Question for Serious/Professional Musicians

This is something I’ve wondered about for a long time, and having recently discovered the SDMB I think it’s the best place to ask. It’s really more of an IMHO question, but since it’s about music I put it here. Before I ask I’ll stress that I’m not trying to flame or insult anybody, it really is an honest question, and something I just can’t figure out.

I’ve heard (no cite, sorry) about several professional, famous, and successful musicians who never learned how to read music. I don’t want to name any because I may have heard wrong, but we know that musicians like that exist. And I’ve known several musicians in smaller local bands, some quite good, who can’t read. I really just wonder, why did they never learn? I can understand if you’re just a guy who likes to play your guitar w/ some friends after work or bang some drums when you’re stressed and aren’t really serious about music. But some of the peple I’ve heard about have been very successful professionals for decades.

An obvious answer for some would be, “Well, they’re already talented, famous, and successful, why bother?” I completely accept the validity of that argument. But the benefits would be that it makes it much easier to communicate w/ other musicians, you wouldn’t have to memorize every note of every song you’ve ever played, and it makes it much easier to learn new music. And though it will take some effort it isn’t that hard.

Again, I’m in no way trying to flame anyone, and I fully realize that you don’t have to learn to read to be a great musician, and that there are and have been several great musicians who never learned. I’m not saying that musicians who can read are inherently better. I really just wonder why someone who is serious about music or a preofessional doesn’t learn to read music, and I respectfully ask any doper-musicians what they think.

The talent to read notes and the talent to create music are completely separate things. Billy Joel and Paul McCartney are two self-taught musicians who fall into your category — neither can read a note. Well, that’s an exaggeration. They can tiptoe up the staff with their fingers, thinking “Every good boy does fine” and figure out a note, but they cannot open a sheet of even fairly simple music and play from it extemporaneously.

However, they have a profound grasp of musical theory, much more so than many note-readers. They understand fluently all the nuances of the chromatic scale, the major and minor scales, and so on. They know the effect of introducing a sudden D-major (secondary dominant) in the key of C, and then falling to an F. They understand that harmonic minors are for dirges and melodic minors are for ballads. They hear music in terms of relations among melody, harmony, and rhythm.

There are people, like Elton John, who are both classically trained note-readers and have a keen grasp of musical theory, but quite often the note readers cannot create. They can’t improvise or play along with others or play “by ear”. Note reading is a fine thing, and I don’t mean to disparage it. But musical savvy is not based on that.

Everything liberal said. And…

They don’t need to read music. They have memorized every note of every song. They have a feeling for where chord changes can/should occur. They can pick up many things by ear, and so can the musicians they typically play with.

In music, people learn different things, which are applicable in different situations. For example, classical music is heavily based on written music and the ability to read it. In contrast, bluegrass is largely dependent upon hearing the song and the ability to learn it by ear, including improvising lead breaks. Put a bluegrasser in with some symphony musicians playing from a score, and he’ll be essentially lost. Put a classicist in with a bluegrass jam where there is no score, and he’ll be lost. Each has a different set of skills which works well for what each does. Sure, it would be theoretically wonderful to have both sets of skills, but classical music doesn’t demand improvisation, and bluegrass music doesn’t demand music-reading.

So it really does come down to “why bother?” Unless said bluegrasser has some specific reason to play with classical musicians, what actual benefit will the ability to read music bring to him?

I had two piano teachers basically admit defeat and tell my mother that their services were no longer required, because I could play anything by ear, but had massive difficulty reading even the most rudimentary sheet music. If the teacher played the piece for me, I would play back what they played. But to figure it out for myself - forget it! It might as well be hieroglyphics. Once they showed me the mechanics, I figured out the rest by, I dunno, instinct.

Then I taught myself to play drums, then bass, then guitar, then to compose. I remember every note of every song I’ve ever written that was worth remembering, plus those of other composers on whose songs I learned to play.

I’ve been playing for 41 years, in groups, solo and as a session musician. I’m not famous, and I’ll never be famous, but I can play just about anything you want to throw at me as long as you show me how it goes first.

Learning to read music would come in extremely handy for you. If you’re going to play in a rock group, it may never come up, and you might never meet another person who knows how to read.

My wife has two degrees in music and is a piano teacher. We cannot jam together. As Liberal and Gary T said about trained musicians, their training enables them to play music that’d scare you to death. But eight-bar, I-IV-V pop or blues progressions? My wife is at a complete loss to improvise. She’s developing her ear-training, but when she plays songs, she sounds like a piano teacher. When I play songs, I sound like the guy on the record. Vive la difference!

