Reading Music: What Is It? Why Should You (Not) Learn It?

For this article a short sum-up what is meant by “reading music”, what it can do for you and your guitarplaying and what it cannot do.

Some people have the idea that musicians and guitarplayers who can read music are high up the ranks of music making. My simple view is that reading is a communication tool which gets you musical ideas across. The ideal communication tool is to have someone around you who can show you what to play or how to go about things, since that is not really a pratical obtion people learn to read, and the reading is there to pick up new ideas or it is a way of telling what the orchestra is about to play.
Imagine the following situation: You enter a hall to play with about 15 other musicians, some are guitarplayers, some bassplayers, some are hornplayers who play Saxophone, Trumpet ect. There are even some people who play the piano. All those people are going to play a piece of music within the next 15 minutes.
The leader of the band hands out sheet music to each individual player. Each sheet is specific for each instrument.
Now that the leader has handed out the music, the orchestra is ready to play the next piece of music. All what is needed from the leader is to count off the tempo and the band is ready for take-off.

In the above example it is pretty obvious what the reading skills do for the orchestra: It speeds up the process of making music. If none of the above musicians would be able to read it would take the band leader a lot longer to get the music off the ground: The leader would need to explain what is needed from each instrument, how to play particular phrases ect. All of this is given in the music notation. Great, now the rehearsing can start.
Having the sheetmusic and being able to read does not mean the musicians can all do it on their own and will not make any mistakes. No, the bandleader will still need to guide the musicians in certain places where the sheetmusic fall short: Notatation can only do so much, and musical notation is an approximation of what the music sounds like. There is still a lot of scope for interpretation and individual expression and skill. Any good band leader will bring out the best in the musicians to get them to preform the music to the highest, possible standard.

Once you have read the above you may say: “I will never play in an orchestra of about 15 people”  “I will not really play any classical music”  “I will only play guitar for myself”
Once you have spoken out any of the above you may still feel: “Reading is not really for me as it does not apply to what I want to do”

Let us look at the next example: Let us say you picked up the guitar because you want to learn to play Rock. You bought your first guitar and amp. Both of them were accompanied with a book called: “Learn to Play 10 Classic Rock Riffs”. The book came along with a CD, tab. and traditional musical notation. You  first started listening to the CD, got impressed with some of those riffs, went to guitar and tried to copy what you heard………………………hmmm that actually takes some time: Need to listen, then find those notes on fretboard of the guitar and…………….Hang on there is a book. Once you start reading the book things become clearer, there is the tab which tells you where to put your fingers and there is the traditional notation which tells you about the rhythm.  After a few weeks you manage to play some of those riffs from the book quite well, you no longer need to look at the book to play those riffs. Well done!

From the above you can see that reading is not only traditional music notation. Tabalature and chordcharts all from a part of reading, they help you to understand and communicate what is going on musically.

                Advantages of Reading Music:

~ It gives the player a foundation of what music is about, how music works. It gives you an idea about rests, bars, staves, dots, repeatsigns ect. All things you do hear and cannot see until you put them into music notation.

~ It will speed up the process of making music together in ANY bandsituation.

~ Reading gives you the ability to play music you have never heard before.

~ Reading can be used as a memory aid, since it is on paper you can always go back to it and play it again at a later stage.

               Reading, What Reading?

When talking about reading I include traditional music notation, tabalature and chortcharts, since all of them will tell you what is going on in the music. All of these forms need some time getting used to. Chordcharts may be the easiest to get on with and traditional music notation may take the longest to learn. Once you can use any of them you will be using it for the rest of your playing life.

Most people will be introduced to tab and chordcharts when they are looking for instruction to play any of their favourite songs. Traditional music notation is usually included in any starter tutor book. The notes you are introduced to are taught gradually and will usually be picked up fairly easy by learners of any age.

If you have been playing guitar for a long time and have only been using chord charts you may be curious to learn about tab for solos or riffs or get into some basic music notation which introduces you to simple melodies being played on the E and B string of the guitar.

Once you have read all this remember one thing: Any musical notation is an approximation of the music. Musical notation in itself is a dead tool, you need to make it come alive with your instrument or voice.
Once you have learned a musical idea from sheetmusic it is a good habit to get into the feel of the music, forget about the notation, tab or chortchart, and just play to get into the music and to make it sound how you want the music to sound like. Beginners often forget this and keep looking at the music and do not really get into the feel of whatever they are playing. The endresult is the music, not the ability to read!

Have Fun and hope to see you soon again,