The following is a recap of my blog for Guitar Player magazine.
To Read or not to Read?!?!
There are millions of guitarists in the world and yet the majority of them don’t read notation. Why is that?
I myself am a self-taught guitar player who made a living playing by ear and lightly dabbling in “reading”. I went on to write movie scores (by hand, also self taught) and learned to conduct orchestras so I have some perspective on the subject of “reading” music.
First off, reading notation is only one of several ways to learn a piece of music. Notation in it’s current form has been around for about 400 years. If you consider the fact that music has been a significant part the human experience for tens of thousands of years you have to ask yourself - how did people learn music before there was notation? Music was handed down from generation to generation by listening and watching and mimicking what you saw and heard. Humans are genetically predisposed to remember melodies. In fact humans remember melody more readily than literal information. I bet you learned the alphabet with a song. There are anthropological reasons for this but that’s another story.
Secondly, there are 2 kinds of reading. Reading to memorize a piece of music and what’s called sight-reading. Sight-reading is a discipline all it’s own and it’s HARD. Sight- reading a single note line is one thing but reading chords on the fly is quite a different matter. The other kind of reading is what most of us do. We slowly analyze the dots and sound them out on our instruments and while it’s a pretty good way to learn a piece of music it has it’s draw backs as well. It’s important to note here that “reading” music is a “left brain” activity. It’s an analytical process, however music is an emotional experience and that leads us to the third aspect of “reading music”
Thirdly, reading notation distracts you from the emotional aspects of playing music.
In my years conducting orchestras I experienced this firsthand. When your brain is engaged in analyzing the music so that you play the right notes the emotion of the piece gets lost. It just does... I’ve seen it over and over. Music without the emotion is flat and lifeless (my opinion). I believe most all of us are drawn to music in the first place because of the way it touches us emotionally.