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Amanda Bartoszek

The Importance of Reading Sheet Music

March 10, 2012 at 8:01 PM

A while back, a friend and I had a friendly debate about the importance of being able to read sheet music. She is an amateur guitarist, and is learning to play her guitar through a combination of watching videos on YouTube and playing with her niece, who is also learning to play the guitar. I, on the other hand, take private lessons from my tutor.

As a result of this I am required to learn to read sheet music. My friend, on the other hand, is not learning at all and gives me confused looks when I start using musical terminology.

That was how our debate began. Her view was that she did not need to learn how to read sheet music, as she was using YouTube and her niece as her guide. I, on the other hand, could not see how she could learn the guitar without learning to read sheet music. Well, it wasn’t to say that I couldn’t see how she could learn, but I felt she was greatly limiting what she could play by restricting herself to what was online.

In the end, we agreed to disagree on the issue. We concluded that it did not matter how we each chose to learn our instruments, as long as we enjoyed them.

Yet it got me thinking: just how important is it to read sheet music?

I put this question to a community site (Yahoo! Answers), asking musicians to say how important they thought learning to read sheet music was to musical development.

As you can imagine, I got a varied response. They weren’t only from violinists, but from guitarists, pianists, flutists, etc. Below is one quote I found particularly catching:

“If you can’t read music, you won’t be able to play anything you haven’t heard, and sometimes you still won’t play correctly if you can’t read music.”

The point of this statement is, if you cannot read music then you cannot play something you have not heard before, or know if you are playing it correctly. I thought this was true, to a degree. By reading music you know what notes you need to play, rather than guess what they are. By reading music, I know whether to play a C-sharp or a C-natural, as my musical ear is not tuned enough to know what note it is just by hearing it.

There are, of course, many lucky players who can play through sound alone. I don’t have this skill, but it’s something I hope to develop as I progress through my violin lessons. But the point is, without reading music I would not be able to tell just from a video what note is being played.

Following this, I found the next quote also particularly useful:

“Learning to read sheet music is important, but it’s far more important to develop your ear.”

So the general consensus of my investigation was that learning to read sheet music was important in musical development. To read music, and learning to play it properly, is important. If you want to become a professional musician, it is absolutely essential to be able to read music. My teacher even told me that professional musicians in orchestras could be given a piece of music on the day and be expected to read it and play it right. She even recently attended a school performance requiring her to play a piece she had never even heard of.

So, without the ability to read music, you would not be able to excel in the musical world.

However, if you take up an instrument as a hobby, is it absolutely vital? I personally believe that the string family is one set of instruments where you really should learn to read music. I could not watch a video and then try and play it on my violin. It would take forever to learn and remember where my fingers go. Whereas learning to play and having the music would make the process much faster.

Ultimately, it depends on what your goal is with your instrument. If you’re playing an instrument as a hobby, as something that makes you happy and you feel good playing, why should you be bound to learning every little bit? On the other hand, if you want to be a professional violinist, violist, cellist, etc. then learning to read sheet music is a skill that would benefit you greatly.

I, for one, have benefitted from reading sheet music. But what does reading sheet music mean to other musicians? Share your thoughts.


From Emily Hogstad
Posted on March 10, 2012 at 9:20 PM
I'm not sure why people wouldn't at least try to learn how to read sheet music. The basics simply aren't that difficult. If you already play an instrument and want to learn how to read sheet music, and spend, say, fifteen minutes a day on it...I can't imagine this skill taking very long to even halfway master. Under a month, certainly. Then you have a choice depending on the rep whether you want to read the sheet music or use the Youtube tutorials.
From Julie Wilson
Posted on March 10, 2012 at 10:07 PM
For those with a good ear and ready access to observing others play, it is entirely possible (and common in bluegrass/fiddle circles) to learn to play quite well without ever learning to read a single note.
I have found that often, not taking the opportunity to learn to read sheet music can be very self-limiting because at one point I was not able to play pieces I didn't have auditory access to. The other benefit is the additional notations (such as slurs, ect) are written down, and you can add your own notes to the sheet music.
I don't think it's absolutely necessary to learn to read notes to play an instrument, or even play well - but only good things have ever come from learning to do so.
From Sarah Harding
Posted on March 10, 2012 at 10:42 PM
I began playing the guitar and piano by ear when I was four. When I started the violin at eleven, having developed my ear helped me learn the violin and learn sheet music.
I'm sure that if someone learned to read music first it would also help the other.
Music is music. One isn't 'better' than the other. It goes hand in hand.
From Gene Wie
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 2:44 AM
Learning to read the symbols of music is like learning to read the written form of spoken language. You need to develop your ear first of course, just like in speech (I seem to recall some guy named Suzuki based an entire teaching method based on this concept...sound first, then symbols).

