Should You Learn How To Read Music?

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.

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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

60 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Lolcohol
    GoldfishMoon - you can notate extremely basic rhythm, but how to do you notate triplets, dotted rhythms, swing or other more complex rhythms? Tab is quick, but not as comprehensive.
    Kreuger
    Pretty sure tabs in like GP which give both notation and tab, also show things like timing so if theyre done properly, this isnt an issue.
    tommaso.zillio
    I think I should clarify some points since some commenters seem to miss them. 1) for the people insisting that one should "just learn" standard notation. The point is not if standard notation has some value - of course it has it. The points are rather: - if the value standard notation brings to my musicianship is commensurate to the effort I have to put in learning it (and this depends on your goals, there's not a right answer for each and every one), and: - if the same effort is not better spent pursuing other skills as hard as standard notation but more congruent with my goals. I have written more on this topic here: http://www.musictheoryforguitar.com/lear... rightorder.html 2) for the commenters sayin that tab can have some form of rhythmic notation. This is true, but: - the very fact that we are discussing it here shows that this is NOT the way tabs are usually written. It is possible, but now widespread. Since the main use of notation is to communicate, this kinda defeats the purpose - and sure, if you use Guitar Pro or similar you can have the rhythmic notation too... but GP is a practical tool in your home, not in a studio or during a gig. Here I am more interested in what you can do with pen and paper. Thanks everybody for reading and commenting!
    yogui
    travislausch wrote: Technicality =! knowledge. The fact that Dave Mustaine couldn't play a scale to save his own life... makes me lose a lot more respect for the man. I don't respect any musician that didn't at least make some slight attempt to actually know what they're doing. Just as much as I don't respect an author who is completely illiterate. Especially, as in the case of most musicians who don't know theory, when they CHOOSE not to know the hows and whys of the ways music works. Seriously, people, are you SO afraid of actually learning something and putting time and effort into something? Pathetic. Grow some balls and go to a library and learn something.
    who cares about your respect?
    kariota
    while I don't have a particular side on this article, programs like guitar pro, powertab, and the whole lot give perfect idea into timing while still remaining in tab form, that was the primary con for tabs yet it's not true.
    zuckuss00
    I remember seeing a interview with Dave Mustaine, discussing his technique and such... I recall him saying "If someone put a gun to my head and said, Play the Major scale. I'd be a dead man" As far as technically goes, I feel Mustaine could hang with the best of them.
    Deany
    No musician he, then. Reader or not, any competent musician should be able to play a major scale by ear, at the very least. With an attitude like that, he'll always be stuck in his little musical cul-de-sac, unlike Marty Friedman, who is a real musician with ears open to everything.
    Cavenagy
    Is this society we are living please just be proud that somebody is actually trying to learn how to play an instrument no matter how is he trying to do it. I really love how the author said "the ones who can actually read are usually also very vocal about it"....you can find some of these "proper musicians" on these comments.
    Minivirus2
    It's pretty simple. Knowing standard notation is based on opinion and communication. Other than those two points, it can be regarded as irrelevant. Here's what you need to ask yourself: Because you don't know standard muscial notation, are you any less able to perform your craft? Is not knowing it impeding your progression? If your answer is no, then you've answered the question at the focal point of our debate. Using Mustaine as an example, I wouldn't say his lack of knowledge has held him back. Sure, having that technical proficiency MAY have helped him, but that's impossible to know. I believe Dave Grohl is music illiterate as well. Also, I think his short-comings were a tad imbelished, afterall, he has worked with the likes of Poland, Friedman and Broderick. All vitruoso with leaps and bounds more knowledge than he. Do you really think he just kinda went "Ok, here's how I do this part (plays the part)" and then they replicated it through sight/sound for the past 30-odd years?
    Norgz94
    Yea, i use a tablature program and it gives me both the tab and music notation. So i use the tab to know what to play and the music for timing.
    darionapoli74
    Fantastic article Tommaso and could not agree more with your opinions on the subject, bravo!
