Reading music is a subject which can strike fear into the heart of many aspiring musicians. It isn’t just aspiring musicians, though, as many people at different stages of their musical development struggle to read music. If you remember music lessons in school you may have an image in your head of some weird signs on a strange piece of paper which made no sense at all, no matter how much you stared!
Reading music is a tough skill to learn, but do you have to learn to read music to play guitar?
Reading music is not an essential skill to have when learning to play guitar, especially if you are playing rock and pop music. Many great guitarists cannot read music. There are other forms of notation to help guitarists and allow music to be written, called ‘tabs’.
Tabs aren’t the ultimate savior, though. It is fair to say that each and every method of writing and reading music (or musical instructions) has its pros and cons. To say that you don’t necessarily need to is not the same as saying that it isn’t useful to be able to. Also, if you plan to play a certain genre or style it could be essential to be able to read music.
If you go to the effort of learning to read music, you should definitely make sure this skill is going to be useful to you! It would be a real shame to put in the huge amount of hours only to find that you will never need the skills learned. Some guitarists may never be put in a position where reading music is essential.
Whether the skill is worth it depends on your other musical ambitions, the style you want to play and many other factors, as we explore in detail below.
Why Reading Traditional Notation is Not Always Needed
First off, when we say traditional notation, we’re talking about the music you have to ‘read’. Wikipedia describes music notation as “any system used to visually represent aurally perceived music played with instruments or sung by the human voice through the use of written, printed, or otherwise-produced symbols”. Technically, some of the alternative forms such as tabs count as notation.
When we refer to Traditional notation and reading music we are referring to the system you will see if you buy the songbook of any chart hit. The system with Clefs, Quavers, and Crotchets. The almost universally used system of reading and writing music.
Some musicians who can’t read music can be disparaging of it. This probably stems from remembering those tedious music lessons when you were 11! The truth is that traditional music notation can be very helpful, and we’ll explore more of its benefits later.
Reading music certainly isn’t essential, though. There are many guitarists who get by absolutely fine. This can be because the skills they need to learn are quite basic. If your ambition is to be in a three or four chord punk band then you won’t need to be too worried about being able to read music. It is a skill which might be overkill for your own needs and can take up valuable time when you could be writing angry lyrics and fiddling with distortion pedals.
Guitarists have, over time, developed much faster ways to communicate how to play a song. There are shortcuts. Shortcuts is not meant as a bad thing, either. If there is a quicker way to reach your destination then it is often wise to take that route!
This is the way most guitarists learn to play songs. If you’ve ever heard someone talk about ‘guitar tabs’ this is what they’re referring to. This isn’t some underground method, either, tabs are used by teachers and instructors just as much if not more than traditional notation. If you don’t plan to learn tablature then you might really struggle.
There are websites full of tabs. Tens of thousands of guitar tabs can be found on community-based sites like ultimate guitar, and though they aren’t as reliable due to the fact anyone can submit them, there is a rating system where people can give the tab up to 5 stars for accuracy, so you’ll know if a submitted tab is a dud!
Tabs work in a very straightforward way. Six horizontal lines denote the six strings of the guitar. The tab is read from left to right just as you would probably assume. The top line shows the thinnest string, which is called the first string on the guitar. It then goes up in thickness until the bottom line, the thicker 6th string. A visual representation helps to work out exactly how this correlates to the guitar fretboard, but you can see it as a sort of map to help you navigate your way around.
The system then relies on numbers to tell you which fret you will be playing. A ‘5’ on the first string would denote you need to play the fifth fret at the thinner ‘E’ string.
Tabs are a great tool to quickly work out how to play a song. Not only is the method the quickest to understand, with no new symbols or language to wrap your head around, it is also incredibly common. Most guitarists can understand it so you will be able to share ideas. If you’re struggling with a riff, you can get a guitarist friend to write the tab for you and this is far quicker and easier than if they had to write out the music in a traditional notation method.
As well as being a simpler method in terms of learning the notes, tabs are probably going to be used in the learning materials you end up using. YouTube videos, guitar courses and blogs will mainly use this as their method of communicating what you should be playing.
If it came down to a straight shootout for which guitarists should learn between tablature and traditional notation, tabs will probably win the day every time. However, this is assuming that you only want to play one instrument, and also ignores some of the benefits of reading music which we will go into below.
Cons of Guitar Tab
Having spoken so highly of guitar tab and the benefits it has for guitarists, it is only fair that we present the alternate view. Tab is not perfect by any means. It is very hard to communicate tempo and note length with guitar tabs. Because of this, it assumes that you have heard the piece of music in question. The information that tabs actually provide is pretty limited. Though it is enough for most of us to explain which notes you should play and in what order, the more nuanced information gets lost along the way. This means that you cannot pick up a guitar tab without having heard the piece of music in advance and be able to play. The only way for you to really rely on tab is if you’ve heard the tune in advance or seen or heard someone else play it.
