by Jamie Andreas
More free guitar articles and music instruction
There is a lot of confused thinking out there when it
comes to the subject of reading music,
especially being a guitar player and reading music.
I want to examine what some of this confused thinking
is, and how people get this confused
thinking into their heads, and why it stays there. Why
do some people think they shouldn't
learn to read music, when they should? Why do some
people think they should, when they
shouldn't (at least not right away)?
Every Strength is
a Potential Weakness
Some people are very "natural" guitar players, they
learn to play by watching and listening to
other players. And that is fine, in fact, that is
great. The ability to just watch someone do
something like play the guitar, and somehow "learn"
how to do it yourself, is a great ability.
However, every strength can also be a weakness, and
that is true here.
Often, the person who is able to learn this way starts
to get an "attitude" about the more
formal aspects of learning music and the guitar,
things like taking lessons, or learning to read
music. They begin to form certain belief systems about
the subject. And these belief systems
can be dangerous, because they prevent the person
holding them from growing and developing
as they otherwise could.
Even if you are a "natural" guitar player, there will
come the day when you will run up against
certain musical concepts which you will be locked out
of understanding because you don't
know how to read music. Learning how to read music is
one way to increase your chances of
being the best musician you can be.
Let's examine some of the reasons why a person might
adopt a belief system that says "it is a
bad thing to learn to read music, at least for me".
I'm a Genius, and God Whispers Directly in My Ear
Unfortunately, most people have an ego, an "idea" or
"image" of who they are, and whatever
that image is, it carries along with it certain
limitations. Whatever our particular image is, it also
becomes our act. We have to live up to it. We have to
keep a mental list of all the things that
support our act, and also a list of the things we have
to avoid because they don't fit our act. In
some professions, keeping up your image is essential
to survival. Politics is one, probably the
first "I must, at all costs maintain my image and my
act" profession. Being an entertainer/artist
is probably second.
So, it is very common, especially in the beginning
stages of being a musician, to decide to play
the "I am a natural genius who just picked up a guitar
and played like Jimi Hendrix" routine.
The musician playing this role has decided they are
the "romantic, inspired artist". This is the
image of the artist who gets his inspiration from some
divine source. He or she likes to believe
(and likes others to believe), that God, or perhaps
one of his angels, whispers directly in their
ear, and they best not tamper with the process. If
they interfere with the process by getting
some "education", then, God might get mad, and stop
whispering in their ear. God will stop
directly inspiring them with all those great musical
ideas and they will just be another jerk
playing the guitar.
Underneath this feeling is the feeling that they are,
in fact, just another jerk playing the guitar.
That is why this particular routine is common with
beginners, because most of us do feel like
we are just another jerk playing the guitar when we
first begin to play. And we usually have a
little outside help in the matter, in the form of
parents or "special friends", ready to tell us to get
real when we dare disclose our secret dreams of
actually being professional guitar players.
It is very important to grow past this little game. If
you do decide to make this image a part of
your professional career (as many artists do) you must
at least stop believing your own hype.
If you don't, you will not move yourself into contact
with the resources and situations that exist
to help you grow and develop.
Beethoven comes to mind. There was never a musician
who was more "divinely inspired" than
Beethoven. Music flowed into him and as it came out
when he played, people were left
sobbing with intense emotion, or moved to feelings of
awe. When he was young, he would tell
people, "I never listen to other composers music, it
would interfere with my originality". He
would say that, but he was full of "you know what",
and he knew it. He was really busy
studying with all the greatest composers and music
theory teachers of his day. So he was not
only listening to their music, he was studying it note
by note. But he was smart. He knew he
had a good thing going with all these people
worshipping him. He was young, and knew he
had to struggle to build a career as an artist, so he
would use this image of the "divinely
inspired artist" to his advantage, and help foster and
maintain it in people's minds. But he
wasn't dumb enough to believe it himself, or let it
get in the way of the development of his
Another artist, and a supremely great one, who
typified this attitude was Louie Armstrong.
When asked if he read music, he said "not enough to
hurt my playing". I believe he was being
a bit tongue in cheek here, and probably also was
promoting the "look, I'm just a genius"
image, but there is some truth to what he was trying
to get across.
He was trying to get across the fact that reading
music, like reading words, does not give you
talent. Being able to read doesn't mean you will
actually have something to say, and when you
are a musician, having something to say (in a musical
sense) is what it is all about. However, if
you have talent, if you have something to say,
learning to read music will not make you less of
a musician, but more of a musician.
Having Music Talent/Nurturing Music Talent
If you are an artist, if you feel you want to be a
guitarist, then, you would really be much better
off eliminating the word "talent" from your
vocabulary. You should not even be concerned
with whether you have any or not. You should only be
concerned with how much you love
music and the guitar. You should only be concerned
with how much you need to do it.
Whether you have talent or not is for other people to
waste their time wondering about.
