Write Now: Reading Is Essential For Musicians

Knowing how to read is essential.

Being literate affords one to navigate life in a different way. It gives one power because one doesn’t have to ask someone else what is printed on a computer screen, magazine, newspaper, book or a flyer. Knowing how to read unlocks doors in another world of information one which previously may not have been able to access.

The same holds true for learning how to read music. I’m not saying one has to learn loads of music theory although it would be an added bonus, but if ones how to read music for one’s chosen instrument, then one may have different musical conversations with other musicians.

In my opinion, it’s better to learn how to read music because it may make one a better musician. Just learning to read develops one’s vocabulary, so does learning how to read music because it will give one a bigger music vocabulary.

For guitarists and bassists who don’t read, there are alternatives that may simulate reading music. I am not really in favor these alternatives because one is not learning the notes of instrument and how to produce them.

I believe a guitarist and bassist should learn how to read music. A lot of “self taught” guitarists and bassists play just fine without reading. They have well-developed ears, so they can hear chord changes, melodies, rhythms, and basslines. Granted, they may approach a song a different way than a reading musician would, and as long as the end result is OK, then there is no harm. If those same musicians are called to record a advertising jingle or asked to provide a solo in a finite amount of time, the task could prove difficult. The reason may be that the musicians would not know where to start. If a non-reading guitarist was asked to play a solo over chords C Major, A minor, F Major and G Major, the guitarist may know what to play because some one showed the guitarist where a C Major, A minor, F Major, and G Major can be played on a guitar. If that same guitarist was asked to play a solo over I, vi, IV, and V, in the key of C Major, the guitarist may ask “what are the roman numerals?”

And that’s my point.

Learning how to read music for one’s instrument, and leaning basic music theory gives the musician more avenues on which to perform. In the guitarist’s example, the guitarist could approach the solo from several angles and maybe play three to different solos because the guitarist had more information from which to draw and use.

Guitar tablature is the alternative. It’s still musical notation, but shows fingerings instead of actual musical pitches or notes. If it leads a guitarist or bassist to learn how to read music, then I am for it, but that is not usually the case. The problem I have with guitar or bass tabs is that someone shows how a song can be played and that is one interpretation. That interpretation may be wrong. There are magazines that publish guitar tabs only, and there are magazines that publish tabs and music. I used to be a fan of the tabs and music, but when I discovered an easier way to play a song, I opted for the music only. I would rather see the notes and figure out my own fingerings and decide how to practice the song. That way if a song needs to be transposed to another key, I have a great starting point. For me, the tabs got in the way.

As Tom Morello says in his trailer for his guitar master class, masterclass.com/classes/tom-morello-teaches-electric-guitar, “You practice technique to get your fingers where you want them to go. You practice (music) theory to understand where they can go and why.” That’s great advice from Morello who has fronted bands Rage Against The Machine, and Audioslave. You may remember Audioslave’s single “Like A Stone,” where Morello’s guitar prowess can be heard.

When I was learning how to play drums, I took private lessons. I was taught how to hold the sticks, and rudiments, which are patterns that are used to notate drum music. I also took private lessons for bass guitar where I learned scales, notes, and fingerings for scales. I also learned to look at left-hand piano notation, if a bass part was not available.

If one is thinking of becoming a music major at a four-year college or university, then it’s given one knows how to read music because one may have to pass an audition which may include sight reading which tests how proficient one read music unknown to one.

One doesn’t have to be the best reader, but if one can read, one can then use the library as a great big toolbox where a wealth of information is literally (no pun intended) at one’s fingertips.

The same holds true for knowing how to read music.