Kathy Kucsan, Education Director 

Learning to read music is generally an important part of learning to play an instrument, at least in our current western culture. It often surprises people to learn that most of the world uses the aural tradition to share and pass music along from generation to generation. In our culture, the earliest music notation came from the ancient Greeks and evolved over centuries. Music notation is actually still evolving! 

The skill of learning to read notation is very different from the skill needed to play an instrument (or sing). Music notation is a system of symbols (which can appears to be hieroglyphics to people who look at a page of notation and can’t decipher a thing). 

Should you (or your child) learn to read music?

There’s really no “should” here. For someone just starting out on an instrument, getting musically literate is part of the package. Learning to play “by ear” is an entirely different route to making music. Both are skills or tools needed to make music. One isn’t better than the other – they’re just different, and they’re different ways to interact with music. 

Music notation creates a series of symbols and icons that give us a picture of the music. Each different symbol means something and they all interface with each other in order to bring the music to life.  A trained musician can look at a few bars of printed music and name the piece because their brains are translating the symbols into inner sounds that make sense. It’s an amazing skill to have.

You may have heard of the Suzuki method, which is an approach to teaching and learning music that assumes that we learn music like we do language. We learn to speak before we learn to read. Suzuki students learn solid playing skills before they get to the note-reading skills. Suzuki students learn to read music on a bit of a different timeline than traditional students. Again, one approach is not better than the other.

Learning to read music has many benefits.

  • If you’re a visual learner, reading notation is an excellent way to access and learn the piece faster, and potentially memorize it quickly.
  • You can learn standard repertoire (pieces everyone knows) very quickly by knowing how to read notation.
  • You can literally see the shape of the music as you look at the page and understand the motion of the piece.
  • Music literacy is a path to learning and understanding music theory.
  • You can compose your own music. (Isn’t there software that transforms your compositions into notation? Sure. But understanding what you’ve “written” and making changes requires that you know how to read notation.)

If you want to be a music major or become a professional musician, you might have to be music literate. Playing or singing in an ensemble (band, orchestra, jazz band, chorus) requires that you all have a basic understanding of notation so that you can play or sing together.

One of my colleagues suggests that reading music actually gets you closer to the music and its “mystery, nuance, and surprises.” I think that sums it up pretty well. But do you have to learn to read music? Of course not. Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney (and, actually, the rest of the Beatles) never learned to read music. Lots of other famous musicians (Elvis, Prince, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, among others) didn’t read notation. I don’t think there’s any argument that they weren’t incredible musicians. 

Music literacy is up to you.

At the Center for Musical Arts, our instructors teach music reading as part of the lesson. Guitar teachers may add tablature reading to the mix, which creates yet another dimension. If you want to skip learning notation, you can. Especially if you’re the next Taylor Swift!

Are you ready to begin your journey to music literacy? Our talented instructors can show you the way!