Reading Problems: Pitch

This page is a part of the general article dedicated to Music-Reading Problems.

Several well-established (but user-unfriendly) traditions in music notation and publishing often make reading the notes (pitches) even harder than it needs to be. Let’s look at these one by one:


The fact that an accidental is only shown once per bar (measure) means that in music that is very chromatic, harmonically complex (and/or when the bars have a lot of notes in them), the player has to have a very good memory for the notes that have just been played in that bar, but only in that bar (and not before). This is an unnecessary added difficulty frequently found in late-romantic and modern classical music. Music notation was not always like that: Bach notated every accidental always, which is extremely helpful as his music is often very harmonically complex. In the sheet music offered on this website, we have normally reverted to this “user-friendly” tradition.


When composers write music that sounds simultaneously in two (or more) different keys, this is called “polytonality” and can be a problem for our ears. But when composers notate their music in a different key signature to how it sounds, there is absolutely no problem for our ears, but there can be serious problems for our brains because this music can be hard – or very hard – to read, depending on how far apart the two keys are. When the music modulates into different keys, composers will often just pile on the accidentals, including nasty double-sharps and double-flats for harmonic accuracy, rather than changing the key signature in the score. The reading difficulties derived from this situation are unnecessary stress-producers and if we were to to invent a name for this phenomenon it would not be complimentary!

We instrumentalists are usually not highly trained in harmony and our principal priority is to make beautiful music rather than to be intellectual music-reading virtuosi. This problem is especially significant in orchestral playing where we need to play large amounts of notes with little rehearsal time. All the concentration that is needed to decipher unnecessarily difficult reading problems consumes brain power that is no longer available for making music, listening, and following the conductor. It would make learning a piece so much easier to have the notes written out in the simplest possible way. Easier reading = easier learning = less brain-strain. Here below are just a few examples taken from a two-page compilation of repertoire excerpts using unnecessarily complex pitch notation that can be seen by clicking here.

At least in the above examples all the accidentals in each passage were either sharps or flats. When composers mix flats and sharps in the same passage it’s as though they were using two languages in the same sentence. This also creates unnecessary reading problems.

Bruckner 7th mix sharps and flats

There are times however, especially in highly chromatic passages, when mixing flats and sharps can help us with our reading, so long as the choice of flat or sharp follows the rule of “always using the simplest notation”. This works best when there is no key signature (C major).

Alternations of strange #’s and b’s, along with double sharps and flats, are perhaps the most difficult notations to read. Both these types of notation are however easily avoidable. As pitches become more and more “radical looking”, they actually become more and more “conservative sounding”. Look at the sequence of sharps and flats in order of  “extremism” and we can see how the most “radical”  notes are actually equivalent to the most “conservative” (shown in parentheses). We will start with the last, most extreme flat in any key signature (the seventh flat = Fb) and work towards the last, most extreme sharp (the seventh sharp = B#).

Fb(=E) – Cb(=B) – Gb(=F#)  – Db(=C#) – Ab – Eb – Bb – C – F# – C# – G# – D#(=Eb) – A#(=Bb) – E#(=F) – B#(=C)

For a player – unlike for a composer – an “Fb”, “Cb” or “Gb” will almost always be more difficult to read and understand than their equivalent “E”, “B” or “F#”. We usually just translate in our heads the “bizarre” notes into simple ones: thinking “E” instead of “Fb” for example even though Fb might be the correct note name according to the harmony. The performing musician can only very rarely (if ever) rewrite a complex passage in a way that makes it easier to read because there is no room in our sheetmusic to do so, therefore part of our required musical skills is to be able to quickly “decode” (and then remember) even the most bizarre ways of writing notes and rhythms. But this often makes our job so much harder! The way music is notated in the composer’s score is not always the best model for the performer’s parts. There is definitely room for improvement in music publishing, in order to make the playing parts of sheet music more user-friendly in this department. While the general score can keep the composer’s original notation (which we suppose is harmonically correct) , the individual playing parts could be notated in the simplest possible way, to make them easier to read and play from.

