Many guitar players learn by watching how others play a song, chord, lick, or riff, and imitate what they see and hear. Others rely on tabs. These are both great ways of learning how to play the instrument, and with so many learning options available is the ability to read music really that important for guitar players to learn? Be sure to check out this video or read on to hear my take on the topic before you make up your mind.
Why Guitar Players Should Learn to Read Music:
1. It completes your overall musicianship, or essentially, your music literacy.
Traditional literacy is defined as being able to read, write, speak, and listen. Musical literacy could be defined in similar terms: being able to listen and understand what you hear, being able to write down what you hear, being able to clearly communicate with other musicians, and of course, being able to read music, whether it be a chart, a lead sheet, a TAB, a fake book, or a traditional score.
It is possible to play the guitar by simply learning the physical skills needed, but without a deeper understanding, it just becomes a kind of sport rather than art form. By cultivating your musical literacy, you move from a craftsman to an artist. Part of that musical literacy is being able to look at sheet music, understand it, interpret it and make it your own. It gives you more material from which to draw from in the act of creation. It opens your mind and your ear to new and exciting musical possibilities.
Learning songs on guitar by rote or by reading TAB is fun, and there is nothing wrong with that, but it’s like learning to recite a speech in a foreign language. You may learn every nuance and detail of what the language should sound like, but you won’t have any idea of what you are saying.
Therefore, the more musically literate you are the more freedom you have to create. Literacy isn’t just producing effective communication; it’s about creating a stronger depth of understanding by having a larger base of information from which to draw from.
2. As a result of this improved literacy, you will gain confidence as a musician.
For many, the first time you play a chord or song on the guitar is a jovial moment. Smiles are involved along with a sense of pride. You’ve done it. But quickly that satisfaction isn’t good enough and you need a new chord, song or scale to conquer. And yet, for many of us who play guitar, no matter how accomplished we become we always feel like an imposter, as if everyone else has some secret knowledge that we are missing out on. Popular psychology has a name for that: imposter syndrome. And this common problem has prevented many fine musicians from achieving their musical goals. However, one way to overcome this issue is to learn to read music. There are other factors involved of course, but once you can read music you start to feel more like an expert, helping you overcome imposter syndrome.
3. It gives you a reference point from which to better conceptualize what you are hearing.
The only skill more vital than reading music is ear training, but often times you can’t have one without the other. Sure, there are plenty of musicians who have made a career out of playing strictly by ear. Wes Montgomery comes to mind. But this is rare. It is much more common to be able to hear and read what you are doing. For example, if you are learning what the interval of a perfect fourth sounds like, it’s much easier to learn that sound if you can also see what it looks like on paper.
If fact, after a while, you should be able to look at a musical score and hear what it sounds like in your head without having to try it out on your instrument. (Do keep in mind that this is a skill that does take time to develop.)
4. It helps you to understand advanced music theory concepts.
I have to confess: I love music theory. I find it fascinating and have no problems trying to work out why something sounds the way it does. However, I know that this is not a common opinion. Many guitarists shy away from musical concepts that are tough to wrap your head around, which makes sense. Why bother working out something out in your head that is easier to work out on your fretboard? The answer: there are multiple reasons, but the most obvious is that the better you understand what you are playing, the more you can manipulate it, transform it, and make it your own. And there is no better way of of doing this than taking the time to understand as much theory as you can. And among the first steps to understanding theory: reading music.
5. It allows you to learn any song or piece of music.
Even if you don’t yet possess the physical skills to play some musical passages, by reading music you’ll understand them and figure out how to break them down into something you can play. Also, if you enjoy a song that wasn’t written for guitar, and the TAB for it doesn’t exist, reading the notation can sometimes be the best way to learn it. Additionally, learning to read music helps you figure out how to transpose more quickly so you can change the song to a more guitar friendly key. (Or at least be able to figure out where the capo should go).
6. It cements your rhythmic skills.
If you know how a song “goes” then you don’t need to worry too much about your timing, right? And if you don’t know the song that well, you can get pretty close most of the time. Then you try to play with someone else. . . It just doesn’t work out too well for many of us. However, when you learn to read rhythms you gain a stronger understanding of how the beat can be divided up, and how to solidify your timing so that it matches what’s on paper (and what everyone else is playing). And when coupled with a metronome, you can’t go wrong. . . most of the time.
7. It gives you the skills you need to learn other instruments.
Once you learn to read music for the guitar, you can easily transfer that information to other treble clef instruments. Picking up a ukulele, a mandolin, a banjo, or even learning the piano is much, much easier. They still take practice, and every instrument has plenty of technical obstacles to overcome, but one thing that won’t get in your way is the sheet music. And once you learn enough music theory, it becomes easy to apply the same ideas on any instrument. Want to know what “Purple Haze” sounds like on a mandolin? Now you can.
I hope you found this useful. To get started mastering note reading, be sure to check out The Missing Method for Guitar Note Reading Series, which starts at the open position and progresses all the way up the fretboard. It includes ample instruction and practice for you to use on your own or with an instructor.
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