After you've gotten past that first step, while it's certainly possible to function communicating only in an aural fashion, would anyone truly be comfortable having to learn music for the rest of their life solely by imitating other players? There is a certain creativity in interpreting a work from the score that cannot be accomplished by the musically illiterate. This point seems to be lost a lot of the time...

Similarly, it's tough to play music with other people (chamber music anyone?) without some form of common communication between the players...even jazz groups make use of lead sheets!

As mentioned before, learning to read the basic symbols of notation (staff, clef, notes) and understanding their meaning (rhythm, pitch, articulation, dynamics, etc.) isn't all that difficult. I have elementary age students whose sole musical experience is 45 minutes of string orchestra twice a week for two years who emerge from their experience fairly music literate, understanding how to count rhythms, recognize pitch, and interpret those symbols with their instruments at a reasonable level of competency.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 3:11 AM
My wife is a pianist and organist and has been frequently asked to accompany singers in popular music. It is amazing that although the singers only source of the tune is a rigorously produced recording made with a click track many of these singers cannot sing the rhythm at all correctly. When we play by ear we frequently play what we think we have heard. I read music but in my youth I listened to recordings. When I got the music and played the piece I frequently made rhythmic errors that did not exist at all in the recording.
From Momoko Takahashi
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 8:23 AM
There is a stark difference between classical music training and say, pop song training, partly because classical music has had almost a millennia of history and therefore its pedagogy and methodology is clearly established. Reading music's one of them. Quite a lot of popular music isn't that complicated (IE: Lady Gaga doesn't have a 27-tuplet that must be followed) so perhaps reading music is useful, but not vital. For classical performers, however, you're pretty much stuck playing Twinkle Twinkle without being able to read sheet music.

Or that's what my father said. He's an amateur guitarist, but he got to a pretty high level before he got too busy. He can read tabs but not sheet music. My mother and I can read music but can't read tabs to save our lives. It's all just how it's learned, I think.

From marjory lange
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 12:56 PM
Literacy is always better than illiteracy.

And reading music doesn't mean one can't play without music; reading just adds another (important) skill to a musician's palette.

From Millie Bartlett
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 12:58 PM
Funny thing, after all these years of learning and reading sheet music, if I try to play something I've heard without it, my mind begins to map out the notes. I sort of 'see' the sheet music beginning to form in my thoughts. I can't play by ear without doing this, it's automatic, so I guess the sheet music thing has become fairly well ingrained, in me at least.

For those that do not use sheet music, I wonder how their mind behaves during play. Do they 'see' a musical road in their mind, or something else perhaps?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 1:56 PM
I think learning to read sheet music also benefits non-professionals who play as a hobby or for themselves. Not everyone can play by ear. I remember as a kid trying to figure out how to play songs from the radio on my violin and I could never get them right until I found sheet music. And I think it's essential to be able to read sheet music if you want to play in an ensemble or orchestra. There was a lovely young woman who used to play in the community orchestra I play in, but she said she had to quit because her music reading skills just weren't up to it and she often got lost.
From Tobias Seyb
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 1:48 PM
Well said, Marjory!

It's like watching comics vs. reading books.

A related stupidity is the popular tablature notation with guitars. It's amazing how many arguments I had with guitar students who decline written music and prefer tablature.
Sometimes I accept their wish to remain self-limited (tabs = "paint by numbers") and they accept me dropping them as students.
The more interested ones stay.

From Martina Fortin
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 6:16 PM
I cannot imagine not wanting to learn to read music. When I was small, I always thought that music notes and sheet music looked pretty, and was impressed by anyone who could read it. I was happy when I had the opportunity to learn, and now I can't imagine being so limited. It amazes me that people can get so defensive about why they choose not to read music, especially when they haven't even tried. If one wants to learn an instrument, but not take the time to read, well...I don't know. It seems like more of a bother to avoid learning to read music when you're in that situation.
Actually, it seems like most people are visual learners. I think that for those visual learners who avoid reading music, reading music shouldn't be so bad. Just some thoughts.
From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on March 11, 2012 at 9:45 PM
Reading sheet music is a good thing to be sure - but it's not essential to playing music, at least in some circles. I play both classical and bluegrass, and many bluegrassers - some quite good - can't read a note. All they need to know is the chord structure and they can take it from there.