Key signatures are a little like politics. The further away they get from the centre (C major/A minor) the more they look different on paper ……. but the more similar they actually become!  A passage written in an extremely flat key could be just as easily written in an extremely sharp key, as illustrated by the following passage from Puccini’s “Tosca”, written in Gb major (with 6 flats) but which could equally well (and simply) have been written with exactly the same sounding pitches in F# major (with 6 sharps):

tosca sharps or flats

We can find many many examples in the “real” repertoire, of passages in which the notes (pitches) are only difficult to read, rather than to play or to imagine in our heads. Prokovief loved juxtaposing the most bizarre series of accidentals in the most unlikely ways, but normally in his music the notes are not only hard to read, but are also hard to imagine (sing). See also the page Chromatics. And click here to see an experiment in which five different notations are used to try and make a complex irregular chromatic repertoire passage (from Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture) easier to read.


A third frequent source of pitch-reading problems comes from the sub-optimal use of clefs. We cellists are unusual in that we are accustomed to read music in three clefs. This is more than most other musicians. It is easy to understand that composers have more important things to think about than their choice of clefs for the cello line in their full score, but editors – who produce the playing parts – could often do a better job in choosing the clefs that are used in any given passage. Reading notes high above the stave is something that we – unlike violinists and pianists – are not used to, and it is so easy to bring the notes down into an easily readable range by using the treble (or tenor) clef. Counting ledger lines is a totally unnecessary difficulty and in some pieces, written out way above the stave, this problem may even justify rewriting the passage in a more appropriate clef (or just memorising it).

Some instruments sound one octave different to the way their music is notated: doublebasses, classical guitars and tenor voices sound one octave lower, and flutes one octave higher than what we would expect from a literal reading of their clef. While this is absolutely standard procedure for those instruments it is not at all standard for cello music. Ocasionally however we cellists are confronted with music written out in the treble clef, but which needs to be sound one octave lower than actually written. Reading in the treble clef and simultaneously transposing down one octave is not easy, especially in sight-reading or faster music. This notation is a totally unnecessary complication which confuses us and can take us by surprise. It occurs very often in Dvorak’s orchestral music but is also quite common in the music of the Classical Period, and not just in the lesser editions of works of minor composers. A very trusting (and un-forewarned) principal cello of an orchestra might have an unnecessary rise in stress levels on seeing the following solo passage from Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy”: although notated in the stratosphere, it is actually played one octave lower. We can only ask ourselves why Beethoven wrote it like that, and why editors have not the courage to change it ?? (see the article about Urtext).

All of the clef-reading problems that we have discussed above can be seen combined in the following passage from the slow movement of Haydn’s Quartet Op 50 Nº 5. Here, depending on the edition that we consult, we might find several different uses of clefs and/or an octave transposition for the following phrase eight bars from the end. In the first example, we need to play one octave lower than written. In the second and third examples the pitch is “as-written” but only in the second example is a “user-friendly” clef chosen.

Normally, clefs are chosen in order to keep the written music as close to the stave as possible. When cello music is written out one octave higher than it is actually played and also lies way above the stave, then these two unnecessary complications combine to produce a music-reading nightmare!!

Occasionally, we are instructed to play passages, written in the bass and tenor clefs, up an octave. This, once again, is an unnecessary obstacle to fluid reading. In the fourth movement of the Novello edition of the Elgar Concerto, before rehearsal Nº 66 we have 9 bars written out in the tenor clef, with the instruction to be played one octave higher. It’s tricky to read this, but it is even more difficult to understand why anybody who knows of the existence of the treble clef would think to use this type of notation. As with all sub-optimal clef use, the only good thing we can say about this is that the brain activity that it requires might have the collateral benefits of warding off Alzheimer’s disease?!