Why should I bother learning to read music for Guitar? Jimi Hendrix couldn’t read music. I have heard that a lot over the years and on the face of it that logic seems to make sense. Here is another side to that same question. A number of years ago we produced a concert for Paul O’Dette, one of the world’s greatest lutenists. I asked him how he became interested in the lute and his answer was: Hendrix.
You see, you never know where music is going to take you and the more you learn about the language of music the more diverse and challenging and interesting your musical experiences can become. Learning to read music is no different than learning to read any language. We learn to read so we can learn and discover and introduce ourselves to new ideas and concepts that wouldn’t otherwise be available to us.
Information whether by spoken language or music can be passed on by ear or in written form. Folk music for the most part is passed on by ear without being written, in many cases from generation to generation. Throughout human history language has shared stories by either word of mouth or by being written down. Music is a language and shares the same history in that respect, music can be passed on by ear or it can be passed on in written form.
Folk traditions haved passed music on as shared songs and traditions within a host of different cultures all over the world, music is a part of cultural language just as much as stories are in spoken languages. For generations music and stories have been passed on in this way and form the basis of a shared identity and culture.
In the Western World we have developed a sophisticated written language of music and this language is shared in identical form within all Western cultures. This written language of music in its current form dates back to the Baroque Era and is used to transcribe music from earlier periods as well. This written language forms the basis of communicating everything from Mozart’s Concertos to Duke Ellington’s standards in the Real Book.
This same music reading method and language is shared between all instruments whether a saxophone or a harpsichord and so not only does it transcend cultures but it also transcends instruments and idioms.
So music is passed on in two ways, by ear and in written form. Now here is a question: Is pop music passed on as written music or is it passed on as a folk tradition? (meaning by ear) Answer: Both and probably with equal intensity. Let’s look at two examples of this.
Keith Richards – American blues is without a doubt a folk tradition and Keith picked up recordings of many of the blues masters and learned them by ear and then translated what he had learned to his own way of speaking. Keith Richards learned in a folk tradition, passed on to the ear by technology through a recording.
Steve Vai – A Berklee educated musician who actually began his career transcribing (writing in musical language) solos for Frank Zappa. He began his interest in music by listening to the great players of our age and went on to be formally educated.
So these are just two examples of thousands and this is not to say that reading is better than learning by ear or vice versa, rather taking time to learn to read will help you get the most out of your musical experience. Music now more than ever is a synthesis of the written and the aural no matter what the style.
So, when you are learning a new piece of music ask yourself this question. Was this music learned by the performer by reading or was it learned by ear. It is my strong opinion that if the music was learned by the player by ear then you should get to that point where you can learn that music by ear as well. If on the other hand the music was learned in combination with the written language then you best learn to read that written language.
Music reading is not a replacement for a well trained ear but it is a great way to continue to educate your ear and to learn music that is only available to you through that written language.