    Tha Funkinator
    When I write text tabs, I still try to include some sort of rhythm notation below the tab staff, and include counting underneath the rhythm slashes for chords. That way, you still get the rhythm and counting while using tabs. Plus, in my tabs, each dash represents some subdivision (usually 8th or 16th notes), so the spacing indicates the "closeness" of the rhythm. Another advantage of tabs is that they let you notate alternate tunings (yes, it can be done via standard notation, but it'll take a lot longer to mentally reconfigure all your fingerings).
    Andy2k64
    I tried to learn how to read notation before ane got frustrated. I know a lot of music theory without bein able to read music. I found when I was trying to read notation, I wasnt concentrating on my guitar skills enough. When writing my own music, I record it and write simple notes etc. I think it comes down to personal preference for most musicians.
    kamel2f2f
    travislausch wrote: Technicality =! knowledge. The fact that Dave Mustaine couldn't play a scale to save his own life... makes me lose a lot more respect for the man. I don't respect any musician that didn't at least make some slight attempt to actually know what they're doing. Just as much as I don't respect an author who is completely illiterate. Especially, as in the case of most musicians who don't know theory, when they CHOOSE not to know the hows and whys of the ways music works. Seriously, people, are you SO afraid of actually learning something and putting time and effort into something? Pathetic. Grow some balls and go to a library and learn something.
    how about you grow some balls and go to a library and learn how to not be a douche?
    JonChorba
    Good article, Tommaso. I agree with your last point that learning to read music should be congruent with your goals. If all you want to do is jam to Green Day or Nirvana songs, you really don't NEED to learn to sight read.
    iup788
    travislausch wrote: Technicality =! knowledge. The fact that Dave Mustaine couldn't play a scale to save his own life... makes me lose a lot more respect for the man. I don't respect any musician that didn't at least make some slight attempt to actually know what they're doing. Just as much as I don't respect an author who is completely illiterate. Especially, as in the case of most musicians who don't know theory, when they CHOOSE not to know the hows and whys of the ways music works. Seriously, people, are you SO afraid of actually learning something and putting time and effort into something? Pathetic. Grow some balls and go to a library and learn something.
    I think Mustaine's been pretty successful with his music. Can you say the same?
    Jamma
    zuckuss00 wrote: I remember seeing a interview with Dave Mustaine, discussing his technique and such... I recall him saying "If someone put a gun to my head and said, Play the Major scale. I'd be a dead man".
    This explains a lot about his playing...
    bclegg1015
    pretty well summed up by mr. lausch, Travis! Just ****in do it damn it! maybe something hard and that you have to work toward understanding just might expand your musical ability and or creativity? But then again I forgot, you definitely already know everything don't ya?
    buchla200
    Like any skill, learning to read is clearly a good thing. Necessary? No, but it can certainly help you in fields you didn't think would interest you and it certainly won't detract anything from your playing. Saying "if all you want to do is play 12 bar blues" that you need not read is IMHO not a good point. Right now you might only want to play 12 bar blues but learning musical notation is not that hard and WAY easier the younger you are. Doing it now is better than doing it later.
    sim_1113
    @lolcohol I've seen text tabs with dotted notes, triplet notations, etc. Not saying they are good or easy at all to read, just saying that they exist.
    Greg Trotter
    Great article, Tommaso! I never teach my students how to read notation. I always use tabs, but I make them in guitar pro so I can use the rhythmic notation as well. I actually downloaded your free music theory book, and started using the fretboard memorisation technique on some of my students. Thanks for that!
    AeolianWolf
    dwnbowden wrote: If you just see notes as fret numbers, then you're of no value to anyone who isn't a guitarist.
    i mean, if you're not playing for a rock/metal band, this is pretty much true. you're extremely limited. fact is, if you can read tab and standard notation, you're better off than those who can only read one or the other (by which i mean who can't read standard notation, because, let's face it, any monkey can pick up tab within 15 minutes of learning the legend). the more you can do, the better off you are. the better of a musician you are, because you're more functional in a greater variety of aspects.
    the deacon
    good article and well written. made me want to download the e-book and i did. thanks tomasso!
    corrda00
    I know this article comes from a performance perspective but you don't need to know how to play standard notation to read it. I was writing orchestral scores long before I knew how to read music on the bass or guitar.
    crazysam23_Atax
    GoldfishMoon wrote: Pretty good article, one thing I disagree with though. You can notate rhythm in the tab, most of the really good tabs have Q's, E's, S's, etc to tell you the note lengths.
