I am sometimes asked whether my students have to learn to read music. The answer is, YES, always. Here’s why: Learning to read music prepares students to learn on their own after lessons end, without help, and enables advancement to more complex music. We can learn to play music in several different ways: by ear, by rote, and by sight (reading). All three approaches have value in music lessons, especially in combination. Some people are naturally better at one than the others, and reading is enhanced by good listening skills. However, any serious musician must learn to read and write musical notation if they hope to progress to higher levels of performance.
Playing by ear involves listening to a tune and then figuring out the same combination of rhythm, pitches and intervals (melody and harmony) on a keyboard. This approach requires time, a good ear, trial and error, and a good sense of pitch and rhythm. Good aural skills are a critical part of musicianship but they are not the only skill involved.
Playing by rote means to watch and listen to another person playing the tune and copying them exactly. Learning by rote requires a lot of repetition and a good memory and is best for simpler tunes. It is a useful way for beginners to learn to play before they learn to read music. However, it is not the only or the best way, especially past the beginner stages.
The first two approaches are not suited to every situation, especially as a musician advances. Both require an external example of HOW to play, and both are better suited to simpler music. A very complex piece would not be a good choice for rote learning. The same goes for playing by ear – very complex pieces usually cannot be replicated by ear alone. Playing by ear requires a recording of the song to listen to. Playing by rote requires a teacher in the room with you. What if we don’t have a teacher or we can’t figure it out by ear on our own? What if we have to learn it on our own without hand-holding? What if we can’t remember the notes in that tricky section? The answer is: we can read it from the page. With written music, it’s all right there in front of you. You could make a cheat sheet or lead sheet of chords/rhythms to play from. That’s fine for a rhythm guitar part, but if you need more detail than what chord to play every bar (and pianists do, with the piano being a solo/feature instrument), only the proper written music will do. Also, many people learn best visually, and can more easily find the patterns in the music by looking at them on a page.
Just like written language, music notation is a method of communicating how to play a piece without listening to it or having someone show you. It is a system of symbols, patterns, and instructions to communicate exactly how the composer meant a composition to be performed. Written music serves the same purpose as written words: it conveys information in a convenient format instead of a verbal message. Some of our music was written centuries ago, and no recordings exist from the composer’s day. Written music is the connection, sometimes the ONLY connection, between the performer and the composer. Playing at sight can only be done if you know how to read music.
Learning to read music can help you sing along with Christmas carols or hymns and make arrangements from lead sheets. Reading music opens up a whole new world of material, including advanced-level pieces and techniques. A working musician or accompanist may be handed a piece of sheet music an hour before the show and told to play it on sight – talk about pressure! There’s no time for rote learning or guesswork in a situation like that.
Written music is portable and transmittable: the information can be read and re-read, and interpreted in the performer’s own way. Hundreds of musical scores and sheet music pieces can be kept on an iPad. People who can read music and who learn music theory can also write down their own compositions for others to enjoy. That opens up career opportunities and an outlet for creative expression.
Yes, you could choose to only receive information by ear or by rote from YouTube videos. How far could this take you? For someone of flashy performance skills or exceptional ability to replicate by ear, maybe far in a popular sense, but could they teach others effectively or prepare students to learn on their own? No: they lack the ability to communicate in written form or in the technical language of music. It’s not possible to have complete understanding of music without the ability to read, understand, and write notation. A complete musician needs to know how to read and write music notation, in the same way a complete citizen needs to be able to read, write, and do arithmetic. For once we possess the basic skills of reading and writing, our ability to communicate and learn increases exponentially.
Think of it this way: All our news and information could be delivered through audio and video format, but we still learn to read and write. We never ask people why they bothered learning to read books. In the same way, learning to read and write music should be an essential requirement for every musician. I certainly consider it essential, and all of my students learn to read music. It takes time to learn, but that is time well spent. It’s a skill they will have for life.