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“Do I really need to learn to read music?” My students ask this of me time and time again.
The other thing told to me is: “I play by ear and I can play anything so I don’t need to know how to read.”
Can you remember everything told to you? Of course not. How many times have you had to say, “I need to write this down or I’ll forget It.” or “Wait, that’s too much information, please write it down.” It’s the same way with music. I can’t remember every song I have ever played, but I can instantly recall it (depending on how hard the piece is, sometimes having to woodshed to get it back under my fingers) if it’s notated. Once you learn how to read music, it is actually faster to read through your musical charts rather than listening and memorizing.
Let me make something perfectly clear: Music is a listening art, and we need to let our ear be the final judge as to what’s pleasing and what’s not. The ear is just a part of it. Studying and understanding the musical language (yes, using your intellect) then bringing your ears in to listen to what you have learned are the key to becoming a better musician.
Just think if you were illiterate, how much you would miss out of life? Not to be able to read a road sign, or get information, to read a note, a love letter, etc. You can only retain so much information, this is why we have books and libraries so we can go and recall the information. “All I have to do is just listen to it and then I’ve got it”. What happens if it’s never been recorded or better yet, let’s say it’s an original tune that I just wrote, if you can’t read you’re not going to be able to play it.
Let me give you a great example. About two weeks ago, a well-known drummer in the Dallas area invited two of my musician friends and me to an audition. We had never played together; we brought our real books (books chucked with music that professional musicians use), set up, and called up the first tune. We were playing also with a piano player we had never played with. Because we understood the musical language and could read we blew through probably 20 or so tunes complete with solos. Because of our years of playing experience, we listened to each other making sure to give enough room so we were not stepping on each other. After the audition the drummer stated, “This could be a complete stand alone group and we could go out and do a gig tonight.” Because we can read we could pretty much play anything (within the styles that we knew). The other thing to look at is because we could read we could get through fewer rehearsals and get out there gigging faster.
At my studio we emphasis note reading, playing by ear, and soloing as all of it is vitally important to being a successful musician. Our students have placed higher in school jazz bands, show bands, and bands that make money because they’re strong players both in reading, soloing, and style playing. Is it easy? Not at first. In fact, it is really difficult when you start because most musicians can play things by memory. When you start reading you are literally starting from scratch so you’ve got to give yourself some time to get adjusted to the instrument and getting your fingers to respond to the notes you see on the page.
Every time you want to give up think of what would have happened if you gave up learning to read and write the English language and where you would be in life now. It’s the same way with learning how to read music. Once it starts happening you’ll find your other musical skills will begin to soar and then the sky is the limit. So many famous players, living and past, realized sometime in their career the importance of reading music. In closing, don’t be afraid of it and give yourself some time to get into it. Your first month will be the hardest but stay with it, as the rewards to being able to read and even write music will be so beneficial.