I’m far from a successful musician :p, but I’ll chime in with a “what the other posters have said”. My mother is a classic pianist, and can sight read (play something on the fly from reading the music) like a mofo, she blows my mind. I on the other hand, know little about reading music (she tried to teach me, I prefered learning by ear), yet have no problems. When I’m working aon a song these days, I’ll record a quick version of it, and either make a tape, or email an mp3 over to the other guys to listen to. Before this was available, I would have written down the music and send it by pony express or something. :smiley:

So like everyone else said, we don’t read or write, because we don’t have to.

Thanks for the discussion, guys. It’s all very interesting. If you don’t mind me keeping it going for a bit, and asking about some of the things that have been said…

I get your point but I’d disagree w/ “quite often the note readers can’t create.” I’d say that they aren’t mutually exclusive. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Branford Marsalis, et al.

But wouldn’t you say that you are very much the exception? I don’t doubt your skill. And I’d bet there’s a musical form of dyslexia that makes it harder for some to learn to read (not necessarily saying you or anyone else has it). But for those who could learn but never realy tried:

I guess my question is really one of communication. I’d suspect that even talented musicians who can’t read will acknowledge that they are cutting themselves off from a major way in which music is communicated. Sure, I could play you a piece of music until you memorize it, or send you a tape of it, but we don’t always have that luxury. And you could never play for a band who’s leader says “Here’s the book. Learn it by next week.” Of course you could just choose to avoid playing with those people, but aren’t you cutting yorself off from a lot of music that way? Of course, the obvious response is “so what?” And again, I’ll accept that it’s valid. I’m just curious.

I would like to mention though, now that the point has been made — and I wonder whether others agree with me — a discerning ear can tell the difference between the play itself of music by a classically trained player and a self-taught player. Especially on piano, but on guitar as well. There is a certain richness of creativity and scope of expression in Elton John’s playing that just isn’t there in Billy Joel’s. I do not believe that Billy Joel could ever have conceived Funeral for a Friend, with its key change from C-minor harmonic to A-major. But Elton had benefit of studying and playing the music of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Therefore, you find a richness of chords with alternate basses, subtle suspended notes, and interesting inversions with Elton that Billy just doesn’t deliver. Billy Joel is a great piano player, don’t misunderstand me. But a well trained note-reader, given the right arrangement of his music, would play it better than he does.

Okay, but you’re not disagreeing with me. I never said that they are mutually exclusive. In fact I gave an example of one who could do both.

I personally will have to disagree a bit here. I do agree that there are certain chord structures and scales that classically trained people will stick to, but I don’t think that makes their music any better or worse. (I don’t think that’s what you meant though)

I was in a band with a classically trained guy, and this was a frequent exchange…

Him: you can’t do that
Us: why not?
Him: because, you just don’t do it that way.

I’ve found that the classical dudes need to lighten up, and the non ones need to stiffen up. :smiley:

I’ll drink to that! […tink…] :smiley:

I guess my point is that the very best ones are those who are great at both. Your exchange with your friend would have gone something like this.

Him: Hey, wow! That’s an inversion of an A-minor-nine that Pachelbel used in a similar way. It just might work!

Y’all: Should we try it?

Him: Hell yeah, why not!

Sorry for misunderstanding you.

I’m really enjoying reading what other people think. It’s leading me to a new question, if you will permit me:

My original thought was of written music as a form of communication. I’ll use my previous example of a band leader saying “Here’s our book. Learn it by next week.” But in the discussion I’ve noticed that people are taking the ability to read music to mean that person is classically trained. So the new question is: Do the two necessarily go hand in hand? Must one be classically trained to learn to read sheet music? Here’s where I show my stripes a bit. I was a drummer for several years. Percussion sheet music basically comes in two forms, a chart that just shows where kicks and fills go which is mainly used in jazz and rock/pop settings, and sheet music for a marching band or symphony which has every note and rest written out in its place. I don’t really know if you would call a drummer “classically trained” the way you would a pianist or trumpeter or guitarist, so I’m a little lost. One can read rock or jazz or pop music without the need to be classically trained, right? And perhaps learning to read percussion music is easier than other instruments (there’s only one line!). Perhaps I think it would be a bit easier than it is to read music for another instrument (though that doesn’t excuse the drummers :wink: ).

My original thaought was it’s not that hard to read music, and that the benefits outweigh the effort in terms of improving one’s musicianship. Am I underestimating how hard it is to learn to read music for guitar, trumpet, bass, etc.? I really don’t know.

I really appreciate everyone’s thoughts.

That may be the case. I don’t know where it comes from, I only hope it never stops. The reading music block may be a direct result of my inability to do math. Or maybe my developing brain as a child realized that it didn’t have to learn to read music to play it, so it turned its attention to execution. Who knows? I only know that it works. I don’t go around saying words like “gifted.” Playing music is just something I have always known how to do.

