Why Should I Learn To Read Music?

Why do some people think they shouldn't learn to read music, when they should? And why do some people think they should, when they shouldn't?

Ultimate Guitar

There is a lot of confused thinking out there when it comes to the subject of reading music, especially being a guitar player and reading music.

I want to examine what some of this confused thinking is, and how people get this confused thinking into their heads, and why it stays there. Why do some people think they shouldn't learn to read music, when they should? Why do some people think they should, when they shouldn't (at least not right away)?

Every Strength is a Potential Weakness

Some people are very natural guitar players, they learn to play by watching and listening to other players. And that is fine, in fact, that is great. The ability to just watch someone do something like play the guitar, and somehow learn how to do it yourself, is a great ability. However, every strength can also be a weakness, and that is true here.

Often, the person who is able to learn this way starts to get an attitude about the more formal aspects of learning music and the guitar, things like taking lessons, or learning to read music. They begin to form certain belief systems about the subject. And these belief systems can be dangerous, because they prevent the person holding them from growing and developing as they otherwise could.

Even if you are a natural guitar player, there will come the day when you will run up against certain musical concepts which you will be locked out of understanding because you don't know how to read music. Learning how to read music is one way to increase your chances of being the best musician you can be.

Let's examine some of the reasons why a person might adopt a belief system that says it is a bad thing to learn to read music, at least for me.

I'm A Genius, And God Whispers Directly In My Ear

Unfortunately, most people have an ego, an idea or image of who they are, and whatever that image is, it carries along with it certain limitations. Whatever our particular image is, it also becomes our act. We have to live up to it. We have to keep a mental list of all the things that support our act, and also a list of the things we have to avoid because they don't fit our act. In some professions, keeping up your image is essential to survival. Politics is one, probably the first I must, at all costs maintain my image and my act profession. Being an entertainer/artist is probably second.

So, it is very common, especially in the beginning stages of being a musician, to decide to play the I am a natural genius who just picked up a guitar and played like Jimi Hendrix routine. The musician playing this role has decided they are the romantic, inspired artist. This is the image of the artist who gets his inspiration from some divine source. He or she likes to believe (and likes others to believe), that God, or perhaps one of his angels, whispers directly in their ear, and they best not tamper with the process. If they interfere with the process by getting some education, then, God might get mad, and stop whispering in their ear. God will stop directly inspiring them with all those great musical ideas and they will just be another jerk playing the guitar.

Underneath this feeling is the feeling that they are, in fact, just another jerk playing the guitar. That is why this particular routine is common with beginners, because most of us do feel like we are just another jerk playing the guitar when we first begin to play. And we usually have a little outside help in the matter, in the form of parents or special friends, ready to tell us to get real when we dare disclose our secret dreams of actually being professional guitar players.

It is very important to grow past this little game. If you do decide to make this image a part of your professional career (as many artists do) you must at least stop believing your own hype. If you don't, you will not move yourself into contact with the resources and situations that exist to help you grow and develop.

Beethoven comes to mind. There was never a musician who was more divinely inspired than Beethoven. Music flowed into him and as it came out when he played, people were left sobbing with intense emotion, or moved to feelings of awe. When he was young, he would tell people, I never listen to other composers' music, it would interfere with my originality. He would say that, but he was full of you know what, and he knew it. He was really busy studying with all the greatest composers and music theory teachers of his day. So he was not only listening to their music, he was studying it note by note. But he was smart. He knew he had a good thing going with all these people worshipping him. He was young, and knew he had to struggle to build a career as an artist, so he would use this image of the divinely inspired artist to his advantage, and help foster and maintain it in people's minds. But he wasn't dumb enough to believe it himself, or let it get in the way of the development of his creative powers.

Another artist, and a supremely great one, who typified this attitude was Louie Armstrong. When asked if he read music, he said not enough to hurt my playing. I believe he was being a bit tongue in cheek here, and probably also was promoting the look, I'm just a genius image, but there is some truth to what he was trying to get across.

He was trying to get across the fact that reading music, like reading words, does not give you talent. Being able to read doesn't mean you will actually have something to say, and when you are a musician, having something to say (in a musical sense) is what it is all about. However, if you have talent, if you have something to say, learning to read music will not make you less of a musician, but more of a musician.

