Posted on December 17, 2011 by Andy John

Earl Scruggs couldn’t read, Jimi Hendrix couldn’t read, even Larry Adler (classical harmonica player extraordinaire) reportedly couldn’t read. 

Is reading music a waste of time?

maybe.  It depends what you do with it.  If I were a griot (storyteller) in West Africa and I was teaching my children how to play the ngoni, maybe reading is not important.  But in America, and increasingly throughout the world, children are taught to read music.  This skill does not make them better musicians, or even musicians at all.  It is the same as a poet learning how to read.  Poets have existed for thousands of years and only in the last hundred have they been able to read, but I think any poet alive today would say there is value to being able to read and write.

Reading is not a skill that everyone sees the value in and it is not the same thing as being a musician but it is the agreed-upon way of most musicians throughout the world to communicate.  I have all my students learn how to read some, even if they never make it past book one or if they only want to play in their bedroom by themselves.

This question seems to be most common among guitar students.  Reading music on guitar is much harder than any other instrument I know of.  Piano, piece of cake.  Saxophone?  simple.  “Why should guitar be different?” asked one of my piano-playing friends.

Guitar is different because it is not linear like a piano or saxophone.  On those instruments the low notes are all at the bottom and the high notes are all at the top.  Guitar is different.  Low is left and top, high is right and bottom.  There is an extra dimension to deal with which makes it much harder.  This also means there are as many as fifteen different ways of playing some notes.  I have discovered useful ways to visualize this and have had students go to music school who are surprised to discover they are alone among guitarists who can read in their program.  I struggled for years to read and don’t intend for my students to have the same difficulties as I did.  I can teach anyone to read on their instrument and with guitar I feel I have a real advantage.

Reading music isn’t a musical skill. Why should I bother learning to read?