“I Don’t Read Standard Notation. Should I Be Taken Seriously As A Musician?”

My polarizing question blew up my Linkedin group over the holidays last month – the group is a great network that I take seriously – and was overwhelmed by the numerous and lengthy responses.  The question was meant to be provocative and thought-provoking.  The comments have given me lots to think about – mostly as an instructor and professional guitar teacher.  I’ve left it out of my teaching for the past ten years because it never seemed relevant.  But it is in fact a universal language and a valuable tool, even if used infrequently.  I had I do want my students to know at least how to figure out the staff and be able to decipher music written on it – as I can and do.  The important point for me now is that there should be a possibility of reading and understanding it, and a general ignorance of it is not worthwhile.  So in that sense I will start incorporating SMN into my teaching, and I thank you guys for helping reconsider such a crucial element of music education.  Here are (what I understood to be) the main points from your answers.  They are heavily abridged for clarity/ readability and left anonymous.
  1. If you love music and guitar so much, why wouldn’t you want to learn EVERYTHING about it and become the best, most expressive player that you can be?
  2. … depends on your playing. It is likely you limit yourself and your possibilities very much by not reading Standard Music Notation, but that is up to you…SMN is worldwide the most used way among musicians to communicate. You deprive your students of a very valuable tool by not teaching SMN.
  3. I just think SMN is force-fed to the point of turning people off of “music lessons.” Plenty of famous musicians – the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Angus Young – did just fine without it. My point is, yes it’s a Universal Language and yes it can be useful but A) It’s rarely taught with relevance to the beginner student (unless their goal from the beginning is to master Hot Cross Buns) and B) it’s NEVER what a beginner student thinks about when they get their first guitar (and likewise, never entered my mind as being important).
  4. Staff notation itself is a form of tab, particularly suited for keyboard instruments. If you tried to invent a system less suitable for guitar and other fretted instruments, you’d be lucky to come up with anything more confusing than staff notation … Being “taken seriously” as a musician surely depends solely on the strength and beauty of what you play.
  5. Not necessary for children to read when learning gtr in the beginning stages. — unfortunately SMN doesn’t really teach feel, that is born into a musician… A kids’ passion is more important than a teacher being validated.
  6. What is wrong with learning a tool which enables you to communicate with other musicians, helps you to write down your ideas, helps you to understand the ideas of others?
  7. Children learn to speak before they can read or write…

    TABS on the Music Stand :D
    TABS on the Music Stand 😀
  8. Others have correctly stated that you may limit the gigs you’re offered if you don’t read. That’s your choice… if you’re serious about being a professional music teacher, you have to learn to read yourself… those books that have you learning “Oats and Beans” etc. from notation are CRAP! … irrelevant.
  9. I would hazard a guess that there are heaps – heaps! – more guitarists whose musical experience, one way or another, was considerably compromised by their musical illiteracy… intentionally not teaching our students to read would lead to another generation of semi-literate guitar teachers, which does not, IMO, serve the art in the long term.
  10.  By avoiding SMN you limit yourself as a teacher and you limit the progression of your students.
  11. … you can be a musician without SMN but probably unable to make a living.
  12.  I did some research on Guitarists/Musicians who at least claim they cannot read music. I found it surprising how many of the people on this list are among the top 100 Guitarists of all time in Rolling Stone Magazine, among other best guitarists lists. Players who cannot read music Adrian Smith-Iron Maiden Eric Clapton Eddie Van Halen ( was a classically trained pianist though ) Dave Mustaine-Megadeth James Hetfield ( although Kurt Hammet is classically trained ) The Beatles ( The whole Band claims this ) Slash Jimi Hendrix Angus Young-AC/DC Stevie Ray Vaughn Tommy Merello-Rage Against the Machine Tonni Iommi-Black Sabbath Adam Jones-Tool Dimebag Darrell-RIP Tommy Emmanuel I think some people who have the natural intuition and drive to play music will find their own way and be successful at it no matter what
  13. Add to that list many of the great jazz musicians [who can’t read], like Errol Garner,
  14. learning to read music at a practical level is just not that hard to do… the world would be better for it
  15. I do believe that you can be considered a musician and taken seriously without the ability to read. 
  16. The ability to read, or sight read standard music notation is only one criteria to be judged by. There is also the acuity of your ear, rote memory skills, institutional knowledge, and of course your proficiency on the instrument.
