How to Study a Score

Every composer, conductor, and performer knows the importance of understanding a score. Quite literally, written music means little to nothing if it is not interpreted. As a composer and conductor for many years, I have picked up a few tricks to help you analyze scores efficiently and effectively.



1. Pretend it is your favorite piece of music in the world.

This may sound like an odd first step, but it truly makes the difference between a good conductor and a great conductor. If you purposefully chose a mindset of excitement and interest, then the work of learning a score feels like good work that does itself.

2. Learn every non-musical detail you possibly can about the piece.

Before even looking at the music, great conductors tend to research everything they can to discover the context and purpose of the piece of music. Once you understand who wrote the music, why they wrote it, and where they were both physically and temporally you will be able to make wise interpretational choices. Other details to explore would be: publication information, dedication/commision info, and performance history.

3. Prepare physically and mentally to study a score.

Although you may find it silly, research has proven that prolonged study of material from a bad posture will perpetuate bad posture whenever that information is recited. In other words, if you study a score while laying on the couch in your sweatpants and watching tv, then you will return to that mental and physical state whenever you try to conduct that music. On the other hand, you can train yourself to conduct with great posture and a clear mind by studying your scores in a position of great posture.

4. As you learn the actual music, make associations.

This is a trick I have picked up recently that has vastly improved my conducting. Instead of analyzing and circling every tiny change in dynamics, I generalize sections of music and associate them with other things in life. For example, if a section of music grew louder and softer over and over again, I would simply write the word "ocean" next to that section, and then seek to portray the waves of the ocean in my conducting. You can also make harmonic, rhythmic, and timbral associations so that, once you become really familiar with a piece of music, you don't even have to focus on the details because they will naturally arise out of your associations. When I go to conduct something that I am really familiar with, I may simply think "grass, clouds, sunset, prickly, sturdy, gold".

5. Learn to sing every part.

This final step is simultaneously the hardest and the most important. No matter the music, vocal or instrumental, you should learn to sing every part from beginning to end. If you truly master every line in the piece, then you can stand on the podium with 100% confidence in your ability to conduct and teach the music. A complete understanding of every line is necessary to be a great conductor, but it takes hundreds of hours of dedicated practice. Complete this final step whenever you wish to be completely confident on the platform, and make great music.


Jeremiah Tabb