Illiterate by Choice

Learning How to Read Music is Difficult—Really Difficult, Like Trying-to-Learn-Japanese Difficult.

But, it’s not impossible.

If you know how to keep a beat, can physically make notes on your instrument, can see, are not intellectually disabled, then learning how to read music is a matter of sitting down and making yourself do it. Nevertheless, most musicians are of the non-literate variety.

Besides the difficulty, many people don’t learn how to read music because they believe literate musicians to be boring and uninteresting. Commentary like the following is common:

  • “That guy’s just staring at his music stand, how boring”
  • “Those players are ‘by the book,’ so I’m not interested in their music.”
  • “She’s playing from the page, not from her heart.”

I admit these criticisms have some merit: Some literate musicians really are boring, but many are not. Indeed, most literate musicians can also play by ear and can be as “off the book” or “from the heart” as the hippest hipster. For musicians of this sort, their literacy enhances their ear, and their ear enhances their literacy. In my view, musicians who operate this way have the best chance of being extraordinary.

This conclusion seems so obvious that you’d think every adroit, but-illiterate, musician on Earth would be scrambling to learn how to read. Sadly, this is not the case. Most musicians who don’t know how to read think that learning how to do so is antithetical to their musical goals. But, the truth is, if they learned how to read music, they would become better musicians.

History’s Musical Canon is Only Fully Available to the Musically Literate

I think it’s the duty of all musicians to be engaged in an effort of improvement. Taking this duty seriously ensures the musical art-form is being carried on as responsibly as possible. Knowing how to read greatly enhances this project.

Music is a collective human effort that extends back millennia and spans all cultures, races, and creeds. It is our responsibility as current musicians to care for and continue this tradition. Personally, I believe the human-music project, which extends back at least as far as written history (and likely much further), is one of the most precious things in the known universe.

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It is the duty of all musicians to explore, care for, and pass on humanity’s musical tradition.

We only live once, life is breathtakingly short, and there’s a massive canon of music just waiting to be explored. Unfortunately, our exploration of this canon is limited by the scope of one human lifetime. Imagine how good of a musician you could become if you could live to be a thousand. You’d likely become the greatest musician in human history.

Most Musicians Inhabiting the Globe Play By Ear Only

My experience teaching music is fairly extensive, and nearly every student I’ve encountered resists my efforts to teach them to read to some degree.

Sometimes the resistance is so staunch the student and I reach an impasse. They’ll cite that their heroes—Hendrix, McCartney, Hetfield, Cash, et cetera—can’t or couldn’t read a lick of music. And that’s true, but when I hear this argument, I try to explain that those famous musicians learned music through countless hours of playing by ear. This is a perfectly legitimate way to learn how to play and sing music.  In fact, I’d say most musicians learn music this way.

However, if you happen to be seated across from me in my lesson studio, then we’ve got to do something productive with the time allotted. And, teaching someone by ear using rote and repetition is almost always a waste of time. If you want to learn by ear and by rote, then you should just go home and start doing that. Put on your favorite music, get out your guitar, dial up a YouTube video or two, and start mimicking the sounds you here. Do this daily for many hours over a period of many years, and you will become a fine musician—no doubt.

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Among some by-ear musicians, there exists a myth that learning how to read is a waste of time and antithetical to the spirit of music.

However, there is not much a teacher can help you with here. A few pointers, maybe a chord or two, but, mostly, it’ll be monkey see monkey do, and everything that the student doesn’t memorize will evaporate into nothingness. So, in my opinion, a lesson focused on rote memory and mimicry is an exercise in wasted time. It’s just chaos. Here’s how it typically goes:

Okay, let’s try out this chord progression. Play this one here, and go down twice… No, down twice. Ready? One, two, three, four… No, left hand back to the first fret. Ready? One, two, three, four… No, stop—hit it twice. Down, down, up, up, down, up… No, try again. Look closely. Okay, ready? One, two, three, four…

Now just imagine this chaos for thirty minutes strait. Does anyone think this is the best way to learn music?

The thing is, if a player learns in a notation-free way only, then they’ve closed themselves off to all the fantastic music literature and method books that exists for every instrument and every genre.

Here’s a truth that should drive the point home: Once you can read, then there is no need for a music teacher because all the best players and singers in human history can become your teachers. And, having access to this material, as a musician, is just like an English major having access to the world’s classic literature. If you want to understand the English language, do you really think it’s not helpful to know how to read and to explore the vast expanse of human knowledge?

What if the only way you could study language was by memorizing speeches by ear? Do you think this would be the best way to learn about language? No, of course not. And it’s the same thing with music.

If you want to understand the musical artform deeply, then you must know how to read.

My First Two Music Teachers Failed to Teach Me How to Read

My first teacher attempted to teach me how to read, but I resisted his efforts, and he didn’t push hard. He spent most of our time together teaching me how to play songs like “Looks that Kill” by Mötley Crüe and “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne. My second guitar teacher taught me solos by rote and used his knowledge of music theory and notation to figure out harmony lines for me, but he didn’t teach me how to do this myself. He also never attempted to teach me how to read.

