In this article we will focus on the importance of understanding skips and steps at the piano. And we will use this information to help us become better music readers. Let me reveal a little secret that professional musicians know that beginners often don’t. Ready? Advanced musicians often don’t read every note in a piece of music. This is especially true when sight-reading. How do they do it? They have an advanced understanding of skips and steps. And you can start acquiring these skills now, too! So let’s see how understanding “skips and steps” at the piano can make us better readers.
Understanding Skips and Steps: Distance Relationships
Let’s start with steps. “Steps” refers to half-steps and/or whole-steps. When we see steps in music we say that the notes are moving in “step-wise motion.” This means that the notes (of a melody, for example) are moving up or down one note at a time, not skipping any notes.
Let’s try an example in the key of C major. With your right hand, place your thumb on middle ‘C’, 2nd finger on ‘D’, 3rd finger on ‘E’, 4th on ‘F’, and 5th on ‘G.’ Now play up the C major scale and back down, one note at a time. You just played the first 5 notes of a C major scale in step-wise motion. There were no jumps, or gaps, or… SKIPS!
Now let’s see what that looks like in written music form.
As you can see, the notes move up and then down one line or space at a time.
Now let’s look at skips:
What do you notice just by looking at the music above? There are notes missing, spaces where notes could be written but are not.
So simply by looking at the music and understanding what skips and steps are, we can understand relative distances between two or more notes.
Understanding Skips and Steps: Reading Music
So you might be saying, “that’s great. I get it. But how does it help me read music?” Let me show you an example.
The example above begins on ‘F.’ The beginner player would likely proceed by reading every individual note: E, D, E, F, C, C, Bb, A, Bb, C, etc. The advanced player would likely only read the ‘F’ and the ‘C.’ Why? How?
The advanced player understands that he is in the key of F major, and the notes are moving step-wise through the key. So he does not need to read every individual note. Instead,he simply follows the contour of the melodic line – a fancy way of saying “the direction of the notes.” When the notes are moving up or down in step-wise motion they do not need to be read individually. Simply begin on ‘F’ and go down to the next note, then down again, then up, then up again, and then… a skip down. Skips often DO need to be read individually (especially if the skips are large jumps). So by reading this way, the advanced player is following the direction of the notes, simply understanding up and down relationships wherever they are present, and not over-working by trying to read each individual note.
You do not need to be an advanced player to start practicing this skill, so try focusing on this concept in your everyday practice!