There is a lot of confused thinking out there when it comes to the subject of reading music, especially being a guitar player and reading music.
I want to examine what some of this confused thinking is, and how people get this confused thinking into their heads, and why it stays there.Why do some people think they shouldn’t learn to read music, when they should? Why do some people think they should, when they shouldn’t (at least not right away)?
Every Strength is a Potential Weakness
Some people are very “natural” guitar players, they learn to play by watching and listening to other players. And that is fine, in fact, that is great. The ability to just watch someone do something like play the guitar, and somehow “learn” how to do it yourself, is a great ability. However, every strength can also be a weakness, and that is true here.
Often, the person who is able to learn this way starts to get an “attitude” about the more formal aspects of learning music and the guitar, things like taking lessons, or learning to read music. They begin to form certain belief systems about the subject. And these belief systems can be dangerous, because they prevent the person holding them from growing and developing as they otherwise could.
Even if you are a “natural” guitar player, there will come the day when you will run up against certain musical concepts which you will be locked out of understanding because you don’t know how to read music. Learning how to read music is one way to increase your chances of being the best musician you can be.
Let’s examine some of the reasons why a person might adopt a belief system that says “it is a bad thing to learn to read music, at least for me”.
I’m a Genius, and God Whispers Directly in My Ear
Unfortunately, most people have an ego, an “idea” or “image” of who they are, and whatever that image is, it carries along with it certain limitations. Whatever our particular image is, it also becomes our act. We have to live up to it. We have to keep a mental list of all the things that support our act, and also a list of the things we have to avoid because they don’t fit our act. In some professions, keeping up your image is essential to survival. Politics is one, probably the first “I must, at all costs maintain my image and my act” profession. Being an entertainer/artist is probably second.
So, it is very common, especially in the beginning stages of being a musician, to decide to play the “I am a natural genius who just picked up a guitar and played like Jimi Hendrix” routine. The musician playing this role has decided they are the “romantic, inspired artist”. This is the image of the artist who gets his inspiration from some divine source. He or she likes to believe (and likes others to believe), that God, or perhaps one of his angels, whispers directly in their ear, and they best not tamper with the process. If they interfere with the process by getting some “education”, then, God might get mad, and stop whispering in their ear. God will stop directly inspiring them with all those great musical ideas and they will just be another jerk playing the guitar.
Underneath this feeling is the feeling that they are, in fact, just another jerk playing the guitar. That is why this particular routine is common with beginners, because most of us do feel like we are just another jerk playing the guitar when we first begin to play. And we usually have a little outside help in the matter, in the form of parents or “special friends”, ready to tell us to get real when we dare disclose our secret dreams of actually being professional guitar players.
It is very important to grow past this little game. If you do decide to make this image a part of your professional career (as many artists do) you must at least stop believing your own hype. If you don’t, you will not move yourself into contact with the resources and situations that exist to help you grow and develop. Beethoven comes to mind. There was never a musician who was more “divinely inspired” than Beethoven. Music flowed into him and as it came out when he played, people were left sobbing with intense emotion, or moved to feelings of awe. When he was young, he would tell people, “I never listen to other composers music, it would interfere with my originality”. He would say that, but he was full of “you know what”, and he knew it. He was really busy studying with all the greatest composers and music theory teachers of his day. So he was not only listening to their music, he was studying it note by note. But he was smart. He knew he had a good thing going with all these people worshiping him. He was young, and knew he had to struggle to build a career as an artist, so he would use this image of the “divinely inspired artist” to his advantage, and help foster and maintain it in people’s minds. But he wasn’t dumb enough to believe it himself, or let it get in the way of the development of his creative powers.
Another artist, and a supremely great one, who typified this attitude was Louie Armstrong. When asked if he read music, he said “not enough to hurt my playing”. I believe he was being a bit tongue in cheek here, and probably also was promoting the “look, I’m just a genius” image, but there is some truth to what he was trying to get across.
He was trying to get across the fact that reading music, like reading words, does not give you talent. Being able to read doesn’t mean you will actually have something to say, and when you are a musician, having something to say (in a musical sense) is what it is all about. However, if you have talent, if you have something to say, learning to read music will not make you less of a musician, but more of a musician.
Having Talent/Nurturing Talent
If you are an artist, if you feel you want to be a guitarist, then, you would really be much better off eliminating the word “talent” from your vocabulary. You should not even be concerned with whether you have any or not. You should only be concerned with how much you love music and the guitar. You should only be concerned with how much you need to do it. Whether you have talent or not is for other people to waste their time wondering about.
When you stay focused on your love for what you are doing, the path of your development will become clear to you. If you love blues guitar, if you want to play like Jimi or Stevie Ray, and that is all you want to do, then it will become clear to you over time that learning to read music is not high on the list of priorities. Playing constantly with other people who play that style is high on the list. Learning and copying the solos of a hundred other players is high on the list. Of course, along the way, maybe you WILL feel the desire to learn to read.
