Many musicians feel that in order to be "proper musicians" they need to be able to sight read music. In fact, the ones who can actually read are usually also very vocal about it, while the ones who cannot read tend to simply dismiss the issue. If you are reading this article, chances are that you cannot read, but that you are feeling "guilty" about it. After all, all professionals know how to read, right?
As I learned to read music late in my music education, I used to feel this way too. Of course now I know how to read, but having been on both sides of the divide for quite a long time I can give you my informed opinion on how this really is. And I have some good and some bad news.
The good news is that to be able to be a musician, or even to understand music theory you DO NOT need to be able to read music. I fact, you can become quite proficient in your knowledge and application of music theory without knowing how to read a single note as unpopular as this may be to some musicians and teachers.
More Than One Notation
There is another side to this coin, though, so let's look at the bad news. In order to write down your ideas or to communicate with other musicians you DO need to learn some form of music notation . This because if you don't know ANY ways of reading/writing music you will be quite a disadvantage in any situation where you need to work on your song, both by yourself and with other people. Communicating efficiently will be impossible. You may also be excluded from some circles because it is too difficult to explain songs or concepts to you. But don't worry! Not all types of music notation require you to learn to read a score. Most of them are way easier, and just as useful.
The first thing to do is to determine what music notation you NEED to know. This article deals with that. Of course the second step is to learn the notation(s) that you need to know. There will be some resources at the end of this article that will help you. Let's now see the most common ways to notate music: Standard notation, Tablature, and Chord-based systems.
Standard Notation or Tablature?
There are few specific cases where you absolutely need learn to read standard music notation. If you want to be a classical musician, or if you want to work in situations where you need to work with classical musicians (such as working in the movie music industry, or becoming an orchestrator) then you definitely need to be able to read standard music notation. Since these are very specific goals, I will assume that they are not your goals if they are, just need to learn standard notation, there's no other way around it.
Learning the complete standard notation is thus definitely a need only for some musicians. However I am of the opinion that any musician should at least learn rhythmic notation (i.e. what is a bar, how to divide it in beats, how to divide the beats in eighths, sixteenths, triplets, etc). This kind of notation have the power of generate an incredible amount of music idea, and it's easy to learn.
As I'm sure you know, the most widespread notation for guitar music is Tablature (Tab for short). Compared to standard notation, Tab has both pros and cons. An advantage of Tab it's that the fingering is already done - with other forms of notations you need to figure out by yourself where to play the notes, as the same note can be fretted on more than one string on the guitar! . This is in probably the reason Tab is so popular among guitarists. And yet, this very feature is also one of the main disadvantages of Tab, as different players may find different fingerings more comfortable.
Another problem of Tab is the complete lack of rhythmic notation: it is virtually impossible to learn a song only from Tab (while it is possible, and common, to learn a piece of music from standard notation even if you have never heard it before). In fact a good part of the stigma of Tab is due to lack of rhythmic notation.Of course, we can easily overcome this by listening to a recording on the song while we are learning it.
While many classical musicians look down at Tab as "poor man's music notation", it's interesting to note that string players need too to prepare their fingering in advance for complex pieces! In fact Tab-like notations were in use in the past for many string instruments, such as the Viola da Gamba.
Other musicians may think that it's better to learn a piece "by ear". While I do agree, to a certain extent, I also notice that this criticism concerns standard notation too! In the end, I think that Tab is a good system provided you use it in the right context (i.e. alongside a recording of the piece).
Notating Chord Progressions
While being the most known systems, Tablature and standard notation are definitely not the only ones used. There are in fact other even more common music notation systems. These systems are generally used to notate chord progression as opposed to a complete arrangement (such as Standard notation or Tablature). The most used one is probably the Nashville number system: this system is simply a must to know for most studio work and jam sessions. It allows you to rapidly communicate chord progressions in any key and as a side bonus it also improves your knowledge of music theory! I definitely recommend that you learn this system - it's easy and useful.
If you are a classical musician, you might want to learn the classical roman numerals music notation method instead. The two systems the Nashville and the Roman Numerals are practically equivalent: they are both used to notate chord progressions. The only real difference between them is that he roman numeral system is more common in classical music, while the Nashville system is more widespread in modern music.
How Do I Find An Explanation Of These Systems?
The main point I want to make with this article is that you should learn to read music only if this is congruent with your goals as a musician. As an example, if all you want to do is to play 12-bar blues, you are better off practicing your improvisational skills rather than learning standard notation. Also, if you discover you need to learn how to read music, you have to learn the right system for your situation. What you need at this point is a step-by step explanation about how to learn these notations by yourself.
To help you whatever your choices are, I have prepared an eBook that explains ALL the system of music notation mentioned above. There is no other resource on the web with all these systems in the same place! You can download here your free eBook on music notation
About the Author
Tommaso Zillio is a prog rock guitarist and teacher with a passion for Music Theory applied to Guitar