  17. musical reading doesn’t determine the musical level of any musician, but it’s a tool or resource very important and interesting as musician.
  18. “Better to have it and not need than to need it and not have it.” BB King on the value of reading music.
  19. Reading Music is a tool for communicating which should not in this man’s opinion go the way of the dinosaur
  20. The ability to read and write SMN is a huge timesaver. You can work through a repertoire much faster, you can manage changes a lot better, and you can communicate quickly and unambiguously with your fellow band members. Nevertheless, during the gig itself, having to read while you play, impedes your chances of getting high on the music, and it impedes the chances of the audience to reach the rafters, as well.
  21.  with reference to not being able to read SMN ‘Paul McCartney’s written(?) some nice stuff but you couldn’t book him for a gig’.
  22. I don’t find it particularly practical when learning a new piece of music. I find it much more efficient to learn by listening. As a lifelong student of music, I find SMN interesting from a purely academic point.
  23. I think you do deprive your students if you don’t teach them SMN… It’s common knowledge SMN is the tool for musicians worldwide. Why limit yourself by refusing to learn it.
  24. “Yes, if you’re any good. But imagine how much MORE seriously the profession will take you (with all your other musical abilities) if you can read *as well*!”
  25. How about a list of great musicians who can read? That list would include Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Mike Stern, Peter Finger, Julian Bream, John Williams, Andres Segovia, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin. Giving us a list of great musicians who can’t read is a fallacy called “cherry picking”.
  26. About 20-25% of your daily practice should be devoted to reading music, and this should be passed on to your students who truly do want to learn to read.
  27. being a quality / good / great musician doesn’t actually DEPEND on being literate
  28. sure, why not? It is a matter of identifying the sort of player you want/need to be and going after it with all your heart.
  29. Reading is just one of the skills which is useful to a musician, and there are gigs that don’t require it and ones that do. it makes sense to insist on your students having that skill available when needed.
  30. It really depends on your ear and communication with other musicians. Learning standard notation will help you comprehend WHY music is and it will help remove a lot of musical ambiguity. In essence though, music is about what you hear, not what you see, so although it will help it does not discredit your musical abilities.
  31. If you can’t read you’re seen as an inferior musician. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this its the way the world works. By learning to read you will enhance your personal brand. By teaching students you’ll help them enhance theirsA7
  32. I guess it comes down to priorities. Do you value ears over eyes, or eyes over ears, keeping in mind that ideally, we would like both.
  33. most rock or blues musicos probably wouldn’t want to play in Glenn Miller-style guitar orchestras, or musicals, etc., and for a number of areas [eg flamenco, blues, folk] the instrument has managed very nicely without staff notation …
  34. It is good for rock musicians (or any musicians) to step outside their comfort zone occasionally and explore other genres & music written for other instruments – later on, these ideas can be incorporated in their rock playing. Music reading assists with that process.
  35. it comes down to your interest and goals. If you are interested in learning to read and having the ability to pick up a piece of sheet music from any instrument and play it on the guitar then by all means learn to read. If not then stick with what you enjoy and actually are interested in doing!
