Guitarists nowadays are spoiled with an option of not having to know how to read music in order to to make music. There are plenty of instructional videos out there on how to play a certain song and how to play scales and improvise on the guitar in almost any style. No wonder that an incentive to learn how to read music is not big enough.
I have decided to write this article as I can see a lot of benefits in knowing how to read music that are worth your time. Music sight reading is a big pain in the neck of probably 80-90% of population of musicians, especially those self taught who rely on alternative music notation such as guitar tabulature and guitar chords diagrams. I used to rely on these for ages and then on guitar software that can playback the tabs. As you might know a lot of tabs out there are wrong in terms of suggested fingerings, neck position or actual notes to play.
By not knowing how to read music you are giving up your musical freedom as you will be dependent on interpretation of music by other people. You will also rely on the transcription of someone who might have made some errors therefore your music will include their flaws.
The biggest problem in sight reading is not knowing how to count note subdivisions! At least it was my biggest problem as a self taught musician and pretty bad matematician;-) I also didn’t know how to keep the track of note count in a ‘real time’ plying. By that I mean how to verbally pronounce each note I was playing.I had no idea that the easiest way to count is to a say each note out loud or in your head every single time you are playing something. I didn’t know it was that easy.
So for example when we play four quarter notes in common time we are counting 1, 2, 3, 4, then
if we subdivide these notes in half we get 1 &, 2 &, 3 &, 4 & that gives us eight different words to say while counting.To go further if we play sixteen notes we count 1 e & a, 2 e & a, 3 e & a, 4 e & a
Saying each note helps to keep the track of the main quarter note groove as well as notes in between.
The second big problem to overcome is the location of notes on the fretboard. As you know there are multiple locations of the same notes. It means spending a lot of time on memorizing which feels like going back to school. But its worth it!
Benefits of learning how to read music:
Better understanding of rhythm that is actually very very useful when it comes to song writing.
Ability to play music that hasn’t been transcribed for the guiar.
Ability to play music without knowing how the tune sounds like(this is great if there are no existing recordings of a musical piece)
Ability to get a recording session gig- this will increase your credentials as musician
Ability to compose more interesting music and come up with better strumming patterns
Better understanding of rhythm(You will be able to write more original riffs and solos)
Better understanding of guitar fretboard( you will have to learn alternative fingering positions)
Negative consequences of not knowing how to read music:
You will struggle to understand how to play music.
You will rely on someones interpretation of music. Here’s my tip listen to some pieces of Bach recorded in 1920’s 1960’s and then some modern recordings. You will notice that they way musicians interpret music has changed. I was shocked when I heard some old recordings from early XX century and how far they were from we hear these days. That is all despite the exact the same notes and performance marks on the score!
You will never get any last minute paid recording session gig!
You will most likely won’t get any teaching job.
Negative side of relying on written music too much:
The only negative side of sight reading is not knowing how to feel the music you are playing. You need to either come up with your own interpretation or rely on a recording to get an idea what it should feel like. I reckon that a lot of classically trained musicians are scared to take the risk of creating own interpretation so they play safe which doesn’t produce any exciting results. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth to learn how to read music!
How to get started?
I suggest learning to read music you like. So if your favorite music style is rock or metal don’t bother with classical or jazz that won’t be a fun thing to do. I suggest finding a great guitar teacher who plays music style you like. Ask him or her for help. A lot of instructional books have both traditional notation and tabs. Try to rely more on traditional notation above the tab and try to count each note and rests.