    Yes, but how many tabs do not notate that? Frankly, many (such as myself) won't even touch a tab that doesn't have the rhythm, unless we're fairly familiar with the rhythm of the song.
    Lolcohol wrote: GoldfishMoon - you can notate extremely basic rhythm, but how to do you notate triplets, dotted rhythms, swing or other more complex rhythms? Tab is quick, but not as comprehensive.
    Notating triplets & dotted rhythms is not too hard. You just type: [Code] |-3-| E E E [/Code] OR [Code]E.[/Code]. However, many tab writers don't even bother to do this. Professionals tablature (like tabs out of song books) include all of this information, but tabs on the internet are terrible at including it.
    Dan Acheron
    Good article. I agree that you should only spend time to learn to read music if its part of your goals. I spent time learning to read music only to find out that it was not really necessary for me and my goals.
    travislausch
    Technicality =! knowledge. The fact that Dave Mustaine couldn't play a scale to save his own life... makes me lose a lot more respect for the man. I don't respect any musician that didn't at least make some slight attempt to actually know what they're doing. Just as much as I don't respect an author who is completely illiterate. Especially, as in the case of most musicians who don't know theory, when they CHOOSE not to know the hows and whys of the ways music works. Seriously, people, are you SO afraid of actually learning something and putting time and effort into something? Pathetic. Grow some balls and go to a library and learn something.
    Spaztikko
    to the author - you wrote a wall of text. the article should have gone: Should You Learn How To Read Music? yes. /end article.
    Frusciantay
    very seldom do i find a TAB that actually works well. most of the ones i find always have simple but incorrect fingerings. Rarely ever do i find one that notates how the artist actually played and they usually don't sound too correct either. i agree tabs are a great resource and i use them myself when im learning stuff by ear to see what other people have thought but i never fallow a tab exactly i just use it as a simple reference along with other resources. I feel like alot of guitarists become dependent on having notes and fingerings fed to them so simply. Ive encountered quite a few who have real trouble communicating with other musicians because of this and alot of them seem to be missing some fundamental musical knowledge that others pick up before they are even really playing. they have technique but lose out on musical comprehension because its all spoon fed to them through tabs. So its a good resource but thats just it, its a resource. it shouldnt be fallowed the same as actual notation. To me nothing beats a score and a recording.
    duexe
    Big fan of standard notation with a tablature underscore. The main advantage is that you can see you hand positions. Unlike Piano, we can play the same note in 3 different positions (depending on the note of course). Regular score is nothing more then piano tablature anyway (take piano keys and more it sideways.. draw lines and there you go).
    Darth_Pietrus
    yes like people have said, in GP, tux guitar etc. things like length of the note, vibrato, etc. are given in the tab. (below the tab) i hope tabs will become accepted in the music world, because its alot easier imo and for me it would just be learning the same thing but then slightly different. oh and if you know how to play guitar properly, you will know where else you can also place your finger.
    happyamateur
    Learning the notes on the guitar is a struggle for many people - including me, at one time. Using guitar flash cards is a great way to learn the notes on the guitar. You test yourself each day with the cards, and little by little, you learn the notes, thanks to the repetition, using the cards. Some good ones are for sale on Amazon Books' website.
