Does Reading Music Make you a Better Musician?

Think musician, and you may picture sheet music reading. But, is the ability to read music important? How crucial is it for professionals relying on computer software? Toby Pitman explores.  

Reading music, eh! You either do, or you don't. How's that for stating the obvious!! I was wondering the other day how many HUB readers actually think that reading music is a necessary requirement for making music, especially in a world of computer aided music creation. 

I find myself in a curious position here because being a professional musician, I myself don't read music. Well that's not exactly true. I can read, but I'm no sight-reader. It takes me a while to go through and work it all out. When I say a 'while' I mean about a day!!

It's not like I don't know what all the notes, timing values and markings mean, it's just it doesn't make any sense to me. I think I might be dyslexic, musically! I think the more likely answer is I never practice sight reading therefore I'm no good at it! 

Saying that I have no problems 'writing' music on a stave quite quickly. Which is odd! The thing I've noticed is that if I start to read something and I recognize the tune, I immediately disregard the dots and start playing by ear which is the way I've always done it. For me, it's a lot faster to hear a melody and play it. This is probably a product of working things out from records for years as a kid (listen, rewind, listen, rewind) which trains you to identify musical sounds and colors very quickly.

I have to admit I'm slightly torn by my ability (or lack of) to sight-read, and what I consider to be the advantages of learning the 'informal' way (by ear) and just making it up as I go like many other musicians do. Sometimes I wish I could sigh- read and then I think 'Why do I need to?'. I guess that depends what type of music you play and what type of gigs you're going for. 

The first thing I usually tell prospective clients who approach me for sessions is that I don't read. I think that's the honest and best way to approach what I do (and the least embarrassing!! ). I'd say it loses me one in ten jobs. 

Music has always traditionally been documented on paper. There's hundreds of years worth of music written on scores allowing us to relive and hear the works of great composers like Bach and Mozart who are long since gone exactly the way they intended it to sound. There's nothing like hearing an amazing orchestra read these works back to us just like a great actor might read back the works of Shakespeare aloud. 

However, the documentation of music has now changed significantly where you can now 'record' that music and listen back to it anytime you like. A symphony can now be stored in a MIDI file or an MP3. You can now document your musical ideas without the need for a written language.

The important thing to remember is is that music is a language. In everyday life, there's no reason you have to be able to 'read' English to interact and communicate with somebody who speaks English. You just need to be able to 'speak' English. With music, learning the language is quite important if you want to communicate with the locals (musicians), but ultimately music speaks for itself and can be understood by everyone, no matter what language you speak. And does not being able to read music make you any less musical or able to communicate or understand musical ideas. Certainly not! 

Maybe you have an opinion on this? If so I'd like to hear it. :)

For the past 20 years Toby has worked as a professional guitarist, programmer and producer. Clients include Sir Paul McCartney, George Michael, Shirley Bassey, Yusuf Islam, Giles Martin as well as the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies. He has also worked extensively in TV, Advertising and Film. As well as composing himself he has also ... Read More


Dave DeLizza
Depending on the type of gigs you want, can be the serious decider. A lot of the paying gigs that I've ever gotten that were not cover bands like playing in Pits at shows, it's obviously a necessity to read.

Also, at as a student of music, especially if you have any interest in jazz or classical, you are not ostracized completely but you are cut off from a large portion of literature. There are not a ton of classical and jazz tab books. They do exist, but far more in standard notation.

I always ask my students if they want to learn how to read music, but one thing that I always force them to do is to read rhythm. I teach guitar bass and drums. To me, being able to visualize the rhythm makes it so much easier to learn. Imagine doing math in your head without ever having written it down.

Nice write up an nice perspective, and I think you're right. To get paid and make music today, you don't need to read music. But there are plenty of reasons that you would want to.
It's easier to jot down notes for tracks if you know basic notation, at least writing down chord progressions. Similar if you want to play using Real Book and similar systems.
I don't know if you really NEED to read music to be a professional musician or if it makes you a better musician. I just know that I've gotten a lot of really cool gigs because I read music.
Paul Bissell
I have never found that reading music has detracted from my abilities to perform, produce, compose, transcribe, or any other music related activity that I have done for the past 30 years.

Quite the contrary, it has been one of the skills that has allowed me to move between genres and duties with little resistance; and in many situations made me one of the indispensable workers in a collaborative situation.

Need? That is completely contextual today as others have stated.

I think the best analogy is: Do you need to be bilingual?
Peter Schwartz
Paul nailed it with his first sentence. Personally I'm highly allergic to any and all quasi-justifications for a musician to not learn music (or, as an aside, music theory). To address several of your points... you mentioned the idea that a symphony can be "documented" by virtue of it being recorded. Well, you're not going to ever hear that piece recorded unless the musicians playing it have the original documentation in front of them -- in the form of a score and charts. And just because music is the closest thing we have to a universal human language, there's no equivalence in suggesting that learning how to read music might be moot. It's the difference between being in the audience and being a performer, and in many cases, between amateur and professional. Finally, if you're losing 10% of your gigs because you don't read music, that's a lot my friend!

I discovered this discussion pretty late, but there are few aspects I’ld like to add.
I’m over 50 now and a classically trained musician (and I’m from Germany, so please excuse my bad English). I learned reading music when I was 5 or 6, started playing piano at the same age and started studying music (orchestral conducting) when I was 19.

At first sight this looks like a very classical education, but I was always involved in all kinds of music (jazz, rock, pop etc.).

I do a lot of arranging (for studio, live music, shows etc), and - of course - all of this music is written down.

A typical situation is, that somebody calls me to arrange some backing vocals for a song. When I come to the studio with my sheet music and find some singer there who can read music the job is usually done in 1 or 2 hours. Can you imagine how long it would take, if they don’t read music? If we really have to rehearse it instead of making a quick check? Time is money!

Another example:
think of any kind of orchestral music. Depending on how complex the music is you will never be able to hear exactly what the composer wrote (you will always hear what the conductor and/or the sound technician want to make you hear!). You need the score to find out. And then you might find out, that there are parts in it that you didn’t hear, or you didn’t understand. Without reading music there is no change to get closer.

Music for movies or games is a big thing nowadays. And there are a lot of people out there who would like to work in this business. First thing you can read in almost every book about scoring is: study the score of big romantic music. ...Wagner, Strauss, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel etc. - but therefore you must be able to read it.

And then there’s music theory: to achieve a certain sound, to write a proper second vocal line to a pop-song, to make a small vocal or string-arrangement sound big, to orchestrate your music in your DAW, to create certain musical effects etc. you should have good knowledge in music theory. But to understand it you should read music. An believe me: it’s very helpful mot just to follow your instincts but knowing what you do and why you do it.

I hear a lot of excuses from people who say that Hans Zimmer doesn’t read music, too. Or the Beatles, or („fill in whatever you want“). Maybe, but do you know who’s working in the background to make their ideas sound better?

One more thing: if you start learning a new language you’ll be taught a rule and at the same time 200 exceptions of the rule. That’s making it so hard.
Learning how to read music is so much easier: the system is totally logical. There are some rules to learn but there’re no exceptions to the rule. I don’t know, but maybe even here at they’re offering a training (and if not they should consider it!) . ;-)

It’s not necessary to get happy, but it will open you a whole new world for your own music and your musical career.
Think about it. It's easy!

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