Are There Many Famous Musicians Who Can't Read Music?

I saw Sir Elton John in concert a few weeks ago and it got me wondering:

His band is so frikkin good, I’m thinking anyone who would play with such a big name must be trained, able to read music, and have a strong knowledge of theory etc.

This is my assumption.

Am I correct to assume the above or are there musician’s out there who are self-taught, can’t read a note, don’t understand theory, and yet they are hugely successful on their own, or they play in a band for someone really famous.

I’d be curious to know some examples of really famous (current and past) musician’s who made it big on natural talent alone, and yet couldn’t read music or have the most basic understanding of music theory.


I have heard (no cite) that many of the “girl groups” of the early-mid 60’s could not read music - someone would bang out ehr melody on the piano, and the "girls’ would learn it by repetition.

Any/all blind musicians, obviously.

The Beatles couldn’t read music.

Paul MCcartney

Jazz musicians who can’t read music

The BeeGees

I have always had the impression that most rock musicians can’t read music (from a stave), and don’t know dick about musical theory. I do not in any way intend that be read a criticism of their musical talents.

Actually, most musicians throughout history have probably not been able to read music.

I know Paul McCartney has said that he deliberately avoided learning, as he was afraid it might interfere with his melodic creativity. (I guess his thinking was: it has been working well for me so far; I don’t know why; so, better not mess with anything that might even possibly affect it.)

ETA: You don’t necessarily need musical training to be good; what you do need, trained or not, is lots and lots of practicing.


Going straight to the OP, I believe Elton John can’t read music.

I don’t think Pavarotti’s manager is the best source to say he couldn’t read music. He has high standards. It’s possible that the tenor simply couldn’t read music well.

And, yes, most pop musicians read chords, not music. This is especially apparent in most piano parts.

I heard that Metallica, aside from Cliff Burton, couldn’t read music. I don’t know if it’s true or not.
But I suppose it depends on what you mean by “reading music”: I’m a guitarist, I can fluently read tabulature, with rhythm markers above the tab. I struggle with the conventional musical notation. Most of the rock musicians I know have a very limited understanding of musical theory. They might know what a mixolydian mode sounds like, but not understand what makes it so.

IMHO, knowing what music should sound like, and understanding why it is that way, are two very different skills. One involves musical intuition, the other involves mental analysis.

I don’t really think having a skill at one versus the other has anything to do with musical talent.

In the classical music world, people are trained to read and write music using the traditional stave and dots. It’s a thoroughly illogical and nonsensical system (e.g. pitch is conveyed analogously but duration is not) which is only the way it is because of centuries of traditions piled on top of one another.

In most fields of popular music, there is little emphasis placed on reading and writing music because it’s simply an irrelevant skill. Nobody needs the stave and dots to create the music or to play it. Instead, everything is based on chords and standard chord progressions, plus an ability to play by ear and improvise within a given structure. For example, if you get a bunch of reasonably proficient rock musicians together, without any rehearsal or written music, and say ‘Okay, this is a mid-tempo blues in E’, they can happily play along for as long as they want, and it’s fun. Of course, for a series of concerts with big money at stake, they would spend a month or so rehearsing so that they can really learn the set list and get the tunes sounding as good as possible.

I don’t know anything about the people Elton John chooses to use, but it would be perfectly possible for him to work with a band not one of whom can read or write a note of music. He would be more likely to choose musicians who have the right technical ability and who seem to fit his style of music.

I’ve seen Elton interviewed and he mentioned his classical piano training. So, yes he can read music. Billy Joel is classically trained too.

I don’t know if they actually use sheet music for their pop songs.

There are a lot of Rock and Country singers that play by ear or they use tabs.

The blues musician who can read music is the exception in my experience.

Yanni can’t read it either.

The dance band leader, Billy Cotton, couldn’t read music; his son Billy Cotton jr. said that he “just used to stand in front of the band and wave his arms about”.

The one that blows my mind is Irving Berlin, obviously one of the greatest songwriters of the last century. Couldn’t read music, and could only really play the piano in one key. He had a special transposing piano for different keys.

Irving Berlin. Not only could he not read music, but he only used the black keys on the piano (this is very obvious in a lot of his music). When he got a song where he wanted it, he’d play it for his assistant, who tried out various chords for the notes. When she got the chord he wanted, she’d write it down and go to the next chord.

Moving from GQ to CS. Also fixed typo in thread title.

General Questions Moderator

Back in high school, our marching band got booked to do a stunt on a radio show with Slash from Guns’n’Roses. The joke was that we would play some marching band classics (i.e. “Louie, Louie”) and he would play along on his guitar. I was shocked, shocked, I tell you, to find out he could not read music and just played along by ear.

RE: Elton John, I recall hearing him comment in an interview on Letterman (about 4 or 5 years ago IIRC) that he used to be able to read music, but he’s mostly forgotten since he hasn’t actually used it in a long while. Now he uses chord charts but mostly plays by ear.

Does tablature count as reading music? There are plenty of guitarists that can read tab but not standard notation. A Lot of people dismiss tab as some modern invention of the internet, but it actually has a long tradition as well, dating back to the early Renaissance. Tab is more practical since the guitar fretboard isn’t laid out in a linear fashion. The same note can be played in several different locations on the neck (for example, the note on the 6th string 10th fret is the same as the 5th string 5th fret, and the 4th string open), and it takes some of the guesswork out of the process.

Anyway, if by “read music” you mean “read standard notation”, then it’s been my experience that most guitarists can’t read standard notation. The ones who can generally learned it on another instrument before they picked up guitar.