Reading Music: Should I Know How to?

If you are like most musicians and you cannot sight read music, chances are that you feel a little "guilty" about it.

Most musicians who know how to read are very vocal about how it is an essential ability. But is it really?

Well, you’re not alone in feeling this way: I was feeling the same for a long time (until I actually learned to read music). Was it as useful as I thought it would be? Yes and no. Granted, I was able to read some more advanced books on music theory But let’s get clear of one of the major misunderstanding right away: you DO NOT need to be able to read music in order 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. In fact, I know plenty of recording studio professionals who do not read standard music notation (but see below). And these were the good news.

There’s More To It Than Standard Notation

The "bad" news (but it's not really that bad) 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. In fact, you already know at least one (writing down chords on top of the lyrics of a song). So 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 (if not more, at least in some communities of musicians).

You might ask, why do you need to learn one of these types of music notation? Well, for instance 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 a 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.

So the key here is to learn the music notation you NEED to know. The first step is: determine what music notation you need (we’ll get to it in a moment). The second step is (brace for it) learn it. There are some resources at the end of this article to help you getting to that. In the following we are going to look at Chord-based systems, Tablature, and Standard notation. All these systems are useful if applied in the right context.

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

Standard notation and tablature are definitely the most famous systems, but they are not the only ones around. In fact, there are other music notation systems that are even more common 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 and studio work. 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 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.

I have prepared an eBook that explains ALL the system of music notation that I treated above. There is no other resource on the web with all these notations together! 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 it here: free eBook on music notation.

About the Author:

Tommaso Zillio is a professional guitarist who loves the application of music theory to guitar playing.

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