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.
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