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Is it bad that I can't read sheet music?

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Postby FishyBoy » November 20th, 2011, 4:38 pm

Hi, I've been playing for about 7 years now and basically I can't read sheet notation. I've never had a single lesson, which is why I've never "needed" to. I'd consider myself to be quite good on guitar, I know about scales/modes and such and can quite happily improvise to the majority of music genres. I started reading tabs, which in a way looking back feels slightly limited to that of sheet music, because obviously it doesn't teach you about timing. But lately I tend not to use tabs, instead playing by ear. I'd much rather create my own rendition of a particular song where I want to on the neck. The only question is, is it bad that I can't read sheet music? I guess I could learn, but do I really need to? At some stage I would like to learn other instruments, the only other instrument I can play is the harmonica and I can sing, but I'd like to learn the sax and piano. Any advice?
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Postby ballybiker » November 20th, 2011, 5:54 pm

your in great company...Paul Mcartney can't read sheet music...never stopped him :D
what did the drummer get on his I.Q. test?....

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Postby Alan Green » November 20th, 2011, 11:12 pm

Nothing wrong with Tab - it allows you to build a repertoire quite quickly without having to read the dots. People ask if they need to learn to read music to play guitar, and if you look back 500 years there was a system of Tab for the lute; so it's a question that's been around for ages and there's always been an alternative to standard notation.

There is a downside with Tab, as you'd expect.

First off, even though some huge efforts have been made to get duration info into Tab you're still a bit "stuffed" for exactly how to play something if you don't know the song already. If you're writing the song yourself it's not such a problem for you, but then you've got to find away to get the info into someone else when you want them to play it.

Second, if you turn up for a band or orchestra audition, you'll be handed sheet music to play from. Even my Big Band lead sheets are written on standard manuscript with bits of standard notation mixed in with instructions like "Unison with piano." Do bear in mind that situations like that will pitch you in with people whose sightreading is highly developed, and if you can't read music you'll be laughed out without having played a note.

If you seriously want to learn sax or piano, you have no choice; you will be expected to play from standard notation. My students learn to read music from their very first lesson - I teach students as young as six.

And there's nothing so damning as the comment I heard from a local secondary school (ages 11 and up) music coordinator who happens to run a local guitar orchestra when he said of other teachers' students he was taking on in his school one time - "Eleven years old, they've been playing guitar for three years and not one of them can read a ####### note"

My vote goes for learning standard notation. Get yourself a basic "How to read music" type of book from your local guitar shop and you'll learn a lot.
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Postby Rocket Dog » November 21st, 2011, 1:48 am

No, it's not bad, you can be a great guitar player without reading music (I've checked your youtube channel, and your playing proves that). But, by the same token, reading music will not hinder you as a guitar player either, in fact you will be able to expand and explore different styles of music with greater ease. I have seen a lot of tabs of classical guitar music and they do not even come close to being able to put across the the thought and feeling of the piece. This is where reading music will help you.

If you are going to learn the piano I would definitely recommend that you start reading standard notation. So in conclusion, no it's not bad but why not give it a go, there are NO downsides to it.
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Postby Liontable » November 21st, 2011, 3:15 am

I can't read standard notation either, but I find it helpful nonetheless. I read tabs to know the notes, and I use sheet music to get an idea of the timing.
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Postby rparker » November 21st, 2011, 6:13 am

I cannot read it fluently. If I know the time sig, bpm and key, I can look at a measure and figure it out. It takes a while. It's probably take me 20 minutes to read something like a simple verse of "Happy Birthday".

It does help, which is something I could not say years ago. I can look in a song book and see the TAB and be OK, but get into trouble if I'm not sure how a particular passage goes. I then look at the standard notation. If I still can't transfer what I read to what it should sound like, I look at one of those Power Tab (free) or Guitar Pro (not free) applications and watch/listen. Then I've got it for sure.

On an side note, I had to go through an excercise a couple years ago with a bit of Guitar Pro that helped me to figure a lot of it out. Someone had made a GP file for the song Midnight Rambler. The guitar part I was playing was all botched up. I had to fix a great deal of it. It took better part of a day, but I learned a ton.
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Postby notes_norton » November 21st, 2011, 7:30 am

[quote="FishyBoy"<...> The only question is, is it bad that I can't read sheet music? I guess I could learn, but do I really need to? <...>[/quote]

  1. Is it bad? No but it would be better if you did
  2. Could you learn? Yes. It seems difficult at first but once you get over the initial hurdles it's quite easy
  3. Do you really need to? No but again, it would be better if you did. The advantages of reading music are (a) it increases your understanding of the way music works aka music theory (b) you can play any piece of music you want, even if you don't know how it goes, as long as you have the music in front of you (c) you can play with any other reading musician at any time.
You don't know how to read English to know how to speak English (or any other spoken language), but it's better if you do know how to read and write. Like someone who cannot read English, if you are in a group of musicians who can read music, many of them will always feel that the non-reader is self-handicapped. I try not to be judgmental when dealing with non-readers, but when something comes up that would be easier communicated with standard notation, I wish the other party had taken the time and effort to learn to read music.