  36. I’d like to announce that I’m an English teacher, but I do not read nor teach one word of written English. In fact, this is not a result of laziness or oppression or because I went to a badly funded public school: I simply believe that speaking out loud, in conversations that will never repeat themselves exactly, is far superior than simply parroting back someone else’s stories. I’d rather make up my own stories with elaborate and fanciful plot twists populated with complex characters exploring the human condition. Sometimes I’ll even take someone else’s story and really just change it around. For fun. Maybe one day, a character will do some odd thing, but instead the setting will be daytime instead of nighttime (Ha!…let’s see a written story do that!) or maybe the other way round. It might even be day and night together and for some reason I’ll call it a Cmaj7 chord. Don’t ask why, it’s better not to know why. When you know why, it stifles creativity. If you’d like to study spoken English with me, it costs $60 an hour. You will never be forced to learn to read English or be forced to pick up a book. You’ll never enjoy any stories written by anyone else (unless it’s an audiobook) nor be forced to decipher a contract that is clearly not in your favor. You’ll have the benefit of making up your own stories and feeling like you’re original and that no one has ever had the idea of combining daytime and nighttime in a story before- except that you got it from me, but I will try not to emphasize that. When you come to hear me tell stories- and by the way, I do tell stories beautifully- you won’t care that literate English reading people tend to make more money at jobs than illiterate folks. Also, who really wants to start by reading simple sentences like “See Jane run!” Your mind is way too advanced for that simple tedious stuff. Also, just so you know, if you do need to find out about something written in a book you’ll be forced to hire me. I don’t mind saying any of that that here, because, well, you won’t be able to read this thread at all anyway. …and I’m doing you a favor because threads like these tend to be a massive time suck. Once you graduate, you’ll be able to convince others with great feeling how reading English really is just for boring and unimaginative, stuffy people. You’ll live life with much lower risk of a bookcase falling on you at home and ending your vibrant existence far too early.
  37. Do yourself a favor and learn to read. You look young. You have the time.
  38. Anyone who says otherwise only does so because they think their formal education makes them better than everyone else. Music existed before there was a way to notate it so the answer to your question is obvious.
  39. Now as a teacher you should learn how to read music. There are students that want to or even have to learn how to read music. If you can’t teach them this skill then you are seriously handicapping yourself. 
  40. Ultimately, all value judgements are personal. 
  41.  ultimately the listener doesn’t give a shit if you can read what you play or not it is more about what you do with your instrument and the sound you communicate….
  42. It will keep you from certain work
  43. There are so many other aspects to becoming a great musician. It is by no means even close to that simple.
  44. Reading SMN, TAB, chord symbols is all part of the job. So, in short, know your job – especially if you want to be taken seriously! 🙂
  45. The listener could care less if you know how to read… you are taken seriously only by your ability to play competently and express emotion in your playing… seems to be a defensive attitude that might keep you away from great musicians
  46. The ability to read saves everybody time and time is money in this business and in the studio
  47. it can’t do a lot for your credibility with the public who are intending to pay for your services. You owe it to yourself to make sure that, as a teacher, you are fully skilled, with all the practical and theoretical tools of your trade. Just be professional.
  48. if you are a serious musician you have to be able to play with other people over a wide group of styles, keys arrangements etc, and you really do need to be able to read SMN… I’m well aware that many musicians can’t read (not just guitar players) but it really does limit what they can do.  So our job in teaching students who may be looking to get work from their craft is to get them to treat reading seriously, and reading/writing SMN is still the only effective way of communicating exactly what needs to be done.
  49. SMN is probably necessary in about 20 to 30 per cent of my work musically but I wouldn’t be without it. There is so much I would have missed.
  50. Look, regardless of the student’s level, learning to read music is fundamentally a communication tool; for certain types of music and situations you need to be able play what someone else has written, this is especially useful if the music is complicated, long or difficult to remember. If you can give a piece of music to someone and they can play it with no fuss or bother, you can progress at a quicker pace than if you were having to show the student what to play frame by frame. Also, as is the same in reading books, novels etc, a whole new world opens up for them.
  51. I need to bring up though that in a situation you are talking about again it depends on what your definition of professional is. If it’s, as I’ve mentioned many times before, becoming a studio musician, working with an orchestra, being a classical musician etc… then SMN is essential. Now you forget that being in a band and gigging around the local bars and pubs for a living is also called being a professional. Since in the rock world standard notation is NOT the way they communicate and most use either their ears or writing things down with tabs then tabliture is not at all an amateur medium used by amateurs. It’s use by many professionals also.
