It’s a fact that leads to many questions.These questions vary from “Do I need to read music?” to an alarming “Why do I hear my son playing guitar but I don’t see him reading any music!” Some people come to me, already playing really well, and warn me in an almost disparaging tone “I don’t know any music theory and I can’t read music.” They imply 2 things: only “real, legitimate musicians read music” and “I, not being of the aforementioned “legit” set, could never accomplish such a feat.”
Here’s my take on this issue:
1. reading music is a skill. Talent has nothing to do with it’s accomplishment. Bluntly put, anyone without brain impairment can learn to read music! Reading music will definitely help a musician’s overall musicality as it helps sharpen your ear over time. Not reading music, however, will not impede a guitarists development. It is a useful skill I encourage but I only pursue it in my lessons if it works for the student.
This warrants some detail.
In my early years as a guitar teacher I resisted tablature in my lessons. I insisted my students read standard notation. That did not work. While many people wanted to read, quite a few students did not. In fact, I don’t think they would have continued with guitar lessons if it meant reading music. Many of these students played quite well without reading music, many without even reading tablature! I realized that everyone has a personal learning style that works for them. I feel my job as a teacher is to connect with my students and know their goals, strengths, and learning style. This leads to the ultimate goal: making music by playing the guitar to the best of one’s ability.
2. Many of the pop musicians we know and love can’t read music at all.
As I mentioned earlier, musicians the likes of B.B. King, Paul Macartney, Elton John – the list is long and great- do not read music.. If these brilliant musicians cannot read music and yet create so much great music, what does that tell us about playing an instrument and music in general?
the lesson in this is my final point:
(3) music is a hearing art. Your primary task as a guitarist is to build your ear– your ability to create, recognize, and react to music solely by listening. For most guitarists, unless you find yourself in music school, an ensemble, or studio session where sheet music is required for music to actually take place, reading music is ultimately an optional part of the goal. A very useful option, no doubt, but an option nonetheless.
The gist: if you want to be a musician at any level, you must play as much as possible and develop your ear, period. Reading music can help and in many cases speed up the rate of improvement. But it’s not the deal-breaker in playing the guitar well or making music in general.
coming soon to a blog near you: ways to improve your ear