Have you ever wondered how to read music? Chances are, if you’re at all interested in playing an instrument, you have given this some thought. Reading music is a hugely useful skill for any aspiring musician or instrument player. It becomes even more so for composers.
There are a lot of people now who seem to steer clear of learning musical notation, though. There is no dearth of (usually casual) guitarists and pianists who can play whole songs on their instruments without knowing how to read a single note on a score sheet.
The interesting thing is that many people now construe this as indication of special talent — when really, learning to play some songs without the ability to read sheet music is already pretty common.
Before we talk about how you can learn to read music, then, we should probably tackle this question: why should you bother learning to read musical notations in the first place?
Why Should You Learn to Read Music?
Being able to read music can benefit just about any musician. It allows him to access more songs than he has ever heard via sheet music alone, for one thing. It also gives him the foundation he needs to understand more complex musical theory and styling afterwards. Furthermore, learning to read music can help you learn this art form’s concepts, phenomena and language. It helps you to capture those more clearly later on, when you start setting down ideas or even creating compositions of your own making.
Now that is all well and good, but not everyone needs those things.
Some people are perfectly content with only ever being casual musicians, so an inability to read music is fine.
Others may be more interested in perpetual improvisation when playing, and so might not benefit much from being able to read scores.
Still others may want to rise above both casual play and constant improvisation yet feel able to do so without learning how to read or write sheet music.
Of the three, the last is perhaps the least reasonable as an argument for not learning how to read notation. It is true that a number of composers and professional musicians ‘made it’ without ever learning to read music. That said, these people have been by and large exceptions, not rules.
It can be a bit misleading to cite people like Paul McCartney as reasons for avoiding literacy in musical notation, then. Yes, people like him — deeply musical and especially talented ones — have managed to get their breaks despite their particular disadvantage in not knowing how to read music. That hardly means you are guaranteed a similar result, especially when you insist on keeping the same disadvantage they had to fight through.
Part of the problem here is that a degree of egoism often appears in would-be-musicians that spurs them into trying to garner more attention and praise by fostering an image of a ‘naturally-gifted’ player. Some thus try to insist that they can make it on ‘talent’ alone, which they think can surmount the disadvantage of unfamiliarity with musical notation.
Not only does this foster an unhealthily talent-obsessed, self-concerned attitude towards music (what should be taking up one’s attention is the music, not one’s or others’ perceptions of one’s excellence), but it also fails to take into account that beyond talent is simple chance. There may well have been hundreds of other Paul McCartney’s in the world at some point, with the same disadvantages and advantages. What may have made the difference between them and the one who made it was chance alone, which no one can account for.
And indeed, considering the things you can account for are so few, you might as well try to cover all of them.
There is absolutely no reason to make it harder for you to become a better musician by refusing to learn musical notation. It will not make you worse but can make you better (despite Louie Armstrong’s famous and in-all-likelihood-joking quote).
True musicians should not be chasing an image of talent either: they should be pursuing music. If you learn to read music now, you can broaden your musical horizons and later know better how to phrase queries to others who do the same. It also helps you take down your ideas more efficiently once you begin dabbling in composition.
How and Where to Learn How to Read Music
You can learn to read music in two ways, more or less. The first way is through a formal or instructed method of study. That means that you can be guided and taught how to do it by a teacher who already knows how.
The other method is through self-study, although this can involve a teacher too — only, this is not one who interacts directly with you in a regular give-or-take conversation. A self-study course on musical notation is put together by a teacher, after all, so there technically is still an instructor involved. It just happens to be a remote one who passes over all the materials to you from the start.
If you learn best with the help of an instructor and direct interaction, you can try the first way by signing up for classes or hiring a music teacher to give you lessons. This can be a bit more costly than the other technique, though, and a bit more rigid as to lesson schedules. Your teacher has a schedule to stick to as well, after all, and that means less flexibility in study times.
The self-study method may be better if you want more flexibility and self-managed learning instead. Most courses teaching people to play instruments now contain sections on musical notation. A good example is Robin Hall’s Piano For All keyboard-playing series, which not only devotes a section of the course to it but slips in mini-lessons on reading music at various points in the course.
When learning how to read music, you need to practice reading and writing it, no matter which of these methods of study you opt for. Constant practice and exercise will do a great deal for you and even if you do not consciously strive to retain information, regular exposure to the things you need to remember will do the job without you realizing it. One day, you may well be surprised when you look at some sheet music and suddenly realize you understand more than half the notes on there.