When I was starting out, my friends would show me blues scales and licks. I wasn’t much interested in just learning finger patterns, I wanted to understand in a mental way, what I was doing. I wanted to know the note names and so forth. That was just my personality. I didn’t know then that a few years later I would be captivated by the classical guitar, which is a style that absolutely requires note reading and musical understanding in a technical sense, in order to develop. I was just following my nature. So, being in touch with yourself, your true nature and needs for musical statement, is the first thing. But don’t interfere with that awareness by clinging to some dumb “self-image” that says you “shouldn’t” read music.
Should YOU learn to read music?
What I say now should be understood and used in the context of what I have already said. There are many players for whom this question never even comes up. They know already, intuitively, the right answer to this question as it applies to them. But many people do have questions about this issue, so I will try to provide the clarity they need.
IN GENERAL, everyone can only benefit by learning to read music. Believe me, if you DO have talent, if you have something to say as an artist, you are not going to lose it by developing your mental understanding of the “theoretical” aspect of music. The only people who will lose their artistic ability by education in music are the ones who didn’t have any artistic ability to begin with.
If you DON’T have much natural ability for music, or much experience in playing music, then learning to read can open up a whole world of understanding for you. It can give you the keys to understand the “mysteries of music”. I love to teach students to read, because then I can teach them music theory. In fact, for the guitar student, learning to read is like an insurance policy against future confusion. So many guitar students, as time goes by, start bumping up against concepts that they can’t understand, and it is a source of great frustration for them, because understanding these concepts is the doorway to new and more sophisticated playing abilities.
I often get questions from students (other peoples students) like “can you explain secondary dominants”, or “how do I use a harmonic minor scale in improvising”. Unfortunately, I can’t answer these people. They don’t realize that in order to understand the answer, a knowledge of music theory is required. And in order to learn music theory, you must know how to read music. In other words, I have to use a particular language to answer these questions, and they don’t know the language. So we can’t communicate. They are stuck with their question.
It’s like trying to learn grammar without being able to read words. You may be able to get some understanding if you find a creative teacher, but you will never achieve a complete or satisfying understanding of grammar in the way you would if you could read.
So, in general, I always recommend learning to read music.
Who Should Learn to Read
Specifically speaking, the following are the types of people who definitely should learn to read music.
- Anyone who really wants to.
- Anyone planning on someday having a complete and sophisticated understanding of music and music theory.
- Anyone planning on a career in music, unless it will be a career as a rock/blues musician, or folk musician. Even then, of course, it won’t hurt, it is just not as necessary.
- Anyone who wants to play the classical guitar.
Who shouldn’t Learn to Read Music
- Anyone who really doesn’t want to.
- Anyone who is planning on being only a blues/rock musician or a folk musician.
- Most people who are just starting to learn to play the guitar.
When to Begin to Read Music
There is a common belief that students should learn to read music right from the beginning. I don’t think so. I rarely do that with students. Usually, it is just a way of throwing water on a fire that is just beginning to burn. With guitar, it is very easy to teach music in the beginning without learning how to read. By doing so, the student is connected right away to music in an emotional way, and it is the emotional aspect of playing music that made them begin lessons.
Learning to read music is a very complex, mental affair, dealing with many abstract concepts. Doing it in the beginning is kind of like reading your girlfriend an essay on the philosophy of love on your first date, instead of just being romantic with a box of candy and flowers.
So I believe in fanning that fire first. I find a song they love that has easy chords, I teach them how to practice, and we’re off and running. After a few months, I bring the subject of reading music up, and by then there is no problem in doing so. Also, by then they are more able to understand why it is important.
Teaching children to learn to read is very tricky, and requires great skill. It is often done badly. Suppose, for instance, that you are trying to teach a third grader to read, and you have to teach the concept of dotted notes. In order to understand dotted notes, you have to understand fractions, you have to understand the concept of “one half of something”. They most likely DON’T understand that. So, you have to be a math teacher for a bit. It can take six months to really have a 10-year-old understand this one musical concept.
In fact, I believe many adults who have had trouble learning to read music are the victims of bad teaching. There are often a lot of unexplained, and under-explained vital concepts along the way, which are the real culprits, not a lack of ability to “get it”.
And finally, it should be understood that learning to read music can be a long process, in the same way that learning to read words can be. It takes enough work, over a long enough period of time. You can learn to read enough to go slowly through music, as you can learn to read slowly, or you can become a “speed reader” and read music you haven’t’ seen and still play it up to performance level.
Whether or not to learn to read, and how far to take it is up to you. But it is certainly a subject you should make an informed choice about, based on careful consideration.
Copyright Jamie Andreas, Guitar Principles.