Having Talent/Nurturing Talent

If you are an artist, if you feel you want to be a guitarist, then, you would really be much better off eliminating the word talent from your vocabulary. You should not even be concerned with whether you have any or not. You should only be concerned with how much you love music and the guitar. You should only be concerned with how much you need to do it. Whether you have talent or not is for other people to waste their time wondering about.

When you stay focused on your love for what you are doing, the path of your development will become clear to you. If you love blues guitar, if you want to play like Jimi or Stevie Ray, and that is all you want to do, then it will become clear to you over time that learning to read music is not high on the list of priorities. Playing constantly with other people who play that style is high on the list. Learning and copying the solos of a hundred other players is high on the list. Of course, along the way, maybe you WILL feel the desire to learn to read.

When I was starting out, my friends would show me blues scales and licks. I wasn't much interested in just learning finger patterns, I wanted to understand in a mental way, what I was doing. I wanted to know the note names and so forth. That was just my personality. I didn't know then that a few years later I would be captivated by the classical guitar, which is a style that absolutely requires note reading and musical understanding in a technical sense, in order to develop. I was just following my nature. So, being in touch with yourself, your true nature and needs for musical expression, is the first thing. But don't interfere with that awareness by clinging to some dumb self-image that says you shouldn't read music.

Should YOU learn to read music?

What I say now should be understood and used in the context of what I have already said. There are many players for whom this question never even comes up. They know already, intuitively, the right answer to this question as it applies to them. But many people do have questions about this issue, so I will try to provide the clarity they need.

IN GENERAL, everyone can only benefit by learning to read music. Believe me, if you DO have talent, if you have something to say as an artist, you are not going to lose it by developing your mental understanding of the theoretical aspect of music. The only people who will lose their artistic ability by education in music are the ones who didn't have any artistic ability to begin with.

If you DON'T have much natural ability for music, or much experience in playing music, then learning to read can open up a whole world of understanding for you. It can give you the keys to understand the mysteries of music. I love to teach students to read, because then I can teach them music theory. In fact, for the guitar student, learning to read is like an insurance policy against future confusion. So many guitar students, as time goes by, start bumping up against concepts that they can't understand, and it is a source of great frustration for them, because understanding these concepts is the doorway to new and more sophisticated playing abilities.

I often get questions from students (other peoples' students) like can you explain secondary dominants, or how do I use a harmonic minor scale in improvising. Unfortunately, I can't answer these people. They don't realize that in order to understand the answer, a knowledge of music theory is required. And in order to learn music theory, you must know how to read music. In other words, I have to use a particular language to answer these questions, and they don't know the language. So we can't communicate. They are stuck with their question.

It's like trying to learn grammar without being able to read words. You may be able to get some understanding if you find a creative teacher, but you will never achieve a complete or satisfying understanding of grammar in the way you would if you could read.

So, in general, I always recommend learning to read music.

Who Should Learn To Read Music

Specifically speaking, the following are the types of people who definitely should learn to read music.

  • Anyone who really wants to.
  • Anyone planning on someday having a complete and sophisticated understanding of music and music theory.
  • Anyone planning on a career in music, unless it will be a career as a rock/blues musician, or folk musician. Even then, of course, it won't hurt, it is just not as necessary.
  • Anyone who wants to play the classical guitar.

    Who Shouldn't Learn To Read Music

  • Anyone who really doesn't want to.
  • Anyone who is planning on being only a blues/rock musician or a folk musician.
  • Most people who are just starting to learn to play the guitar.

    When To Begin To Read Music

    There is a common belief that students should learn to read music right from the beginning. I don't think so. I rarely do that with students. Usually, it is just a way of throwing water on a fire that is just beginning to burn. With guitar, it is very easy to teach music in the beginning without learning how to read. By doing so, the student is connected right away to music in an emotional way, and it is the emotional aspect of playing music that made them begin lessons.

    Learning to read music is a very complex, mental affair, dealing with many abstract concepts. Doing it in the beginning is kind of like reading your girlfriend an essay on the philosophy of love on your first date, instead of just being romantic with a box of candy and flowers.

    So I believe in fanning that fire first. I find a song they love that has easy chords, I teach them how to practice, and we're off and running. After a few months, I bring the subject of reading music up, and by then there is no problem in doing so. Also, by then they are more able to understand why it is important.

    Teaching children to learn to read is very tricky, and requires great skill. It is often done badly. Suppose, for instance, that you are trying to teach a third grader to read, and you have to teach the concept of dotted notes. In order to understand dotted notes, you have to understand fractions, you have to understand the concept of one half of something. They most likely DON'T understand that. So, you have to be a math teacher for a bit. It can take six months to really have a 10 year old understand this one musical concept.

