Should I Learn How to Read Music?

Tommaso Zillio

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Do you think you need to be able to read music fluently in order to understand music theory? Do you feel you are “not a proper musician” because you can not sight read music? Do you think (but are not sure) that not knowing how to read standard music notation may slow down or even stop your musical progress?

I was feeling this way too, as I learned to read music quite late in my music education. So let me tell you how it really is. The good news is that you DO NOT need to be able to read music to understand music theory. As unpopular as this may be (to some teachers), you can become quite proficient in your knowledge and application of music theory without knowing how to read a single note.

The “bad” news is that you DO need to learn some form of music notation in order to communicate with your fellow musicians, or to write down your ideas. 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 son, 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 step here is to determine what music notation you NEED to know (we’ll get to it in a moment). The second step is to learn it (see the resources at the end of this article)

Tab vs Standard Notation

If you are, or if you want to be a classical musician, you absolutely need learn to read standard music notation. the same is true if you want to work in situations where you need to work with classical musicians (such as becoming an orchestrator, or working in the movie music industry). These are very specific goals, and in the rest of this article I will assume that they are not your goals (if they are, just learn the standard notation, you simply can’t help it).

While learning the whole standard notation is not necessary for everybody, I do think that anyone who want to be a musician should 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). Rhythmic notation needs to be learned only for the incredible amount of musical ideas it can generate.

A widespread notation used for guitar (as you know for sure) is Tablature (from now on Tab). Tab has both advantages and disadvantages. An advantage of Tab, and the reason it is so popular, it’s that the fingering is already done - with other forms of notations you need to figure out where to play the notes (the same note can be played on more than one position on the guitar). On the other hand, this very feature is also one of the main disadvantages of Tab, as different players find different fingerings more comfortable. Another disadvantage of Tab is the lack of rhythmic notation: it is impossible to learn a song only from Tab (while it is possible to learn a piece of music from standard notation even if you have never heard it before).

A good part of the bad reputation of Tab is due to the lack of rhythmic notation. This problem is easily overcome by having a recording on the song you are learning and referring frequently to it. Many Classical musicians sneer at Tab as “poor man’s music notation”, and yet string players need to prepare their fingering in advance for complex pieces too! It’s interesting to note that Tab-like notations were also in use in the past for many string instruments, like 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).

Other systems

Tab and standard notation are not the only systems in use. In fact, there are other music notation systems that are even more common than that among musicians. The most used one is probably the Nashville “number system” to indicate chords and chord progressions. This system is simply a must to know for some jam session. It allows you to communicate chord progressions in any key in a fast way and it also improves your knowledge of music theory! I do heartily recommend 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 rather than the Nashville system. The two system are practically equivalent: they both notate chords and chord progressions. The only real difference between them is that the Nashville system is more use in modern music, while the roman numeral system in classical music.

How Do I learn These Systems Then?

In this article I gave you a rundown of the most common systems of music notation, and made a case on learning to read music only if it contributes to your goals as a musician. What is missing now is a detailed explanation on how to learn to read music by yourself. I have prepared an eBook that explains ALL the system of music notation that I mentioned above. There is no other resource on the web with all these notations in the same place! Whether you want to read music using the standard notation, or one of the other systems I explained above, this is the eBook for you! You can download your free eBook on music notation by clicking on this button:

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