By Kellen Baker, Instructor at Opus Music Academy
A lot of beginning guitarists and people new to making music wonder: is it really necessary for me to learn how to read music? After all, neither Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, or Jimi Hendrix ever learned how. Many of today’s most famous musicians do not work with notation, and they never have. So, do you?
The short answer: yes.
Music is such a complicated language and learning the basics of how it works will only help. When working with other musicians, it is necessary to communicate ideas to each other. This can be done with sound, but sometimes it takes writing to communicate complex ideas.
It also helps you to learn exponentially faster. Once you get comfortable reading music, you’ve opened up your world to an endless library of resources! This allows you to learn different pieces, songs, and even entirely different genres much more quickly than you would otherwise be able to.
The longer answer: no, but…
While I’m obviously a big proponent of learning to read music, it’s not always necessary depending on your goals. What do you want to do with your music? Do you want to write your own songs and accompany your voice with the guitar? Maybe you just need to learn chord shapes. Do you want to produce beats to rap or sing over? Learning to read traditional notation isn’t that important here either.
Outside of the classical and jazz worlds, it’s very common to meet people who totally shred on their instruments who don’t read music. These people are usually excellent listeners, having spent thousands of hours listening to the best players and trying to recreate those sounds. The two keys to success on this route are PASSION and PRACTICE. These musicians’ ability on their instruments can appear inborn, but it’s a result of a cultivated obsession with their genre of choice and years and years of practice. These qualities are great, but are not a realistic expectation of every player!
Guitar players have an advantage over other instruments with tablature, a simpler way of transcribing music that is much easier to pick up. Tablature is shorthand and requires musicians to listen to the music to figure out the rhythms and piece the song together. This is a great tool to learning many popular songs, but it lacks detail required to describe complicated music. Players who rely on tablature will experience a burst of growth in their playing initially, but will eventually run into a wall.
The next step: reading notation. Notation has a bit of a learning curve, which is why it’s great to have a teacher to help you. No matter your level of playing, learning notation will only be beneficial. The most well-rounded musicians have a comfortable grasp of written music as well as a great ear from their years of passion and practice.