If I was hiring a musician, and two candidates that were fairy equal applied, and one could read and the other could not, I'd pick the one who can read.

There will always be examples of excellent musicians who cannot read music, but they are rare 'exceptions to the rule'.

A piece of music is like a recipe. If you can read English, you can buy a cake mix (or anything else) at the grocery store, read the instructions, and make a nice dinner. If you can't read it's hopeless. Same for a new piece of music.

I encourage all musicians (including singers) to be literate musicians and learn to read music. You don't need to know how to sight-read (although that will come with time), but at least be able to read.

Of course, it's up to you. You can get along without it, it just limits you. How much? That depends.

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Postby NoteBoat » November 21st, 2011, 9:11 am

I'm with the others. It's not a disaster if you can't read, but it's better if you can.

There are several good arguments for learning to read: first, it gives you a common language with musicians who play other instruments - tab is guitar specific, so if all you can read/write is tab, it's difficult to tell the sax player what you want.

Second, it gives you a foundation for building other music skills, like theory, harmony, and arranging. You might be able to learn some practical music theory without reading, but you won't be able to dig into it very deeply. And that means that your skills in areas which require an understanding of theory, like arranging, is going to be pretty limited.

Third, learning to read standard notation actually speeds up your learning process. We can only learn from what we've been exposed to musically... so if you learn by ear, it'll take you at least one listen before you can play it (if you're REALLY good at learning by ear); learning from tab also requires at least one listen (since most tab has no rhythm information). But if you can read standard notation fluently, you can play a new piece right away. You'll at least double the amount of music you can be exposed to in the same amount of time.

Fourth, learning to read standard notation helps understand the fretboard. Tab is laid out in one fingering. Standard notation is laid out as a representation of SOUND, and has nothing to do with fingering. For most melodies, there are several ways to play it on the guitar - for many melodies there are LOTS of ways. Tab gives you just one option. Reading well gives you all the possibilities to choose from.

The main advantage of tab is that you can learn to read it in about five minutes. Standard notation takes a couple of years of daily work to read well (that is, in more than one position, and in the most common key signatures). If you want to read chords in standard notation, add at least a couple more years.

I know plenty of musicians who can't read. And I know some who can, but rarely do. Not one who can read has ever told me that learning turned out to be a waste of their time.

One more thing - "reading" (understanding what the little dots mean) is a pretty basic skill, and not that hard to do. It only takes time. "Sight reading" (being able to pick up a piece of unknown music and play it right away) is an advanced skill that takes a lot of time and effort. Unless you're doing fairly narrow musical work - symphonic stuff, musical theatre, radio jingles, etc., most guitarists won't ever need to sight read.

On the other hand, those narrow niches pay really well compared to the gigs you can get without sight reading :)
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Postby TRGuitar » November 21st, 2011, 9:55 am

I'm self taught, like TAB. Can I read music? yes and no. I know what the notes are. I know what notes make a chord. I understand sharpes and flats. I could look at a piece and work out how to play it. (The old fake books that showed the chords were not much help for riffs. I would transcribe the notation to figure them out) Can I sight read? Heck no! :lol: For what I'm doing I don't need to but I definitely see the advantage of being able to read. This is why I prefer the tab that has the standard notation as well. Kind of introduces you and brings you along.
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Postby FishyBoy » November 21st, 2011, 5:42 pm

Wow thanks for your responses!

What I can obviously gather is that there are no disadvantages to actually learning it, apart from it being time consuming. My knowledge at the moment is VERY basic, stuff that I can remember doing back from my school days. I suppose it will be an exciting challenge to revisit it. Plus if I want to learn a new instrument at all in the future, I'm doing myself no favours not learning to read sheet music. I guess it would be like learning from scratch, in a way. If only all other instruments had a similar easier notation!

Presumably there are free ways of learning how to read music? I'll be searching the web, google is a wonderful place for things like this. I don't fancy taking lessons because personally I think that music teachers charge way too much. That's a whole new topic in itself though!

