Myth 2: Knowing How to Read Music is Unnecessary for Guitarists

This is one of those statements which depends on the reasons why you are playing the guitar, and what you want to achieve from it.

For those guitarists who simply want to learn a few songs, either by ear or from TAB (or both) to play for their family, friends or in a covers band, learning how to read music is definitely not necessary. Even if your intention is to make albums and tour the world, as shown by many guitarists who do this, you don’t necessarily need to be able to read music.

All of these reasons are valid and if you are happy to play guitar for any, or all of the above reasons, that’s great, all the best to you. For those who want to teach, be a studio musician, a session musician for shows or new-music premieres, want to enrol in music courses, want work as a transcriber or music writer, or simply want to expand your knowledge in the field of music, knowing how to read, and for some careers, also write music, is very necessary.

  • For teachers the ability to read (and write) music enhances your skills; it will probably also give you a greater understanding of music theory. Besides, think of all the potential students who will go to other teachers to learn to read music because you can’t teach them.
  • A studio musician is generally required to be a very good sight-reader. Chances are you won’t even get a look in the door if you can’t read music.
  • Being a session musician comes in various guises. For some sessions you may get by using only your ears as a guide, for other sessions you will be expected to read. Consider this scenario: you are given a new score to premiere and all you have is the score, no recordings, no chance to improvise over a rhythm section, only the notes on the page. Either you’ll need a music-reading friend who is willing to teach you the notes, rhythms etc, or you’ll have to learn to read.
  • Most diploma or degree music courses require you to read and write music; not knowing how to may jeopardise your chances of being accepted.
  • If you want work as a transcriber or want to write a book or write articles for publication in magazines or journals, being able to read and write music is a necessity.

Knowing how to read and write music is like knowing how to read and write a language; it gives you a greater understanding of your subject because you can study and use more aspects of it. Don’t get me wrong, other skills, such as developing your ear, are also very necessary for musicians, however, on their own they may only get you so far – remember the new-work premiere example? Enhancing all aspects of your musicianship, including being able to read and write music, will give you more opportunities for work while also helping you become a well-rounded musician.

Myth 1: Knowing Too Much Music Theory Stifles Creativity

I want to begin to dispel a myth which still exists in the guitar community, that is: If you know too much music theory it stifles your creativity when composing or improvising.

Firstly, I think this myth may exist because people don’t fully understand the process which the majority of composers, and improvisors (improvisation is a form of composition) use. Many people seem to think that composers compose with a book of musical rules open in front of them, and are guided by these rules. It’s important to remember that throughout the history of music it was practice which generally preceded theory. In other words, composers composed what they heard in their head and were guided by their inspiration and the theory which they knew. This theory didn’t restrict their compositions; many innovations in music theory came as a result of composers following their inner ears (the development of the Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales for example). Learning theory means internalising theory so that it can be applied to actual music. For example, if a Jazz musician is improvising over a fast tempo tune where there is a change of chord every few beats do you think they are running all of the theoretical possibilities through their head as they play? They don’t have time for this. It is their inner ear which, through the internalisation of music theory, is guiding their inspiration and improvisation.

Even when a composer chooses to base a particular tune on a specific musical device, this device is internalised and it is the ear which guides the composition. For his tune, The Enigmatic, Joe Satriani chose to use the Enigmatic scale as a compositional beginning. I would suggest that Satriani would have catalogued all of the harmonic and melodic possibilities which this scale contains and internalised these sounds, it would have then been his ear which guided the tune’s creation; based on the sounds and theory of the Enigmatic scale.

Music theory can open your mind and ears to different possibilities, but remember, it must be connected to practise for it to have the most benefit.