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Do I need to know how to read music?

Do you really need to know how to read it?

One of the biggest questions that I get from new guitar students is, "Do I need to know how to read music?" Is reading music such a big deal? Why is it important?


I started off when I was 8, learning classical piano and for me reading music was a must. In order to enjoy the wealth of classical music out there you have to be able to read it. Arguably for most instruments it's worth being able to read music to a certain degree. Not only is there so much music to learn that is written down it is the common language of musicians in that any instrument's music can be written down for another to play.


BUT.......


Do YOU as an asipring guitarist need to know how to do it?


Guitarists are often labelled as lazy for not being able to read music. The classic example was a young session guitarist called Jimmy Page who played on many pop hits of the 1960s (reportedly including Tom Jones' hit 'It's Not Unusual') and went on to change music with his band Led Zeppelin. However he hacked his was through those sessions and was eventually found out. Is this a good reason not to learn music? No, but it helps to illustate the point that to play on those tracks and later to write his own music in Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page only needed a knowledge of how to get the sounds he wanted out of his guitar. Reading music barely came into it.


And here we have the main point; Do you NEED to know how to read music to be able to learn guitar? How does it fit into your learning goals. For example if you've been working hard all day and just want to come back and unwind by playing some of your favourite songs. Do you need to know how to read music? No. If you want to go to an open mic night and play some songs with some friends do you need to know how to read music? No. In both of these cases you can do what you need to be able to do through other means which are much easier and take less time to work through than learning how to read music for guitar.


Let's look at another example, say that you want to go to college and study music. In this case the answer would be yes, at least going by the experiences of my own students. When guitar students of mine have decided to go to college to study music I have taught them to read music whether they need to know for the entry exam or not. When conversing with other musicians it's crucially important to be able to have this skill. It would be like going to another country to live where another language is spoken, knowing how to speak it but not knowing how to read it. You miss out on a great deal!


A lot of guitar students come to me with hang ups about not being able to read standard notation (music in it's written form). However as we talk more it soon becomes apparent that they don't need to. They want to play guitar for pleasure either on their own or with friends. Learning to read music to them would offer very little advantage so they might as well just get on with having fun and enjoy their instument and the music they can make with it! Simple.

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