Thanks people :)
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Postby rparker » November 21st, 2011, 6:35 pm

Sounds like the right frame of mind.

free sources abundant. A couple folks here have written books that touch on sheet music somewhere in them. I read Tom's book once a year, constantly go to one of David's books and will probably be reading the Bass book I got for my son that he wrote. Someone posted that there's some good music theory in there..My son's bass is about 5 feet away from me right now, so it's not a lost cause by any stretch.

Oh yeah. No coordination. :roll: :roll:

That brings me to a point that is hard to understand and argued against by some: You gotta get a feel for what's going on. Even on programming or absolute rules. Things behave or otherwise sound proper. I didn't get lead playing until I felt it. I didn't get Barre chrods until I felt them It can't be forced, though, so buckle yup and enjoy the ride.

I didn't do a search, but I bet there's primer or two on the GN site. heck, i've probably read them and promptly forgot.

The thing about learning something complicated is learning one item at a time. Unless you've got a deadline, you're golden. I didn't learn software and database programming in one action. The hardest part is finding out what it is that you need to learn next.
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Postby NoteBoat » November 21st, 2011, 8:52 pm

FishyBoy wrote:I think that music teachers charge way too much.


Seriously?

Now maybe I'm biased, since I've been teaching music for over 33 years. But in my market, you'll pay about 2-1/2 times as much (per hour) to get your car fixed.

What else might be comparable? Karate lessons? Karate schools near me charge about the same amount per month as we do for music lessons. But with them you'll be in a class with a dozen other people. It's true that the classes last about twice as long... but on an income basis, the karate instructor is bringing in about six times as much per hour compared to the music teacher.

What other services do you pay for? Music lessons cost about as much as a month of cell phone service. A bit more than basic cable, but less than a full movie & sports package. A music lesson costs less than dinner at a decent restaurant, and you get something to show for it afterwards (provided you put in the work).

When I started teaching, a music lesson was a bit over three hour's wages at a minimum wage job. Today it's a bit less by the same comparison.

Private tutors for other subjects charge $50-100 per hour. Why should music be less expensive than French, algebra, or any other subject where you get an expert's undivided attention?

For the price of lessons at our school, you get expert instruction - most of our teachers have master's degrees and many years of teaching experience. The price of a lesson also pays for our rent, insurance, telephone and utilities, taxes, and equipment upkeep. We're not exactly getting rich doing it - because compared to comparable services, music lessons are actually pretty cheap.
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Postby Rocket Dog » November 22nd, 2011, 1:22 am

FishyBoy wrote:I don't fancy taking lessons because personally I think that music teachers charge way too much. That's a whole new topic in itself though!


I think that's a really interesting comment. I'm taking French lessons at the moment and my private tutor charges about the same as I do for guitar lessons. I feel that the fee is worth it. It cuts out years of bad habits, mistakes etc. Also....I have never met a music teacher (of any instrument) that has been able to retire early due to having a considerable amount of money in his bank account. :lol:
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Postby s1120 » November 22nd, 2011, 3:22 am

Rocket Dog wrote:
FishyBoy wrote:I don't fancy taking lessons because personally I think that music teachers charge way too much. That's a whole new topic in itself though!


I think that's a really interesting comment. I'm taking French lessons at the moment and my private tutor charges about the same as I do for guitar lessons. I feel that the fee is worth it. It cuts out years of bad habits, mistakes etc. Also....I have never met a music teacher (of any instrument) that has been able to retire early due to having a considerable amount of money in his bank account. :lol:


Im with you.. I started late..in my 40's, and muddled around for 4-5 years trying to learn on my own.. Well after a few months of lessons I feel I have advanced more then I did in years of trying. At my age, I wish I had those 4-5 years back!! I can only imange where I would be now with my playing if I started earler.

As for reading... Im like a lot of others... I remember some from school, and a little bit from those begener guitar books... but thats it. I realy enjoy learning, so one day I will work on it. With a full time job, and two young kids, all that little scrap of free time I have goes to just learning to play the thing!!
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Postby TRGuitar » November 22nd, 2011, 6:25 am

I think the guitar teachers that are teaching and giving advice on this site for free are charging a very reasonable price. :?

Seriously though, for actual lessons, people doing this for a living have to do just that. Make a living. Hard to afford? Maybe, depending on your income. Charging too much? ..... I don't think so. I taught myself because at the time I couldn't afford even the cheapest lessons, but not because I didn't think it was a good thing. I wish I could have afforded them.
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