Is it necessary to learn how to read music?
We could easily save everyone the read and just have a one-sentence, one-word article. It would go something like this…
That would be the end of it. I honestly feel that is how reading written music is treated when it comes to education. There is almost never an explanation. It just is. The equivalent would be when a child asks “why?” and the parent responds, “because I said so.” The belief that music cannot be studied seriously without learning to read is false. This is not an arguable opinion. It is a fact. Many of the musicians responsible for the music that shapes our world, that we listen to day in and day out, have never ventured to acquire the skill of reading notation.
Now, before everyone heads out into the streets to protest, let me say that I myself am a reader. I spent over fifteen years learning to read music at a very high level. At the Berklee College Of Music, I took every additional sight reading class I could. There have been many jobs in my career that I would not have been able to do without this skill. As a professional musician, being able to read truly can be a difference maker. Therefore, I cannot rightfully say that learning to read is not beneficial; it's simply not necessary in order to learn how to play, perform, and enjoy a musical instrument.
Music Is A Language
In general, everyone can benefit from learning the written language of music. When we look at sheet music, this is the written theoretical expression of what we hear. Music is a full-fledged language, a form of communication older than most of the languages we know. Learning to read music is like learning grammar in school. You can learn to speak orally without formal education, but you will be limited as to what you can learn and certainly limited in what you can express. This is the same with music. A student can learn how to play just from listening, but they will be at a slight disadvantage in certain situations.
But I Don’t Speak The Language
Written music literally crosses all boundaries. It is one language that unites us all. Nearly all instruments read and understand the same symbols. By learning to read on one instrument, a student will inherently gain an understanding of all instruments. Music is also read all over the world by people speaking every kind of language imaginable. If you can read written notation, a verbal language barrier will be bridged.
Skills Versus Talent
It is true that some people possess a “gift” or “talent” for learning music. This gift usually stems from a naturally developed ear complemented by a physical capacity for the mechanics of an instrument. These attributes lead some students to do a tremendous amount of “self learning.” Typically these students have a very hard time with learning to read written music. Their ability to play came so quickly that the patience it takes to learn how to read well is nearly impossible to bear. On the other hand, students who struggle with the basics and overcome those early obstacles through diligent hard work usually excel when it comes to reading. For this reason, I encourage these students early on to develop the ability to read. For them, reading is something they can easily see progress in from week to week, while other areas of learning may be less rewarding.
Must every music student learn how to read? The answer is no. Though learning to read is unquestionably beneficial to any instrumentalist, it truly is not a right or necessary skill during early development for every student. Music is a journey, and learning to read is one of many roads on this journey. The concern is that if a student is pressed to walk down one singular path, they may never begin the journey at all.
We believe that mastery begins with encouragement, the belief that someone can. For some students, this is found in written notes; and for others, it is not. In either case, this simple notion is the all-powerful tool that leads students to success. We start there and let the power of that encouragement empower the student to believe that they can. Once they buy into the idea that they can play an instrument, teachers becomes guides in developing and nurturing the skills necessary for students to express themselves and achieve their goals.
(By Chris Vazquez, co-owner, SoundLife Music Academy)