Why is this a problem? Well, say you have a friend who has come up with a new riff and want to show you how to play it, they can’t do it just though tab. In theory, with music notation they could show you only through symbols exactly how the piece of music they have come up with should be played. There are workarounds and most people have the capacity to send an audio recording along with tab, which is a good way to communicate ideas.
Another negative about guitar tab is the fact that in its simplicity there is a lack of quality control. That is to say that a google search for “Beatles tabs” will bring you a lot of results, many of which are on websites where anyone can upload their tabs. There are plenty of people out there creating tabs which are less than reliable. Even if people have the best of intentions, there is every chance that some seriously error-ridden versions of your favorite tracks can be found at just a couple of mouse clicks.
Websites like Ultimate Guitar have created a system where you can rate tabs, and the average rating gives you an idea of the reliability of the tab in question. Anything under a four star rating is probably not going to be very close to the original.
Musicians Who Can’t Read Music
Some people who plan to learn to play guitar worry that tabs are a ‘shortcut’ or cheat method to learn, or that not learning traditional music will make them less of a musician. Think of it like a language. A genius can still be a genius no matter what language they are speaking, and this is shown by the list of musicians who can’t read music in the traditional sense.
Eric Clapton – This really might come as a surprise. Supremely talented musician and songwriter Eric Clapton may be in the rock and roll hall of fame, but he can’t read music, or at least he couldn’t at the height of his powers many years ago. He explained in his autobiography some awkward situations in studios where he was handed sheet music and couldn’t read it.
The Beatles – None of The Beatles could read music through any of the lifespan of the band. Even as their music became more complex, engaging and experimental, they survived on tabs and their own knowledge. When you look at all they achieved, it is fair to say that reading music is not totally essential!
Slash – Many people grew up with Slash as a guitar icon. He said in an interview “No, I can’t read music. I play by ear. I try to make what I want to hear, sometimes in my head, come out of my hands and into my guitar.” While playing by ear is not something that should be recommended, it shows that it can be done, and certainly proves that notation isn’t always needed.
Everyone has their own route to learning any sort of an instrument. Reading music works far better for some people than it does for others in terms of how their brains function, and some come from backgrounds where reading music would have been essential while others do not.
Presenting the Case For Learning to Read Music
Having said that you don’t need to learn to read music, it is worth also discussing the fact that there are no real downsides to learning to read notation other than the fact it will take more time and effort. For certain guitarists with certain ambitions and genres, it is verging on essential.
If you are planning to make a career out of music then being able to read standard notation is a tool that you might find extremely useful, or even essential. If you plan to become a session guitarist and get paid for your skills when it comes to performing and recording, it will be expected that you can pick up sheet music and be able to play it more or less instantly. This is how composers and musicians communicate ideas. Entering any environment with other musicians means there is a lot of terminology that is likely to get thrown around. Not being able to read music can leave you at a disadvantage and create extra work for you in the learning process. If you are a session guitarist who can’t read music, you might find it harder to get employment if you can’t read music.
Developing Your Understanding of Music and Music Theory
Music theory and sheet music go hand-in-hand, and an understanding of one will make it simpler to get to grips with the other. There is an element of deciding what sort of musician you want to be.
There are musicians who can look at a piece of sheet music and ‘hear’ it in their head. To those who are struggling to understand the very basics, this can sound like the stuff of fantasy, but it makes sense. Notation is just like a language. When you first look at a new language then it looks totally random. It is nonsense. Over time when learning a new language you get to the stage where you can decipher the words with a bit of effort and then eventually you reach a stage where you are fluent. You can read and talk at the same time. This works for guitar, too. Imagine being able to read a piece of music and play it instantly, even if you have never heard it before. This is not easy, and if you want to reach this level, be prepared to put in a lot of time, but it is possible.
Playing Other Instruments
We would always recommend learning one instrument at a time, unless you want to give yourself some serious headaches! However, if your plan is to eventually learn how to play another instrument alongside guitar, keep in mind the fact that you may need to learn to read music eventually anyway. It makes sense to learn while you are playing guitar so this skill can stay with you, rather than learn tabs and then have to start again if you want to learn to play piano or saxophone and decide that reading music is an essential skill for this. Many multi-instrumentalists can read music. It makes perfect sense to be able to if you plan to become a virtuoso!