  52. What is preventing ANYONE who would like to add to their musical possibilities – should I be taken seriously? – that depends on who you ask.
  53. Someone who doesn’t read can be taken seriously as a musician (if they have enough other skills to compensate for their lack of reading skills). However, I cannot take a non-reader seriously as a music teacher. Some students do understand the value of reading, and it is part of the teacher’s job to teach them that skill.
  54. reading standard notation is easy, you should try
  55. Reading SMN _is_ easy. Do it one minute a day for 2 years straight, and you can’t help but get good at it… The world would be better off…
  56. Here is an article from Troy Stetina, one of the top music educators out there, that talks about learning standard notation. !http://www.stetina.com/popstips/notation.html
  57. Tab, as you know, is a language for stringed instruments, guitar, mandolin, banjo, uke, lute, bass and a few others. As long as you work solo or in genres that use those instruments you’re all set. If you want to communicate with the rest of the known musical universe you should learn their language.
  58. Being a musician is about knowing how to play and create music from an instrument or voice. Its not really about knowing how to read music written on a sheet of paper. That is just a language and a means of communication. A person who knows how to read it will always have the advantages but the others are also musicians who do not have the benefits of storage and communication. 
  59. The answer is yes – Correction – the title says music educator, so I think SMN should be on the curriculum. It’s up to the student to decide. I personally would start learning it by teaching the new ones so that you can build up to teaching it to any learners.
  60. Aaron go live LIFE & stop asking US to live for you in decisions. Can you “Sight Read TAB?” I like TAB when the rhythm is ALSO clearly defined!
  61. Four levels of interacting:1. read-and-understand 2. read-play-memorize 3. read-and-play in real-time (sight-reading) 4. read-and-hear —> it helps a lot to learn to read and interpret SMN at level 1 and 2.
  62. I can’t imagine trying to teach music without knowing how to read notation, why would you want to shackle yourself like that? As for whether you need it to be able to play, it depends on what you’re playing.
  63. inspired me to write an article. :http://www.rock-lessonsonline.com/should-i-learn-to-read-music/
  64. Here’s a one minute video I created for fun, inspired in part by this topic:http://youtu.be/7YadqtzmLbI
  65. depends on the the type of musician one is
  66. Knowing how to read SMN would be a great addition of skill
  67. i think a teacher should be able to read and teach SMN
  68. I struggled with notation for years, but now that I know it opened a whole other world…and gave me invaluable tools for teaching and communication of ideas.
  69. Reading means you can learn complex music faster, and makes you more versatile.

    Beginner Student Invented Notation
    Beginner Student Invented Notation
  70. To be “taken seriously” as a teacher you have to be leading your student down a path that brings them results geared towards THEIR GOALS. It’s not about making mini-clones of yourself.
  71. It’s not about knowing or not knowing SMN. It’s about reaching you goals though learning and playing your instrument.
  72.  Just the plain ability to interact with other musicians, when reading notation and theory is called for, regardless of what field they work on, does gives you an amount of credibility that can turn into a profitable opportunity. There are many other practical applications within the music industry (if you want to make a living from it) where reading standard music notation is necessary
  73. Can we not agree that learning SMN is not necessary for every person that picks up the guitar? I did pretty well for 20 yrs before I learned it!
  74. Because you mentioned the Mel Bay books…I wanted to share a backing track from “The Guitar Lesson Companion, Volume One” so you know it doesn’t have to be that way. https://soundcloud.com/susanpalmer/the-guitar-lesson-companion/s-7kLvy More Info: * Here’s a video where I show and play parts of each reading study in the book:http://youtu.be/srVjd93CQgU * About the book: http://www.leadcatpress.com/Volume1.htm
  75. I’ve been using Musicians Institute’s Reading for the Guitar book that does something similar but no backing tracks or anything. I’ll have to follow your other links and check this out more. This may be perfect for my students that I do teach SMN to. Thanks!