    In fact, I believe many adults who have had trouble learning to read music are the victims of bad teaching. There are often a lot of unexplained, and under-explained vital concepts along the way, which are the real culprits, not a lack of ability to get it.

    And finally, it should be understood that learning to read music can be a long process, in the same way that learning to read words can be. It takes enough work, over a long enough period of time. You can learn to read enough to go slowly through music, as you can learn to read slowly, or you can become a speed reader and read music you haven't' seen and still play it up to performance level.

    Whether or not to learn to read, and how far to take it is up to you. But it is certainly a subject you should make an informed choice about, based on careful consideration.

    Copyright 2000 by Jamie Andreas. All rights reserved. Used by permission. guitarprinciples.com.

  • 108 comments sorted by best / new / date

      oh yea, you cant really learn how to play anything complicated like joe satriani shreds and some hard stuff like that, if you dont know how to read freakin tab, you probably suck. how do you practice? play 1 string songs all day? anyone reading this who doest know how to read tab, you need to learn. i learned in 1 week and id suck if i didnt.
      reading music isnt that important for guitar, i can read it, id be a bit rusty cause i dont, its not really nessacary with onine tabbs now adays
      Ampeg J
      Lord_Xian : Does it really apply to bass though? A good bassist doesnt even really need to read tabs it's all in the ears.
      I've never found any need to "sight read" notation, but knowing how to read TABS is a big help regardless of your instrument of choice. I'm a natural Bassist, it is what i started on, and i developed my ear to a point that have little difficulty figuring out bass lines just by listening to a tape/CD/MP3. Since i have started learning the guitar ( to improve my songwriting skills ) rading TABS have been an invalueable asset to me. I would not be half as far along as i am without it.
      hey guys, can anyone leave a site that teaches you how to read sheet music. i know the very basics but i really want to learn. cheers x
      It is simply choosing culture or ignorance,it depends on what makes you feel better.
      Most people who are just starting to learn to play the guitar.
      i highly disagree with this one. for a beginner to know how to read music gives access to all sorts of music that you simply could not find in TAB format. other than that, good article
      Great article! i just started learning how to read music maybe 5-6 months ago and its really easy. I had all this music lying around too so that really helped me practice reading it. Anyone who wants to be a great musician should learn how to read music because (sorry UG) tabs are usually incorrect and the music you pay for is 99% correct. That's another reason you should read. Maybe should post that in your article. =)
      i play bass though i assume the concept of learning theory is the same? anyone recommend a good place to start to learn the basics, preferably a site or book?
      uuuuuhhhhh anyone who is really good at music knows how to read it... if you dont know how to read music your screwed. i mean you guys get real, you wont ever be sucsessful at music if u dont know how to read
      ummmm boring article. way to state the obvious. you make a point. you could have said > learn to read music only if there is a want/need to. much less time consuming
      fonzicus wrote: i am jesus, i don't need to read music
      :O..... :O..... TEACH ME CHUCK NORRIS! TEACH ME!
      burndttoast wrote: just as a little side note, it's "Louis" Armstrong, not "Louie" as you have it.
      Dude it doesn't really matter, besides everyone calls him Louie anyways. Great article, reading music is incredibly helpful, especially with theory.
      Lazarus Draven
      Nice Article man....and reading a sheet music is cool... at least you'd understand it better xspecially trying to learn songs tat you haven't listen to.
      Yes, good article indeed. I've been playin for...3 years now, without a guitar teacher, and i still plan to learn how to read music and so forth at some point. It'd be a great skill to have, and it'd make me feel less stupid when the music teacher at school tells me to play some shit on a music sheet....and i gotta learn some chords, too, lol.
      i learned to read music as soon as i started and i hated it, i believe it should only apply to classical music or someone who wants to get a full understanding of music. Rock, Punk Rock, Blues or any form of those dont require to read music but classical is all like that and i Am quite happy with TAB as long as i can play
      Lord_Xian : Does it really apply to bass though? A good bassist doesnt even really need to read tabs it's all in the ears. yeah it does, im a bassist and if you know theory it can help you make up a bassline on the spot, you can already do that by ear or sight but music theory allows so much more, does the concept walking ring a bell? i must know for all bassists
      Mortigi Tempo
      I dont like reading sheet music for guitar it just doesnt work as well as it does on piano what with the notes overlapping on guitar and all
      Great article. As a former band student (years ago) I have seen that, through learning to play the guitar for the last 8 months I have tried to understand how chords and such are formed. It can actually be a little detrimental at first because instead of learning the chords and stuff, I was trying to understand the theory behind it. It is easier to just pretty much ignore the theory at the beginning and expand after you have been playing for a while.
