technical skills, is a harder and longer process than the second. We’ll consider both alternatives here.

Another thing to think about is how finely tuned you want your reading skills to be. Do you want to understand the basics of theory and notation, for example? So that sheet music becomes more than just dots and lines. Or do you want to be able to comprehend a passage of sheet music instantly?

It’s worth thinking a bit about these issues before getting too strong an impression of how long it’s going to take you to reach your personal goals. 
 

Understanding the basics
 

With the right educational materials and a bit of focused study, it’s possible to familiarise yourself with the fundamentals of notation in the space of just a few weeks. 

That means understanding concepts like pitch and rhythm, and how they’re denoted in sheet music. That means getting your head around the treble clef, time signatures, note values, bars, tempo and so on. The article mentioned above - how to read piano sheet music - walks you through most of these basic principles.

If you want to read more widely on that topic, a quick search on Google or YouTube will lead you to countless helpful articles and video tutorials that teachers, musicians and other individuals have put together, exploring these aspects in even greater detail. Take some time to see what’s out there.

Discovering these basics of music notation is the first step towards learning to read it, whether or not you’re looking to transfer reading skills to playing skills. 

If we think of comprehending this information as stage one, then absorbing it comes next. In other words, you’ll need to grasp and retain these concepts more intuitively, so that you can begin to interpret real-life passages of notation in real time. This stage will likely take several months.

So, spend some time trying to apply what you’ve learned with easy, uncomplicated pieces of music. There’s a world of sheet music available on the nkoda app that will come to your aid here, beginner repertoire written for a range of instruments - piano, guitar, violin, flute, and countless others.

Learning about music theory, which is slightly different to notation itself, will also help you to ground this newfound knowledge in a wider musical context, facilitating the absorption process. Focusing more on theory, this sheet music cheat sheet has lots of useful info that’ll supplement your learning and help you to commit things to memory. 

So even if you are learning about sheet music alongside instrumental practice, do spend some time away from your instrument, letting things sink in. Then, when you get back to practising, you might find that everything seems to make a little more sense.
 

Learning to read and play
 

If you do fall into that category, and are looking to read sheet music in order to play an instrument, then that absorption process will be a binary one. At some point, you’ll also have to transfer your understanding of notation to practical performance.

In other words, once you’ve figured out how to read notes on the stave, you’ll need to work out how to render them in sound. This technical learning process will run parallel to the theoretical one, and making progress on both fronts can be a slow and steady affair, sometimes taking several more months to get to a competent level. 

But that’s where those beginner pieces come to the rescue. Not only will they help you to nurture your playing skill and ability to read sheet music, many of them also will aid in the transferral process itself, explaining in detail how notes on the stave correlate to motions on your instrument. Many online videos will offer this kind of information as well.

The article on sheet music practice, which can help you to shape and structure time spent with your instrument, emphasises that equipping yourself with the right musical materials is key. If you find that it takes a long time to read something before even trying to play it, chances are the piece is just too hard - try finding something a little easier.

That said, it can still be helpful to peek at advanced music - you can see what’s ahead of you and learn a few new things. Just don’t put too much pressure on yourself to read any of it fluently.

Bear in mind that it’s possible for there to be a gap between your reading ability and your playing ability, which can happen when you’ve played a lot without sheet music. If you do think your reading isn't as good as your playing, just find some easier material. As you're practising your reading in this context, not maxing out your playing skills shouldn’t matter. 
 

Sheet music fluency
 

Getting to a point when you can interpret notated music relatively fluently can take as little as a few months and as much as several years - sometimes even more. 

It might seem a long time, but think about learning to read, for instance. When children learn, it takes them years to understand letters, words and sentences. And that’s with constant exposure and usage, which no musician, no matter how hard they practice, will be able to replicate. Music isn’t a language, but in this respect it’s no different.

So, to reach a point when you can read music without even thinking about it - as easily as you’re reading the words in this sentence - you simply need to keep practising until you reach that point, reading increasingly complex sheet music as your ability improves. 

If you’re a classical music fan, take on some big orchestral scores while listening to a recording of the piece, and try to keep up with the music. It’s a fun and efficient way to practice that can help you to make huge strides forward.

Another thing worth trying is composition. You’ll be surprised how quickly notation begins to become a second language when you’re writing it. Or, if you’re strictly a player, try to take every chance you can get to perform - it’s incredible how much a bit of pressure can accelerate your progress.
 

Sight-reading
 

Considering instrumental performance, fluency in reading sheet music is strongly associated with sight-reading - the ability to play music at first sight. If you’re learning to read in order to play, it’s likely that this is something that you’re aiming to do. 

Incorporating more than just the ability to read sheet music fluently, sight-reading also requires technical competency on your instrument, as well as knowledge of how notation corresponds to instrumental actions. To learn to sight-read, you’ll have to encompass all these considerations in your practice.

Again, there’s a wide variety of excellent publications available, dedicated to helping you develop your sight-reading skills.

Even if the music you’re playing is very easy, if you’re able to play a piece reasonably well straight off, then you’re sight-reading successfully. You’ll have established a foundation, and from that point, you’ll be able to sight-read more and more complex pieces with time and practice. 

There are a range of things you can try to improve sight-reading ability - the landmark method is a good example, which involves focusing not on individual notes but on their position relative to fixed ‘landmark’ pitches. You can find out more about this method and others in this article on reading sheet music faster, which is worth reading if you are keen on getting better at sight-reading. 
 

Practice and perseverance


A word that has popped up more than most in this article is ‘practice’. And there’s good reason for that - regardless of the kind of skills you’re looking to hone and to what level, hours of practice will be absolutely essential. 

Put regular time aside, little and often. Set up a dedicated practice space, set yourself objectives, try to structure your sessions and concentrate on the task at hand. Lots of these techniques are explored in more detail in the sheet music practice article. 

Try not to be discouraged if it’s not all coming as quickly or as easily to you as you’d hoped. Try to mark each bit of progress you make. Focus on the small victories, keep pushing yourself, and you’ll keep moving forward. 

In a word, persevere. Determination is absolutely essential - success here is all about attitude and mentality.

But, and it has to be said, don’t push yourself too hard. If you ever feel fatigued, distressed or overwhelmed when practising, then it’s time to leave it for another day. 

And for players in particular, it’s important not to let yourself drift into perfectionism. Don’t let a mistake halt your performance, knock you back, or cause you to lose confidence in your ability.

There are tonnes of people out there that have been playing for years and have never reached fluency when it comes to sight-reading sheet music - or even just reading it. So never feel like you're moving too slowly.
 

What is the fastest way to learn to read music?


Practice is the key to being able to read music, but you can’t practice that without the notes themselves. Getting to proficiency will involve a wealth of sheet music, and that material will need to grow ever more advanced as your ability to read it develops.

Whether you need easy playbooks or those full orchestral scores, classical highlights for bassoon or pop songs on piano, it’s all on nkoda - start your free trial today.

So have a read of some of those guides linked in above, get some music in front of you, and begin your journey. Think of the process as just that - an ongoing journey. It’s not a race, and it doesn’t matter whether you get there in six months or in two years. It’ll take as long as it takes, and if you don’t lose sight of that, you’ll do just fine. 

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