  76. Standard Music Notation (SMN) is just another tool to keep in the “bag of tricks”. The more tools, the better. But the most important tool is the ear.
  77. I had to to learn 20 songs in a few hours, not a “matter of days” and that observation has nothing to do with my age or experience with big touring bands. I suppose I could have tried to learn the songs by ear (I can do both) but under pressure the notation was absolutely faster. The arrangements were considerably more complicated than a blues jam or rock or R+B jam. 
  78. I understand… that some people who just play rock music for fun don’t need standard notation. the question is should one be taken seriously as a musician without being fully educated and literate in one’s chosen field. I’d suggest that illiterate rock musicians don’t necessarily want to be taken “seriously” and that probably shouldn’t matter. It’s fine. Have fun. Turn it up and play. I fully believe that through high quality instruction we can change people’s minds from “can’t or won’t” to “can” and “will”.
  79. SMN is not the one and only way to do it. Many musicians have a much easier time just picking up the instrument and figuring out the piece of music by ear. Especially in the rock genre where alot of either tabs or SMN is created by amateurs. You had better be able to pick up a CD and figure out songs by ear if you are not going to become a successful rock musician. This whole silly argument about being a rock musician being illiterate and having fun is purely that. Silliness! If you can read and write out tabs then you are not illiterate! It’s a form of reading and writing just the same as SMN is a form of reading and writing. Second something that is hard to play will be hard to play whether you use SMN or you just use your ear. You’re not going to rip out your piece of sheet music and magically play it perfectly. SMN is not a magic wand. It’s a tool for reading and writing music! 
  80. I seriously doubt whether someone who doesn’t read standard notation would understand music theory in any depth, simply because there so much of the material about music theory is written in standard notation.
  81. Now as far as your comment about not really knowing any theory in depth without knowing SMN. Are you serious! That is one of the most asinine comments I think that has been posted here! I went 20 yrs without knowing how to read a note of SMN. Do you know what? I was at a very advanced level in music theory.
  82. I think there are too many good reasons to become a competent SMN reader to justify not being one.
  83. How about communicating effectively with literate musicians from outside the rock genre? There are plenty of rock bands who enhance their basic sound by adding strings to some recordings.
  84. If someone is deliberately choosing to limit their musical development because reading music is too much work, they are missing out on opportunities which they might have otherwise enjoyed
  85. Obviously you should be taken seriously if you play really well. However this is a teachers’ forum and I would say you can’t be taken seriously as a teacher if you can’t read. A teacher who couldn’t teach me how to read would have prevented me from progressing in my studies. That’s the opposite of what a teacher is supposed to do.
  86. Of all our senses, we are used to trusting the visual the most, so we tend to overuse it all the time, to the detriment of the proper development of our other senses. It is a natural tendency, that will escalate on its own accord, unless we deliberately involve our hearing and our sense of touch more. A piece of paper is easier to grade than a live performance, and written instruction is (was?) easier to distribute than instruction in any other form.
  87. If you are going to teach, and explore all that music has to offer, you have to read. If you are going to play commercial gigs that have charts, you have to read, or you are just wasting expensive time for somebody.
  88. The ability to read and write SMN is a huge timesaver. You can work through a repertoire much faster, you can manage changes a lot better, and you can communicate quickly and unambiguously with your fellow band members. Nevertheless, during the gig itself, having to read while you play, impedes your chances of getting high on the music, and it impedes the chances of the audience to reach the rafters, as well. To have to apply visual concentration, sobers you up, and that is exactly what you need when preparing for the gig, but not on stage: you need to feel -and to convey- the freedom of total abandon.

Thanks again for taking the time and effort to think this issue through.  I hope the summary helps future discussions.  Cheers from St. Louis,


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Author: aarondoerr

Owner of Fellow Musician LLC, a small music education business specializing in outreach and private study. I'm guitarist for musical theatre and production assistant at St. Louis Public Radio.

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