    vortexguitar
    I dont't rely on tabs for learning a piece. I know sufficient music theory. And I play by ear. I'm good at the pop stuff. Recently I had the aim of playing guitar at Bollywood (Indian movie industry). So, should go for learning the standard notation? Help
    dasmodul
    I just found this post and I think it's hilarious. 8-D I'm a beginner on guitar (10 months in) and already can sight-read about 90% of notation that's out there. There shouldn't even be a debate on IF you should learn or not. It is the language of musik. You don't hear writers asking each other if they should learn how to read and write in order to publish do you? No. There are several reasons for this: 1) Reading musik notation is, believe it or not in the top 5 or 7 most common 'phobias' among people, along with math, spiders, heights, etc. This has been noted by many papers in the past and I still find it amazing, but believable. 2) Add to the above that musik is mathematical as is the notation it's written in and the fact that a majority of musicians are right-brain oriented adds to the barriers of people wanting to even try to learn notation. 3) As if the top two weren't bad enough, add that you CAN, as stated previously learn music theory without reading or understanding notation (although to what proficiency I'm unsure) even though it's highly an inefficient manner to do it. I think if people just can get past the phobia, dedicate a good 6 months, 1 hr a day to it, they'll laugh at themselves for ever even debating if they should learn it. Teaching material/person is very important however. Hal Leonard makes great books and there are many great instructors out there if you can afford it. Having been a life-long passionate person about musik, I can't imagine why you wouldn't WANT to learn the alphabet to it's root. And...it's not that difficult; really! I started last year and I was 37 and as I said i can already sight-read 90% of what's out there.
    gabrielr
    Never seen a tab that can show changes in time signatures. Tab notation is also no where near as standardized as standard notation - the rules for SN are the same, everywhere. The question isn't should you know Standard Notation or Tab Notation. You should know both. It's only when you are writing down a song should you choose a format, based on what you need to convey to the musician reading it.
    JD Close
    Good article, but I wonder if this is the same crap people have been spewing for years as an excuse to not learn music theory. The line is pretty thin in that area
    Sethis
    Not to say that standard notation is totally useless but imo tabs are a very productive way to learn a piece. They keeps the musician motivated and happy as they have short-term results. And that's really important...Music is about having fun.
    Jamma
    Guitar tab pro has tab and rhythm - I can sight read a lot of stuff from GTP without ever having heard it before. I'd really recommend it or any other tabulator program like it (of course, the playing along part is so useful for learning songs too). I agree with what you said about standard notation - I know how to read it (I used to play piano) but it is pretty useless to me now as a guitarist (I find it easier to sight read tab). Just remember: when you are learning tab, try and force yourself to think about what is going on musically in terms of scales, modes and so on - these things sometimes come across much more clearly in standard notation than in tab and it's easy to just memorise the notes without having a clue about the musical structure.
    losing battle
    If you ever need to tell a singer what notes to sing or comunicate with any not fretted instrument and quite possibly the other way arround or analize your own music its a good idea to at least have a basic concept of reading and writing music. Yeah I know it sucks but its kind of for your good.
    K!!LsWiTcH
    iup788 wrote: travislausch wrote: Technicality =! knowledge. The fact that Dave Mustaine couldn't play a scale to save his own life... makes me lose a lot more respect for the man. I don't respect any musician that didn't at least make some slight attempt to actually know what they're doing. Just as much as I don't respect an author who is completely illiterate. Especially, as in the case of most musicians who don't know theory, when they CHOOSE not to know the hows and whys of the ways music works. Seriously, people, are you SO afraid of actually learning something and putting time and effort into something? Pathetic. Grow some balls and go to a library and learn something. I think Mustaine's been pretty successful with his music. Can you say the same?
    his success has nothing to do with this mans respect for him. youre a fail. really though, learning to basically read music, isnt very tough. especially if you play music, you should know your craft a bit more than just "well, i press these things down to make this noise." and i also seriously doubt dave mustaine doesnt know any scales. very few and limited are his solos, but he knows at least a little.
    )ThunderhorsE(
    metalheads don't need sight reading, so all this argument of being useless to others is pointless. how often am I going to teach a riff or sweep progression to a sax player???
    darth awsome
    Good luck trying to communicate with a horn player if all you've got to give him is a tab.
    TCRGuitar
    Great article...I agree musical goals determine which notation is best for you and the skills you want to develop. Its not too difficult to sight read or at least have a basic knowledge of it....never hurts.
    dwnbowden
    I would say the biggest argument for notation is the fact that you need to know what notes you're playing, it just helps you to learn the fretboard so much better. Tabs are shit for that, you can learn hundreds of songs but not have a clue what you're actually playing. If you just see notes as fret numbers, then you're of no value to anyone who isn't a guitarist. I hate it when I play with musicians who can't describe anything beyond the technique of their own instrument, and tab just encourages that type of musician.