When you stay focused on your love for what you are
doing, the path of your development
will become clear to you. If you love blues guitar, if
you want to play like Jimi or Stevie Ray,
and that is all you want to do, then it will become
clear to you over time that learning to read
music is not high on the list of priorities. Playing
constantly with other people who play that
style is high on the list. Learning and copying the
solos of a hundred other players is high on the
list. Of course, along the way, maybe you WILL feel
the desire to learn to read.
When I was starting out, my friends would show me
blues scales and licks. I wasn't much
interested in just learning finger patterns, I wanted
to understand in a mental way, what I was
doing. I wanted to know the note names and so forth.
That was just my personality. I didn't
know then that a few years later I would be captivated
by the classical guitar, which is a style
that absolutely requires note reading and musical
understanding in a technical sense, in order to
develop. I was just following my nature. So, being in
touch with yourself, your true nature
and needs for musical statement, is the first thing.
But don't interfere with that
awareness by clinging to some dumb "self-image" that
says you "shouldn't" read
Guitarists: Should YOU learn to read music?
What I say now should be understood and used in the
context of what I have already said.
There are many players for whom this question never
even comes up. They know already,
intuitively, the right answer to this question as it
applies to them. But many people do have
questions about this issue, so I will try to provide
the clarity they need.
IN GENERAL, everyone can only benefit by learning to
read music. Believe me, if you DO
have talent, if you have something to say as an
artist, you are not going to lose it by developing
your mental understanding of the "theoretical" aspect
of music. The only people who will lose
their artistic ability by education in music are the
ones who didn't have any artistic ability to
If you DON'T have much natural ability for music, or
much experience in playing music, then
learning to read can open up a whole world of
understanding for you. It can give you the keys
to understand the "mysteries of music". I love to
teach students to read, because then I can
teach them music theory. In fact, for the guitar
student, learning to read is like an insurance
policy against future confusion. So many guitar
students, as time goes by, start bumping up
against concepts that they can't understand, and it is
a source of great frustration for them,
because understanding these concepts is the doorway to
new and more sophisticated playing
I often get questions from students (other peoples
students) like "can you explain secondary
dominants", or "how do I use a harmonic minor scale in
improvising". Unfortunately, I can't
answer these people. They don't realize that in order
to understand the answer, a knowledge
of music theory is required. And in order to learn
music theory, you must know how to read
music. In other words, I have to use a particular
language to answer these questions, and they
don't know the language. So we can't communicate. They
are stuck with their question.
It's like trying to learn grammar without being able
to read words. You may be able to get
some understanding if you find a creative teacher, but
you will never achieve a complete or
satisfying understanding of grammar in the way you
would if you could read.
So, in general, I always recommend learning to read
Who Should Learn?
Specifically speaking, the following are the types of
people who definitely should learn to read
- Anyone who really wants to.
- Anyone planning on someday having a complete
and sophisticated understanding of
music and music theory.
- Anyone planning on a career in music, unless
it will be a career as a rock/blues musician,
or folk musician. Even then, of course, it won't hurt,
it is just not as necessary.
- Anyone who wants to play the classical
Who Shouldn't Learn to Read Music
- Anyone who really doesn't want to.
- Anyone who is planning on being only a
blues/rock musician or a folk musician.
- Most people who are just starting to learn to
play the guitar.
Guitarists: When to Begin
There is a common belief that students should learn to
read music right from the beginning. I
don't think so. I rarely do that with students.
Usually, it is just a way of throwing water on a
fire that is just beginning to burn. With guitar, it
is very easy to teach music in the beginning
without learning how to read. By doing so, the student
is connected right away to music in an
emotional way, and it is the emotional aspect of
playing music that made them begin lessons.
Learning to read music is a very complex, mental
affair, dealing with many abstract concepts.
Doing it in the beginning is kind of like reading your
girlfriend an essay on the philosophy of
love on your first date, instead of just being
romantic with a box of candy and flowers.
So I believe in fanning that fire first. I find a song
they love that has easy chords, I teach them
how to practice, and we're off and running. After a
few months, I bring the subject of reading
music up, and by then there is no problem in doing so.
Also, by then they are more able to
understand why it is important.
Teaching children to learn to read is very tricky, and
requires great skill. It is often done badly.
Suppose, for instance, that you are trying to teach a
third grader to read, and you have to
teach the concept of dotted notes. In order to
understand dotted notes, you have to
understand fractions, you have to understand the
concept of "one half of something". They
most likely DON'T understand that. So, you have to be
a math teacher for a bit. It can take
six months to really have a 10-year-old understand
this one musical concept.
In fact, I believe many adults who have had trouble
learning to read music are the victims of
bad teaching. There are often a lot of unexplained,
and under-explained vital concepts along
the way, which are the real culprits, not a lack of
ability to "get it".
And finally, it should be understood that learning to
read music can be a long process, in the
same way that learning to read words can be. It takes
enough work, over a long enough
period of time. You can learn to read enough to go
slowly through music, as you can learn to
read slowly, or you can become a "speed reader" and
read music you haven't' seen and still
play it up to performance level.
Whether or not to learn to read, and how far to take
it is up to you. But it is certainly a subject
you should make an informed choice about, based on
Copyright © 2000 Jamie Andreas
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