      Great artical but I only have one issue with it.Reading music is a must for any style. Honestly to be truely adept at playing and constructing music theory is essential but great artical none the less!
      JustinYap wrote: I can read music for piano... Not guitar... So it's a little helpful for my guitar playing and improvising.. But yeah, it can get very hard sometimes not knowing how to read music. anyway, great article!
      music is the same for guitar as it is on piano, like an E is still an E on a different insturment anyways good article
      this article actually made me think about more than just learning to read music....it made me think of what i have learned in the last year and how my attitude towards my playing and the guitar in general has changed since i first started out.....i've only been playing for a year and 2 or 3 months and i've already gone through the i'm a f***ing genius on the guitar that pwns Jimi Hendrix and i've finally come to the fact that i'm going to have to work like hell to get to be able to play like anybody or to even play like myself.....as for reading music i already know a little about it but nothing serious.
      [Creative Name]
      while I never put learning to read music as a top priority (because I never needed it) I still learned it and I think am a better musician for it. No I am not a better guitarist for it but I understand music a little better. I would suggest learning a bit of music theory that really helped me. But don't totally just stick to music theory you also need to step outside of the box a bit.
      I've been playing a myriad of instruments, brass stringed and piano, for years. Personally, the actual reading of music is not nearly is important as listening to it repeatedly and understanding the theory behind it.
      I've been playing the guitar for 1 year, bass for 3, drums for 1, piano for 1, saxophone for 5, and most brass instruments for 1, I think reading music can help expand on just about every level of music there is..It helps with style, articulation, dynamics, tempo, and just different ways...
      deadhead0661 wrote: teo_huat wrote: anyone know a site that teaches how to read music????? anyone?
      try musictheory.net, not sure if it teaches to read music ,but it has alot of helpful theory stuff
      teo_huat wrote: anyone know a site that teaches how to read music????? try musictheory.net, not sure if it teaches to read music ,but it has alot of helpful theory stuff anyone?
      JustinYap wrote: I can read music for piano... Not guitar... So it's a little helpful for my guitar playing and improvising.. But yeah, it can get very hard sometimes not knowing how to read music. anyway, great article!
      yeah same with me. except i played piano for like 9 years and music is natural to me
      pretty interesting insight...what you said was actually really true
      of course, once in a while there is a musician that comes along and completly transcends all of this
      great article, except everyone should learn how to read music eventually, because it is esential in learning the advanced music theory needed to go from being a good guitar player to a great guitar player. after all, how can u call yourself a musician if u cany read music?
      www.musictheory.net is great for learning notation. The new forms of tab which combine music and notation are a good half way house, but notation is essential for progressing..especially if you want to learn to play other instruments quickly.
      Its all personal preference. Just because you learn to read sheet music don't mean your gonna be the next Beethoven.
      I think anyone should learn to read music. Its one thing to be a good guitar player but the best musicians don't limit themselves to only guitar or bass or whatever. You need to learn about music in general and not just how it applies to guitar. It also makes it easier to write music that way.
      I can read music for piano... Not guitar...
      As long as you know where middle C is on a guitar (1st fret on the B string + some other places, of course) then you shouldn't have a problem with sheet music for guitars.
      Theory is important if you want to be a better player, but reading music doesn't always apply to everyone. I can read music, but in all honesty I very rarely use that ability with guitar. Anyone who says you NEED to learn to read music is a prententious bastard.
      well, that's a pointless article. Maybe it's because um, that's the proper way to play music?? And also it's the best place to start on theory. Well, I found it pointless since I've been reading music about as long as I've been able to read words.
      y'know i have a great teacher, and he helps me play music, so i know think that if you want to be a great guitarist, you should know how to read every form of music there is
      pointless article in my opinion, should be more centered on why we should learn theory. reading music is only useful to a certain extent.
      I learned from playing along with the
      and messing around
      I learned from playing along with the radio and messing around, I think I'm pretty good, but now that I'm learning music, it opens up so much, it lets you visualize everything, and it makes it alot easier to go from one place to the next. I love imrpov and it's made it so much easier.