To Read or Not to Read? Part 2 – Making Musical Milestones

At the end of Part One in this mini series of articles we asked the question:

What kind of guitarist do you want to be?

There are many valid ways one might choose to measure the ability level of guitar players, but for the purposes of this discussion lets look at the following three milestones:

  • Level 1: Able to play music that others have written.
  • Level 2: Able to improvise rhythm or lead parts along to music others have written
  • Level 3: Able to write original music.

Now, putting aside the specific question of reading music for a moment, let’s just look at the way each of these milestones can more easily be attained by having at least some understanding of music theory, as it relates to the guitar.

Level 1 can easily be attained with virtually no real comprehension of music theory whatsoever. By the use of grid diagrams for chords, rhythm charts for changes, and tab for lead parts. It is possible to learn song after song, solo after solo with little danger of running out of new material (don’t know if anyone has made a serious attempt to count how many songs there exist guitar tabs and rhythm charts for, but it must be in the tens of thousands at least!).

It should be noted that there are plenty of guitar players who steer round the need even for chord charts and tabs, These guys pick up how to play other people’s songs just by a combination of careful listening and trial and error. This can also be achieved with no great depth of understanding music theory. Although, as an interesting aside, this method of learning does, in my experience, help develop quite a strong intuitive understanding of music theory – you may not know the names given to various musical relationships, but you are aware of the patterns behind these relationships.

Even at this first level of guitar playing ability, it can be observed that any understanding a player happens to have of music theory, will greatly speed up the learning process, and make it a lot easier to learn accurately.

Level 2 – improvising ability – is much harder to achieve without at least some knowledge of how scales and chords work together, but I have met plenty of guitarists who can jam along happily to most tunes without any knowledge of music theory to speak of.

However, I often find that these players have a sense of being up against an invisible barrier in their development as musicians. They sense there is more to the subject and are often frustrated because they don’t exactly know what’s missing. What’s missing is simply understanding music theory as it relates to guitar playing. Given a dozen intensive lessons on theory and these guys really take off.

Level 3 – writing original music – again, can be achieved by trial and error and developing a good ear, but songwriters who try and develop their craft with no understanding of theory are inevitably going to find their style very closely defined by this factor. That is to say, they will tend to use a relatively narrow range of musical options when writing their songs, simply because they are unaware of the alternatives.

What knowledge of theory brings to the songwriter, is much broader choice. One could argue that this enriches their style of songwriting.

So to summarise: each level of guitar playing ability can be attained more easily, with less effort or frustration, and with a more accurate outcome, given at least some education in the basics of guitar music theory. It’s not essential – but it does ultimately make the process a whole lot easier.

Now back to the main topic. How does reading music relate to understanding guitar music theory?

Again, I have to say that it is quite possible to make good progress learning theory without actually dealing with standard notation. But, beyond a certain level, I have found as a teacher, it becomes increasingly more of a struggle to avoid using standard notation than it does to bite the bullet and teach my students to learn to read it – at least in its most basic form.

Quite specifically, I find that standard notation is best taught before trying to cover the whole subject of keys and key signatures.

I have developed a sort of map, in the form of a pyramid to help understand the hierarchical nature of music theory. It’s available to download free here:

If this looks interesting to you, you may like to watch the video that goes with it.

So, really, I would like to reinforce two basic ideas:

At each main stage of development, some understanding of music theory is going to help you learn quicker, more easily and more accurately.

At, and beyond the stage of learning music theory that specifically deals with key signatures (a subject that usually also introduces the theory concerning circles of fifths and fourths), it becomes increasingly difficult to work with the subject without, at least a basic, understanding of standard notation.

So that’s one argument for learning standard notation – to make studying guitar music theory easier. This itself will make the processes of learning to copy guitar parts, improvising solo and rhythm parts and writing songs easier and more accurate.

It should also be stated at this point that there are several direct spin-offs that come from being able to read standard notation.

For me, as someone who struggles with the vocals side of musical performance, I find it useful to be able to pick out the exact notes of a melody from a music book, to help sing the lead vocal more accurately. I also find it helpful to scrawl down ideas for backing vocal lines using standard notation.

If you don’t know a tune at all and have no access to a recording of it, then being able to read the melody from a music book is a practical skill worth having.

Sometimes I am working with musicians on other instruments who bring along written music with no guitar chords written above the melody line. It’s usually quite easy to work out an appropriate chord sequence by ear, but occasionally I find it quicker to work out the chords from the notes in the tune as shown on the manuscript.

When you work as a musician in any professional capacity (e.g. as a session musician, producer, arranger or as a guitar teacher) and someone is paying good money for your time, then possessing a skill that can speed up these processes is, I believe quite essential.

So hopefully I have convinced you that the learning of standard notation should form part of your guitar-learning journey at least at some point along the way!

Assuming you do want to take the plunge and get to grips with the subject leads us to the next question:

  • How is it best to go about learning to read standard notation?

In the Third and final Part of this mini-series we’ll provide some practical answers to just that.

Happy Playing!

Nick Minnion

Lots more lessons, articles and videos by Nick available at his main websites:

For guitar players:

For guitar teachers (or aspiring guitar teachers:

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