If I were in a room with Robert Fripp, I wouldn’t even mention that I could play an instrument. If I were in a room with Paul McCartney, a bunch of music would be happenin’! I couldn’t hold a candle to anyone of the calibre of the musicians in King Crimson, or who have played with Frank Zappa. But I don’t aspire to play that kind of music. I understand the kind of music I grew up with, and I could play it with the best of them. Too bad it’ll never happen, but to play with any of the guys on the '60s and '70s pop records I own is something I could definitely do - because I learned how to do it from playing along with their records. But I couldn’t play “Lark’s Tongues In Aspic” to save my life. No matter, I can still get down with my bad self, and I often do!

I realize that in the end that’s all that matters. I hope no one thinks I’m trying to be a heavy. I know that playing music is and should be fun. We should jam sometime :slight_smile:

It is. But it can only communicate so much, similar to this post you’re reading now. You have no idea what tone of voice I’m using, for example. Now, music notation attempts to compensate for some of this by telling you to play softly or slowly or whatever, but even then, much subjective interpretation is required. Slow? How slow? Is this soft enough? Did the composer play it slightly softer? Accomplished musicians who are trained in sight-reading and who perform professionally are very cognizant of their interpretation and expression of the pieces they play.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I say “classically trained”, I mean trained the classical way, with lessons leading up to classical music. It generally takes many years just to gain proficiency, and many people give up on it because it wasn’t what they were expecting. That is, after four or five years of lessons, they still can’t just sit down at a keyboard and express themselves. What happens with people like Elton John is that the classical training merely augments a natural accumen that they already have. After all those years, they not only can play something by Brahms, they can feel it. They know exactly how they want to express while they’re playing. They can alter what they’re playing on the fly, and still come back to the sheet music basically as just a hint for what they should do. Elton would recognize on sight a very complex measure of music and almost instantly decide whether he wants to play it that way or embellish it with his own touch. So, in the end, it’s the talent. Billy Joel has the talent just like Elton does, but Elton’s experience is richer, and it comes out in his compositions. His music is more sophisticated than Joel’s. Again, no diss on Joel, but that’s just the way it is.

…in the discussion I’ve noticed that people are taking the ability to read music to mean that person is classically trained. So the new question is: Do the two necessarily go hand in hand? Must one be classically trained to learn to read sheet music?

No. I used a classically trained musician as one example of someone who can read sheet music, but probably can’t jam. Classical music isn’t the only kind that is, or can be, played by reading music. Plenty of folks read and play written music without going anywhere near the classical stuff.

However, if someone wants to play classical music, it’s pretty much a necessity to be able to read music. You don’t have to be classically trained to read sheet music, but you’ve got to read sheet music to get classically trained. There may be a few rare exceptions, but reading music is essentially a sine qua non for classical music.

Missed this question, sorry.

It depends a lot on the instrument. As you say, drums are usually relatively easier because the only component involved is rhythm (except for tympanies, etc.). But consider a piano, where each mark on your drum music might have (theoretically) as many as ten notes, one for each finger. Plus you have to keep up with the key signature and accidentals (sharps or flat thrown in from outside the key). In very complicated music, both hands might have to maintain separate rhythms as well. It can be extremely difficult.

But if you’re in a garage band, I don’t think that’s how they communicate. They don’t write out the music, they just play it and memorize it. What would you need to read music for? There wouldn’t be any music to read.

If you ever want to play in an orchestra or a big band or a show or film & television work, then yeah, you have to read music. If you just want to be in a 4-piece rock band, then I don’t see why you would really need to.

What was it you wanted to do?

That reminds me of a gig I was doing where one of the percussionists kept screwing up a particular passage. All of a sudden a trumpet player says, loud enough for everyone to hear, “C’mon - you only have to worry about rhythm.” :smiley:

Oh nothing crazy, silly stuff people who don’t know what they’re doing do.

Lib, I’m not trying to be a dick, but where do you get that Billy Joel can’t read music? If he learned to play the piano by ear, he’s among very, very rare company. Tons and tons of people teach themselves drums, guitar etc., but I’ve yet to hear of a self taught piano player that’s done so well.

Maybe he sight-read early on and forgot how to read, that’s the boat I’m in pretty much. Maybe he’s just not really into music theory. The notion that he can’t read music just sounds a bit odd to me, surely he did at some point, and his current knowledge of music theory has to be well above average.

The bands I’ve been in recently have had almost no members who could sight-read, but almost all of us had some decent theory background.

My take on the needing to be able to sight-read thing is this: If you ever want to be a musician for hire, you’re going to be handed sheet music at some point and you’d better be able to read it and perform it well, if you’re just going to jam with others or write your own stuff there’s no need to be able to read.

Well, Ray Charles was blind. :stuck_out_tongue:

—runs away—