Do I Really Need To Learn How To Read Music? (Subscriber Question)

I was lucky enough to learn to read music in Jr. High for violin, and then -through sheer personal will- I forced myself through multiple piano courses and Mel Bay guitar books. After two and a half decades of playing I can think of many times when being able to read made the difference between me (and many musicians I know) getting the gig or not. Here's one instance:

My friend called and said that Whitney Houston's drummer was putting together a band to play a fundraiser. The pay was so good I couldn't say no, plus I wanted to work with the high-level musicians who were in the project. We met at a local music college for practice and the director pulled out sheet music (to everyone's surprise) and basically expected us to sight-read right off the bat. My sight reading skills were akin to an old book you put on the shelf years ago that had collected layers of dust. The first run-through was brutal. I looked over at the other guitarist and he was sweating bullets. I did the old "turn your volume way down and pretend to play" trick until I got my bearing back at which time I acted like nothing had been wrong. In the pressure of having to read, all of my past skills came rushing back and I ended up getting the gig. It was then that I realized how learning to read not only gets you out of tough situations, it can also get you INTO great ones. 

Reasons FOR learning to read music as a guitarist:

1. You get a greater understanding of the fretboard. Trust me, playing Mary Had a Little Lamb with notes can feel a bit embarrassing at first, but you will never forget those few notes again. When you learn to read on guitar, you learn in positions and this is a sure-fire way to memorize the notes on the entire fretboard.

2. Your rhythm counting will go through the roof. When you're forced to play everything in time (I highly recommend playing with a metronome when learning to count rhythms) you naturally become a better, more solid, musician. You learn to trust your inner clock and what follows is the ability to explore and use new rhythmic strumming patterns and melodic phrases. 

3. You can learn to hear a song just by looking at the music. Because of sheer repetition, you begin to almost hear the notes come off the page even though they're just dots on lines. It's a magical time when this happens and you realize it's no different from hearing your inner voice say the words as you read letters in a book. I once heard it said that amusician who can't read music is like a person who can only speak a language but lack the ability to read it or write it down. 

4. You have a deeper understanding of intervals. A good reader can instantly recognize intervals when they see sheet music. This deepens your understanding of the relationship between notes and how melodies and chords interact with each other. Once again, this just adds to your toolbox of knowledge and boosts your confidence as a musician. Higher levels of playing/composing such as note and chord substitutions become much more obvious. 

5. You can find common ground when working with a variety of musicians and instruments. There've been times during recording sessions when musicians insist that they need their parts written down. I find this to be the case with horn players a lot. Even with a limited amount of reading/writing knowledge, you can at least get them on the right path during a session with just a few strokes of a pen. You'll also discover how many people learned their instrument strictly by the book and rely heavily on the written note. It's good to have the ability to bridge the gaps with these types of players. And though it's true that different instruments can have different clefs (Google Clefs ;), they can usually take whatever you give them and transpose it to fit their needs. Also, isn't it cool to know that the notation you write down can be played by musicians all around the world? Yes, music notation is truly a universal language.  

6. You'll get more gigs. If you ever plan to play in jazz combos, orchestra pits, studio sessions, commercial work, etc, you'd better get cracking on that Mel Bay book. Just binge learn and in a few short months you will forever lose your reading insecurities. Sure, if you just plan on playing rock covers around town you probably won't ever have to read music, but why take the chance? ;)

7. You don't want to just rely on TAB. We've got it pretty easy as guitar players. We have TAB (short for tablature which is a simpler number-based alternative method for writing guitar music). If it wasn't for TAB, I would never have learned 90% of the songs I did when I was a teenager. Even though most magazines and books included both TAB and notation, my eyes always skipped right to the TAB, using notation (notes) only if I was having rhythmic issues. Although TAB is amazing, and most guitar magazines eventually ditched notation all together, it does very little to advance your knowledge of music. Yes you can now play Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson, but do you really understand what you're playing? Do you know what scales, intervals, chords, etc, are being used to construct the song? Does you knowledge of the piece go beyond just the physical reproduction of the notes?

8. Learning how to read from a method book exposes the flaws in your technique. For example, the tendency to kill a note before you play the next one. It's easy to not even realize you're doing this until you're forced to play each note slowly and in time. Also, because it's such a tedious process, you'll begin to feel discomfort if your technique isn't perfect. Like if your thumb is resting incorrectly or if you're pushing too hard on the strings. So I like to think of method note reading as a great way to refine yourself technically and tighten the loose screws in your playing as well as your knowledge. 

Reasons AGAINST learning to read music as a guitarist.

1. Getting good at reading takes time, getting great at reading can take a LONG time. Steve Vai once spent an entire summer dedicating himself to bettering his reading skills. He said that after the long three months he felt he hadn't improved very much if at all. My guess is that he was already decent at it, but didn't do enough in that amount of time to reach the next level, which is the insantly high level of sight-reading. So if you're satisfied just playing songs, riffs, and licks, reading TAB could be enough for you. 

2. You may never be in a situation that requires it. This is a pretty weak reason not to learn to read because you can't predict the future. You may think you'll only ever jam in your basement or with some friends, but you can't really know. What if you keep getting better and better and suddenly someone wants you to play at their church or something. You'll always have that voice in your head wondering if you're going to have to read music when you arrive. Trust me, the few months it takes to get a decent handle of reading is worth it. 

3. Reading requires the use of the logical part of your brain. A lot of guitarists worry that learning too much theory or how to read can hamper their creative side. Like I said before, you don't need to read music to be a great artist (I believe someone told me that Paul McCartney never learned how to read or write music notation). However, I don't believe that learning how something works takes away from the ability to create art. I actually see it coming from different parts of your brain. When I first learned how to read, I really felt like I was doing math problems, which I hated. "Can't I just play music???" is all I could think to myself. Then a funny thing happened. After about three months of practice, I began to "read without reading." I can only describe this as how you feel when you tie your shoes; It's more of an automatic sensation. Once your reading hits a certain level, you no longer feel it coming from the logical part of the brain. That being said, it can take some time and some people aren't willing to put in that much effort for something that doesn't pay off right away. 

Well I thought I'd have more arguments against reading music but I guess not. So it's 8-3 in favor of you learning to read! People ask, "Why don't you teach reading music on your website (" Since I learned how to read from method books (mostly Mel Bay's Modern Guitar Method), I find it redundant to try and re-explain what's already been explained at such a high level. Plus teaching how to read doesn't translate well in video form, at least not yet. I believe I have a lot to offer in terms of general guitar teaching but when it comes to actual music reading, I must defer to those who have developed their methods for decades. So go to them for reading, and come to me for everything else. ;) -Mike G