Playing by ear is a talent that's arguably as useful as reading music. Its utility ranges from handy (in classical music) to completely sufficient (in pop or folk music).

A friend of mine studied piano as a child with a standard classical program, then took up folk guitar later. Interestingly, he can play guitar by ear, but needs sheet music to play piano.

I have the best of both worlds: I can read music and play by ear. This makes me an oddity to both bluegrassers and classical musicians. And as much as I feel sorry for people who can't read music, I feel almost as bad for classical musicians who can't play by ear. A well-rounded musician needs both abilities.

From Charles Taylor
Posted on March 12, 2012 at 12:40 AM
Two names come to mind stephane grappelli, and Jimi Hendrix. They were "ear" musicians. Hendrix is still rated the best guitarist of all time and probably always will be.

Having said this, I subscribe to the ability to both play by ear and read music. They are both just a part of being a musician.

From Michele Medina
Posted on March 12, 2012 at 12:41 AM
I think that it's important to do both. As a young student, I learned how to read music and figured it out easily. But then when I played with a Spanish choir, they didn't always have the music. I figured out a lot of theory and how to listen because of that. I really grew as a musician.
I love reading sheet music, but it's not always available. Yes, doing things by ear is time consuming, but it's fun and you can remember if you listen (and maybe write it down if you learn that way).
Reading music is fun but so is being able to improvise on the spot! Whatever you chose, music is awesome and there is always something else that you can learn and develop.
From Tobias Seyb
Posted on March 12, 2012 at 6:15 AM
"best guitarist" is very personal, but also meaningless. Hendrix was great in his day, but he was also very limited. Music has developed since the roaring sixties, and the surviving oldtimers have become very boring. Check Santana and Clapton. I'm a big fan of both, but they are, boring. They can't read music, and that is one reason they have stopped evolving as artists. If we watch them, for example, jamming with jazz oriented artists, they are limited to their pentatonic blues scales and licks, no chance of following the colors of advanced harmonies or scales.
It would have been the same with Hendrix.

Btw.

Do you know how to stop a rock guitarist?
You put sheet music on his desk.

Do you know how to stop a classical guitarist?
You take away the music.

Music is what we hear, not what is on paper. But since a human's brain is limited, our culture has developed written music, because some our music has become so complex. Only simple structured music with a lot of repeating structures works without notation. There's no value judgement in this, I play and appreciate Brahms *and* Miles Davis. But Brahms would be impossible in an aural tradition.

From Jeff Terflinger
Posted on March 12, 2012 at 4:30 PM
Two more great musicians who played by ear.
Art Tatum.
Horowitz was a great fan of the blind jazz pianist.
Also, the GREATEST guitarist ever, Django Reinhardt.

From John Cadd
Posted on March 12, 2012 at 5:21 PM
I saw a quotation by Art Tatum yeterday ."There`s no such thing as a wrong note" . Well he was blind so that does not prove a lot in this topic. Whereas Paul McCartney ought to have known better by setting a bad example and giving the world an excuse not to read music. Tabs can easily be applied to guitars because each fret is numbered. That`s harder on a violin where no clear divisions are in place. Momoko would find Tabs easy in less than an hour if she played a guitar. I tried it myself for the first time ,well after I could read music. It was so very easy . I think it`s a bad idea to sling words like stupid into the topic when Tabs are mentioned. They would not play at all in many cases without Tabs. Tabs have a very long history. That`s not to promote them in any way though . Learning how to read is not as easy as it`s made to sound here. You are mainly in possesion of all the answers already. You can forget what it feels like to be starting afresh. If not stupid then lazy or unconvinced would be better descriptions . This forum proves how difficult it is to convince anyone about anything , ever. Not even shoulder rests. (6 points for a late mention there ).
From Tobias Seyb
Posted on March 12, 2012 at 7:44 PM
Just to make clear - I don't find tablature by itself stupid, but the way it's used nowadays, mainly by guitar students who already know better ;-)
From John Cadd
Posted on March 13, 2012 at 1:27 AM
Are they using it to help with chords in high positions? That word stupid is still looking for the donkey to pin the tail on.

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