Should I learn to read music?

Dec05

First off, I’d like to direct you to a great discussion about this very topic that took place on the Forum pages a little while back. Please read Teaching Methods.

One of the arguments here, that when you learn another instrument such as piano, saxophone or even drums, that the teacher will teach you to read notation, is very telling I think.

It is certainly possible to learn to play guitar, to play it one’s whole life in fact, and not ever read a single note of music. Or TAB, for that matter. This is the “classic” argument you’ll hear time and time again…”Paul McCartney (or pick any musician you’d like to use as an example) didn’t read music and he’s certainly done okay…”

And, as an argument, there’s not too much that you can say about that. Not because of what it says but because anyone who uses that argument is probably not interested in reading music.

How can I get that out of this simple sentence? Well, seriously think about it… Any guitarist (or musician) that we consider has “made it” has done so, in all likelihood, without his or her ability to read music even entering the picture. There are so many factors involved in being able to make it as an artist that to focus on this one thing (technically, this lack of one thing) is an approach that would only be resorted to in order to close down a discussion rather than to start one up.

Much more important to consider is this – What, if anything, has so-and-so’s decision to not learn to read music (and it is a decision much more often than a disability – more on that later) got to do with me as a guitarist? After all, I’m not Paul or Jimi or Stevie or whoever.you decide to pick as an example.

I can’t speak for you, but as someone who is, even at the age of forty-seven, constantly trying to become a better guitarist, musician, human being, I will gladly welcome all the help and advice I can get! Why on earth would I walk away from anything that could possibly help me get better? I don’t have the luxury, or the patience to sit and reinvent the wheel. Nor do I have the ego that makes me think that my reinventing the wheel will make me a superior person.

I could claim it’s hard work, but, quite frankly, so was learning the guitar in the first place. I could claim I don’t have the time, but I make the time to practice. What would spending an extra five or ten minutes a day for a few months cost me? I could say I’m too old but I know a lot of people who’ve learned to read music at a late age. And when I make that statement, I’m also assuming that all of us would agree that learning to read music at seventy-eight or eighty-two to be considered “late.”

Basically the decision whether or not to learn to read music has to be in an honest manner by the person making the choice. And the easiest way to do that is to, again honestly, list all the pros and cons about being able to read music. No lie! Get a piece of paper, draw a line down the middle and list all the good things about being able to read music in one column and all the bad things in the other.

Writing out a list of pros takes no work at all. And most of these were mentioned in that Forum thread I mentioned earlier. There’s being able to read a lot of guitar music that isn’t done in TAB. There’s the ability to know when a piece of TAB is wrong or, even better, to realize that there’s an easier way to play something than simply by what the TAB suggests. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a difficult stretch dictated by a TAB only to realize that there was a simpler way to get the same note. And being able to read what the note was is what made me see that.

Another “pro,” and this is also a huge benefit, is that you’re not limited to guitar music. You can get some really great ideas and arrangements from being able to read piano music (quite a few of our song lessons, in fact, come from this), not to mention being able to put in horn parts or fiddle tunes or just about any sort of music you can think of.

And it’s important to note here that the “pros” we’re listing (and hopefully the ones you’re listing as well) are all tangible things. These aren’t opinions; they are facts. There are real things that you can accomplish simply by knowing how to read music. The same is not so on the other side. In fact, it’s in listing out the “cons” where I run into an incredible problem. I’ve been trying to do an itemization of this nature for the better part of two months now and, for the life of me, I cannot come up with any “cons.” And I suspect that others can’t either, because if you read any discussion of this, no one offers any real reasons to not read music, specific things like

If I substitute the word “excuses” for “cons,” then I can indeed come up with a list. In addition to the “so-and-so doesn’t read music” argument, there’s the “it’s too hard” or “it takes time” that we’ve also already discussed.

And there’s also the “coolness” factor, I think. Whether or not we’re honest enough with ourselves to admit it, the idea of being a “rebel” or an “outsider” appeals to most of our natures. So being able to do something without being part of the norm strikes us as being cool. And, personally, I think this is also why a lot of musicians make a big claim to not knowing how to read music. It’s part of the image. The truly silly thing about this kind of posturing though, and again it only works if you’re able to honestly look at things, is that we tend to really delude ourselves with this sort of thinking. Advertisers know this; it’s in fact the heart of most pitches: Be unique by buying the same thing everyone else does! And I really shouldn’t get started down this particular path…

But doesn’t the fact that I can’t list a single item in the “cons” column that is a genuine reason to not learn to read music, instead of an excuse, make the point for me? If not, then take a look for yourself. Write out what “cons” you have. Chances are very likely, if you’re being honest with yourself, that your reasons are simply clever (or not so clever) translations of “because I think it’s stupid” or “because I don’t want to.”

And, again, that’s why I don’t think it’s worth an argument. If you can’t see how the pros of being able to read music can honestly help you out, and how there’s nothing about being able to read music that can make you a worse musician or guitarist, then what can I possibly say that will change your mind.

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About David Hodge

Since joining Guitar Noise in November 1999, David has written over a thousand articles, lessons, interviews and reviews. He also serves as the site's Managing Editor, supervising all content in addition to the continued writing of his own lessons and articles.

In April 2013, David also joined the writing staff of Answers.com, heading up their Guitar Pages.

And if that wasn't enough to keep him busy, David also contributes frequently to Acoustic Guitar Magazine. He also is the author of three Idiot's Guide to Guitar books: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Guitar, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Rock Guitar and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing Bass Guitar as well as The Complete Idiot's Guide to Playing the Ukulele and the co-writer of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Art of Songwriting.

Comments [1]

  1. Im an ear musician and although I did find it rewarding to learn how to read music, I never stuck with it. I find myself naturally rebelling against it. For me it’s not a matter of being.g cool, but playing by ear is a different kind of rewarding that feels almost sacred to me. When I was six, my piano teacher was frustrated with me because I couldn’t understand what the O with the line through it meant and why I needed to look at
    it in order to play music. I thought everyone
    could play music by ear and couldn’t understand what she was doing. I was also shy so she probably did.t even suspect I could play naturally and she and made me feel like a loser.

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