Playing in a Traditional Setting (School Band or Big Band)
If you are going to play in a band setting where there are a lot of different types of instruments, then it is worth learning how to read music. The chances are that even the guitarists in these settings will be given the parts they need to learn in a traditional notation format. Not only is notation more accurate than tabs in this regard, if other instruments are involved then using sheet music means everyone can be reading their parts in the same ‘language’, so to speak.
School bands might be a little more forgiving in terms of the level of ability they expect you to have, and whether you should be able to read music or not. School band is about learning, so you will probably be given your parts well in advance and be able to go away and practice and learn them in private before coming back into a band setting. If you plan to play in a big band then it is very unlikely that you will be afforded this luxury. It could be expected that you are playing a new song in the same rehearsal session you are given it.
The Role of Genre (Music Styles You Should Learn to Read Music For)
Genre and style plays a surprisingly big part in whether or not you need to learn to read music to play guitar to an effective standard. If you turned up at your first band practice for a punk band or an indie band and let the others know you can’t read music, there’s not likely to be any kind of negativity around that. Some will think of it as a bit of a negative, but generally as long as you know your stuff when you pick up an instrument and start to play, nobody else will mind.
If you want to play with a jazz band or in a classical band or even an orchestra (yes, some of them play with guitarists) then you will need to be able to ‘sight read’ music.
The environment of classical or jazz music is somewhere that the ‘old school’ of notation is very much alive and well. The musicians involved are usually very skilled and you will be expected to learn and be able to play music alongside them extremely quickly. The best guitarists in these styles are able to play without memorizing music. They can play along just as easily as you or I can read out loud. Some musicians play hundreds or even thousands of songs each year, and this means that memorizing them all is simply not an option. Instead, with sheet music, they are able to recite it in real time.
How Long Does it Take to Learn to Read Music?
If it only took a few hours to learn how to read music then this debate would probably be more or less redundant. Everyone would learn this method if it were easy, but it really is not. The comparison we’ve already made in this article is learning a language. The two things are exceptionally similar, especially learning a language which has new characters or a different alphabet, as you need to learn symbols and what they mean, too.
How long it will take to get to where you need to be with your new musical language depends on the level you want to get to. The very basics can be described and learned in a few hours, but the chances are that you will be very sluggish when you are going through songs. Converting sheet music to actual sound will take a long time if you only have a very basic knowledge of how to read music.
If you want to reach the level where you can ‘sight read’ which means being able to replicate what is written without having time to practice or digest it, it can take you years to master the skill, just like it would take years to reach a level of fluency with a new language.
What Sort of Guitarist Doesn’t Need to Learn to Read Music?
You will have established by now that whether or not you need to learn to read music depends on the type of music you want to play and the ambitions you have musically. You can ask yourself a few simple questions to establish whether or not reading music is essential.
- Will you ever be expected to play more songs than you could possibly commit to memory?
- Will you ever be in a position where you need to learn how to play a song without having the ability to hear it first?
- Will you ever be playing in a more traditionally ‘classical’ setting, where you may be the only guitarist?
If the answer to all of these questions is ‘no’ then you probably don’t need to learn how to read music.
If you fit one or more of the descriptions below, stick to tablature and you can get to the skill level you desire in less time:
- You have no intention of learning any other instruments such as piano.
- You just plan to reach a level where you can play along to your favorite pop and rock songs.
- You want to write basic songs and be able to communicate them with people in person.
- You mainly want to be able to play a few chords around a campfire or as accompaniment.
- You want to join a band that is mainly based around guitar, bass and drums.
- Guitar will probably only ever be a hobby for you.
All of these suggest that tab will be enough for you. There is no harm in learning how to read music, but it is great to know you can get to a good level without having to go through the trials and tribulations of learning to read music.
If I learn guitar tab first, will it help me learn to read music in the future?
The short answer to this is ‘no’. However, if you become a better musician and develop some understanding of what is happening when you are playing guitar, time signatures, note lengths and other pieces of information, these may help should you wish to learn to read music one day.
Are there ways to learn to read music quickly?
The main thing to know is that there is a lot of hard work involved if you are going to learn how to read music. Spending a lot of time practicing, playing music in different styles and genres and also having a go at writing some sheet music can all help speed up the process. However, as with pretty much every aspect of music, there is no ‘magic wand’ technique which allows you to develop a skill overnight.
Can I still show people songs I’ve written if I can’t read (or write) music?
Yes. Being able to read music and to write notation is an efficient way to show people your ideas, and it means you can put your music down in front of a sight reader and they can be playing it in no time at all. If you can’t do this, you can still write down your ideas as tab and also record them, even if it is just on your phone. Teaching others to play your compositions may not be as straightforward, but where’s the fun in that!