I now view the methods of these two teachers as unconscionably inept. What were they doing? They had one job.

After high school, when I was about twenty, I decided I needed to learn how to read so I could go to college for music. Though I did this. I’ve been desperately trying to catch up since. First, it was catching up to my co-students, whom were better readers than me. Now, it’s catching up to my colleagues, most of whom are better readers than me.

I wish that one of my guitar teachers had taught me how to read back when it could have been imprinted on my teenage, sponge-like brain. Happily, at twenty, there was still some of that sponge left, and I managed sink something into that absorbent mental substance.

I can read well these days, certainly better than most guitarist, who—by and large—are as illiterate as chimpanzees. But, I’m not the data-processor type reading animal of the sort I encounter daily in my professional life. For example, when I have a theater gig that features a one-hundred-page score, this means the entire duration of the show I am at home each night woodshedding that score with a sort of desperate ferocity. My colleagues, conversely, leave their scores at the theater resting securely on their music stands. I’m always astonished at this behavior, for I cannot possibly function this way.

The way that I interact with my score compared to how my colleagues interact with theirs is the difference between learning how to read when you are twenty compared to learning how to read when you are six.

Most Students Avoid Learning How to Read Like the Plague

Because of my own shortcomings here, I push my students to become literate musicians. No matter how much the student protests, I always insist they learn how to read.

My teaching methods are old-school: I make my students play the note on their instrument while simultaneously saying the letter-name, and I’ll have them read the entire piece like that—and, sometimes backwards so that rote memorization can’t figure into it. Then, I’ll make them play the piece while counting out loud. Counting and playing is the core of the music-literacy project. I have my students do similar activities in a classroom setting when I teach Class Piano. I usually play a game with my class called “Look at Note, Press that Button.”

The thing to keep in mind here, is that there are no shortcuts. But, in my experience, students seem hell-bent on searching for them or trying to devise them. And, many seem desperate for anything to ease the rigors of reading. But, here’s the thing: If you want to make sense on a musical instrument, or with singing, you must be aware of the details. This usually means learning and reading carefully, which does, I admit, requires significant mental energy.

Despite my proactive approach to teaching music literacy, many students remain steadfast in their refusal to learn how to read, and most are appalled by how hard they have to work to make reading and counting happen.

Excuses like “I just don’t think that way,” or “counting and playing is too hard,” or “I already know how to play, so why do I have to do this?” advertises to me that the student is a lazy thinker and cannot sustain their concentration.

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If you are not intellectually disabled, then you can learn how to read music.

Dyslexia, and other intellectual disabilities, are the only real excuses here. So, if notes move too fast through your consciousness, or they appear backwards to you, then I suppose learning how to read is out of the question.

Low intelligence is another possible impediment. If you have an IQ of 75, say, then reading music may not be possible. However, only about 5 percent of the population has such a low IQ.

The rest can read if they want to.

I am Disappointed by Famous Musicians Who Remain Steadfastly Illiterate

Now, given that I believe most people can learn how to read music, and therefore can improve their musicianship, I’m often disappointed in famous musicians who have the time and the resources to improve as musicians but usually never do.

Most famous musicians sound the same on their first album as they do on their tenth.

I can think of many examples, but a few come to mind. One is Kirk Hammett of Metallica, who—in my opinion—has played the same guitar solo, repeatedly, for the last twenty-five years.

Presented with this truth, I find myself asking, “Why isn’t he learning how to read and expanding his skill set and experimenting with new techniques and sounds?”

After all, there are hundreds of books out there on metal. For instance, when I was a kid, I had the Troy Stetina books. I couldn’t read the notation very well, but they came with a jam-a-long tape, so I could explore unfamiliar material.

From what I can tell, Hammett gives every indication of putting the guitar on the shelf, or in the storage closet, between Metallica albums.  Given he’s got, basically, limitless time and resources, he should be one of the best players out there at this point—and, he’s not.

Another example is Paul McCartney. Now, unlike Hammett, McCartney shows every sign of devotion to continued musical exploration and practice, but when asked about the topic during interviews he seems perfectly content not knowing how to read. But, if anyone would excel in the notated medium, it’s Paul McCartney. He’s got an ear for melody that befuddles the normal human imagination. And, imagine if he could also read, and, therefore, explore all the world’s music.

Both Hammett and McCartney could hire the world’s best music tutor and make serious improvements to their musicianship. If I was them, I would find the prospect of limitless learning, buttressed by limitless resources and time, incredibly seductive.

I’m sure if Paul or Kirk were to hear my argument here they’d utter something like, “I’m already doing what it is I want to do with music, I don’t need to learn some arcane language that would make me a beginner again.”

My retort would be “it’s likely that you don’t know what you’re missing.”

Here’s the thing (I’ll shout it from a mountaintop) musicians who never learn how to read are missing out on most of humanity’s contribution to the art and craft of music. Merely listening does not get you there. If you read music and learn how to manipulate your body into producing it, then you absorb, and assimilate, the music in a way not possible merely through listening and copying.

I think many musicians have an imperfect understanding of the benefits of knowing how to read music, and most are illiterate by choice.

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