The importance of learning to read music

What is the definition of a musician, a true musician? To me it’s someone that plays and makes music for the absolute pure joy of it, for themselves, perhaps for others, to communicate and to share. Playing from the heart. This is a small child tinkling around on a toy piano, picking out a tune that only they know how the melody goes. This is the Conservatorium-crafted, highly polished and professional orchestral instrumentalist. This is the jazz saxophone player who picked up the instrument in their late 30s and fell in love with it. This is the young upstart in a rock band. This is the person who reads sheet music, and this is also the person that doesn’t.

Digital Sheet Music
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One can make the argument that to be a true musician, one doesn’t necessarily have to be able to read music. And I would agree with that.

However, if you wish to progress and develop your musicianship, it is UNDOUBTEDLY super beneficial to learn to read written music. Sure you may not need to, depending on the style and nature of music you play, but why limit yourself?! Why not make a whole new world of opportunities available to you, options, choices, and alternative methods to communicate and express your musical wishes?!

Think about, for example, if you were to learn to listen to and speak English, with a high degree of fluency, communicating your message, understanding and being understood to a level, but not being able to read and not being able to write. How limiting is that going to be? You’ll be cutting yourself off from a whole world of possibilities, possibly missing finer details and nuances, reducing your communication methods and limiting your options.

As a classical guitar teacher, I often have students come to me who’ve done a fair amount of tinkling around on the guitar, most often in a rock or blues kind of vein. Actually that’s a little demeaning to say tinkling. They’ve been making music and really, really enjoying it. They come to me as musicians.

However, they’ve also usually hit a roadblock in their progression – hence why they’ve sought me out.

So this is where we start the process of getting to grips with the written page. And not just for the sake of reading squiggly tadpoles, lines, curves and funny Italian words. It’s to give them an added weapon in their already well-stocked musical arsenal.

Yes, it takes dedication, application, repetition and a bit of mucking it up to learn it – but wasn’t that the same when you learnt to read and write? Did you survive the process? I’m pretty sure you did if you’re reading this…..

Once you’ve learnt to read music (and continue to learn) you then equip yourself to communicate with all manner of musicians – those that read, those that don’t. You can explain clearly and precisely in a universally accepted language exactly what it is you want to convey in music you play with others. You can coordinate other musicians – other guitarists, and other kinds of musicians. You can write music, literally. And again you can convey precisely your musical intentions with people on the other side of the globe you’ve never met and across the generations! Learning to read music opens up a whole wealth of opportunities for a musician.

I’m pretty sure that no one ever regretted learning a new skill! The only regret is in not learning it.

Casting a critical eye (and ear) on your score

We all tend to – ok, that might be a broad and sweeping generalisation – but a considerable number of guitarists I know (myself included oftentimes) tend to really rely quite heavily on what is written on our musical scores.

La boheme hand written score
Skull and cross bones? Interpret that! La boheme hand written score (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The thought process probably goes something along the lines of…”well the composer wrote that so it must definitely be what he means and I must stick religiously to it” or “this arranger must know their eggs to (a) be arranging in the first place and (b) have it published; it must be right” or “it is written, therefore I must play it” (which then perhaps may lead one conversely to think “nothing is written, I must play with no dynamics….“).

Am I right?

Possibly.

And that’s also kind of the point of what I’m saying here.

Just because something has been written on the page does not necessarily mean it is right. It doesn’t necessarily mean its wrong either. Confused much?! Let me give an interesting case in point here to illustrate what I’m yabbering on about.

It was recently brought to my attention by one of my students (you know who you are!) a note in a piece that I previously had thought and been playing for a number of years as an A natural was in fact in the score an A# that hadn’t been naturalised within the same bar (and yes, it’s always marvellous to have students pick these things up a it means I’m doing my job and teaches me to pay heed to my own lessons!). It’s the Prelude of John Duarte’s English Suite towards the end of bar 7 for you spotters out there.

Harmonically, it sounds a little ‘interesting’ if one takes it as literal and written with the A#. But it’s not entirely out of context with the piece – there certainly are some interesting little harmonic tidbits and turns, so not entirely out of place. The A natural, on the other hand, does make more traditional harmonic sense, which is why my brain “saw” and heard it as such and has been playing it that way for some time now. This is also probably why a number of big name guitarists also play it that way, Segovia and Antigoni Goni included.

But just because I play it like that, and just because the big cheeses play it like that does not make it correct necessarily.

It’s the same with dynamics and other musical directions that may (or may not) be written on the score.

Play whatever it is you want to play with heartfelt intention, like you really wanted to play it and in the way you wanted to play it and you’ll have me convinced it’s right. And so that’s what this student of mine did. He decided “yes, the A# is the note for me and I’m going to play it like so..

Let’s put this another way. As musicians we need to be good scientists. And what do good scientists do?

They question.

They don’t accept the status quo without asking why it exists. They don’t accept an answer as a given. They seek to understand. To truly get to the heart of something. It’s about seeking meaning and understanding. It’s about your intention and meaning behind your action. Yes, even one little note.

Question it. Ask yourself “Is it supposed to by X or is it supposed to be Y or Z even? I don’t know, but I’d like to play it as X. I like X!

So go forth fellow guitarists and musicians, apply a critical eye and ear and become excellent scientists with your scores!