How do you get a guitarist to turn down the volume? (Put sheet music in front of them!)
An old joke, but with the ring of truth. Guitar students do seem to struggle more frequently with sight-reading and notation than other musicians (Elmer, 2009; Ward, 2011; Beaumont, 2015; Stickford, 2003 p.66; Balistreri, 1995 p.3; Berard, 1998 p.31). Not being able to read well can be problematic, especially for students entering university-level studies, where technical proficiency is expected and required (Odegard, 2004). Since most instrumentalists seem to acquire a certain measure of facility early on (after all, jokes about the sight-reading ability of saxophonists are rare) – are there factors specific to the guitar that are at play?
1. A late start. With the exception of classical music, most popular styles that guitar students want to learn (rock, pop, folk & blues) do not use notation (Ward, 2011; Elmer, 2009; Degner & Lehmann, 2003, Fraser, 2013). This can manifest in a lack of interest in the classroom when notation is presented (Ward, 2011; Beaumont, 2015 p.102; Stickford, 2003 p.66), and a reluctance from teachers to insist on it – especially since visuomotor transformations (chord charts, tablature and scale patterns) can result in more immediate musical results for both student and teacher. And if learning to read music and memorizing the fretboard can be considered neuroplastic processes that require considerable time investment, learning to read later in life may present difficulties.
2. Sight-reading research infrequently features the guitar. Hundreds of papers have been written regarding factors in sight-reading: personality, musicality, self-efficacy, amount and type of training – the list goes on. However, it is important to note that very little of this research features the guitar, so it is not known whether these factors operate differently for guitarists. Beaumont, 2015 writes that in his university-level class the guitarists were quick to learn how to read (despite a distinct lack of interest), but struggled to connect the notation with places on the fretboard (p.98-105).
3. Embodied cognition and fretboard layout. It can be argued that a musician’s performance is mediated by the instrument they play (De Souza, 2013). Essentially the physical features of an instrument will come before any musical considerations, in a concept called embodied cognition (for more on this idea read Iyer 1998 & 2002). To my mind, the complex layout of the fretboard is the genesis point of many problems commonly encountered in guitar skill acquisition. James Sallis notes in his book The Guitar Players: “The guitar is, physically, a difficult instrument; to get past its cumbersomeness to the music inside requires considerable application. Things other musicians take for granted—legato playing, dynamics, even simple reading—can become awesome problems on the guitar.” (as quoted in Matone, 2005, p. 1)
As jazz guitarist Mick Goodrick wrote in his method The Advancing Guitarist, on the guitar “… the average note has 2.8 locations and 9.2 possible fingerings …” (p.93). In addition to this range and diversity, the guitar tuning system was initially designed to allow chords to be played with ease, which results in a non-symmetrical layout that is less intuitive for single note lines. The fretboard is a blank grid – not colour-coded and directional, as with the piano. Notes also ascend and descend in pitch counterintuitively to the direction of hand motion. As your hand moves ‘up’ the fretboard, not only is your hand actually moving towards the floor, but the pitches can ascend or descend depending on string choice. With this complex layout, the finger mechanics of which of the four fingers plays which note in any given context (often there are multiple options) is almost exclusively left to the performer, compounding the difficulty (Matone, 2005). Even classical guitar students, with their advantage of long notational experience, can struggle with certain aspects of fretboard navigation (McFadden, 2010).
4. Audiomotor connectivity and sequentiality. The non-sequential nature of the guitar fretboard could be significant, as some studies indicate that our brains process melodic information better when it is mapped sequentially or congruently to the physical device being used (ie. keys or buttons – left to right equals low to high) (Hoffmann, Sebald & Stocker, 2001; Stocker, Sebald, & Hoffmann, 2003; Rusconi, Kwan, Giordano, Umilta & Butterworth, 2005; Keller & Koch, 2008). Although it could be argued that many instruments are non-sequential like the guitar (for example, violin & cello) these instruments are classical and therefore practitioners have likely read notation from an early age – offering a compensatory advantage which is absent for most non-classical guitarists.
Illustration: Fretboard Harmony – Eddie Lang & Dave Berend, p.3