To Read or Not to Read? That is the Question

Reading music. Something that can be difficult and challenging, taking years to learn and perfect. It is often seen as a crucial part of the music learning process and yet there are plenty of top-quality musicians who can’t read a note but are so skilled at their craft that it begs the question, is being able to read music really necessary?

In the Music Generation schools programme students are given an introduction to reading music, no matter which instrument they are learning. This then gives the students a basic knowledge which they can carry with them if they decide to further their music education in the future.

So what are the advantages of being able to read music?

  • Being able to play or sing unknown music.

No matter when the music was written, where it was written or what language the composer spoke written notation is universal. A piece of music written by a German composer 300 years ago can still be played by a musician in the 21st Century whether or not they’ve ever heard the music before.

  • It enhances social skills.

Being able to read music is usually a necessary skill required to join an orchestra or a band. It is not always necessary to be able to read music to join a choir but it can be an advantage. Joining a musical group of one kind or another can be a great way to socialise with like-minded people and result in lasting friendships.

  • It gives a greater understanding of the music itself.

Sometimes seeing the music written down visually can aid a better understanding of what’s being played that a musician might not fully comprehend from listening alone. This in turn can strengthen performance.

  • Being able to create for others.

For musicians who like to compose being able to read music is hugely advantageous. Composers can write down their music for anyone to play. The composer doesn’t need to even meet the musicians to explain how the music should sound as it’s all written down in the music.

But is it the be all and end all to be able to read music? What are the advantages to being able to play by ear or memory?

  • The musician can play anything that they hear.
  • Being able to play spontaneously – this is great at a party or session!
  • With no music stand acting as a barrier it can bring the musician closer to their audience.
  • A musician who plays by ear tends to have more confidence to improvise.
  • There is a greater sense of freedom when playing by ear as the musician is not bound by the written music.

So no, it is not the be all and end all to be able to read music, however there are many benefits to it, but then there are many benefits to play by ear or memory. Both methods bring opportunities but being able to do both opens up so many more doors. The important thing for any musician, be they be a beginner or someone with more experience, is to take as many chances as possible to learn to interpret music, both by reading it or playing it by ear. You just never know where these skills might lead.


Colette Brooks