Is Reading Music a Necessary Skill?

Tommaso Zillio –


Reading music: a necessity for some, a superfluous ability for someone else. Depending on who you ask, you will hear that it is absolutely fundamental that you know how to read (if the guy you asked to actually knows how to read music) or that you should better concentrate on other things (especially if you got your answers from someone who can not read music). It is a fact that most musicians that can’t read feel somehow guilty about it. Is that feeling justified?  Is it really necessary for everybody to learn how to read music? 

Well, you’re not alone in feeling this way: I was feeling the same for a long time (until I actually learned to read music). Was it as useful as I thought it would be?  Yes and no. Granted, I was able to read some more advanced books on music theory But let’s get clear of one of the major misunderstanding right away: you DO NOT need to be able to read music in order to understand music theory. As unpopular as this may be (to some teachers), you can become quite proficient in your knowledge and application of music theory without knowing how to read a single note. In fact, I know plenty of recording studio professionals who do not read standard music notation (but see below). And these were the good news.

There’s More To It Than Standard Notation

The “bad” news (but they are not really that bad) is that you DO need to learn some form of music notation in order to communicate with your fellow musicians, or to write down your ideas. In fact, you already know at least one (writing down chords on top of the lyrics of a son). So don’t worry!  Not all types of music notation require you to learn to read a score. Most of them are way easier, and just as useful (if not more, at least in some communities of musicians).

You might ask, why do you need to learn one of these types of music notation?  Well, for instance if you don’t know ANY ways of reading/writing music you will be quite a disadvantage in any situation where you need to work on a song, both by yourself and with other people. Communicating efficiently will be impossible. You may also be excluded from some circles because it is too difficult to explain songs or concepts to you.

So the key here is to learn the music notation you NEED to know. The first step is: determine what music notation you need (we’ll get to it in a moment). The second step is (brace for it) learn it. There are some resources at the end of this article to help you getting to that. In the following we are going to look at Chord-based systems, Tablature, and Standard notation. All these systems are useful if applied in the right context.

Tab vs Standard Notation

For starters, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. If you are, or if you want to be a classical musician, you absolutely need learn to read standard music notation. The same is true if you want to work in situations where you need to work with classical musicians (such as becoming an orchestrator, or working in the movie music industry). These goals are very specific, and I will assume that you do not share them in the rest of this article. Of course, if you DO have one of these goals, then you simply have to learn the standard notation.

Standard notation is not a monolithic block, though. While I do not recommend everybody to learn the whole thing, I do heartily suggest that anyone who want to be a musician should learn rhythmic notation (i.e. what is a bar, how to divide it in beats, how to divide the beats in eighths, sixteenths, triplets, etc). Rhythmic notation needs is easy to learn and had an incredible power to generate musical ideas: you do not want to miss on that.

A widespread notation used for guitar (as you know for sure) is Tablature (from now on Tab). Tab has both advantages and disadvantages. The main advantage of Tab, and doubtlessly the reason why it is so popular, it’s that the fingering is already done – with other forms of notations you need to figure out where to play the notes (the same note can be played on more than one position on the guitar). On the other hand, since different players find different fingerings more comfortable to play, this very feature is also one of the main disadvantages of Tab. Another disadvantage of Tab is that it is impossible to learn a song only from Tab due to the lack of rhythmic notation. while it is definitely possible to learn a piece of music from standard notation even if you have never heard it before.

While Tab got a bad reputation as music notation, I think this is because it has been used the wrong way. I am of the opinion that Tab is a great and intuitive way to write music, provided you use it in the right way: you have to compensate the lack of rhythmic notation by having a recording of the song you are trying to learn and listening to it frequently while learning the piece.

Chord-Based Systems

While being the most known systems, Tablature and standard notation are definitely not the only ones used. There are in fact other even more common music notation systems. These systems are generally used to notate chord progression as opposed to a complete arrangement (such as Standard notation or Tablature). The most used one is probably the Nashville “number system”: this system is simply a must to know for most studio work and jam sessions. It allows you to rapidly communicate chord progressions in any key and as a side bonus it also improves your knowledge of music theory!  I definitely recommend that you learn this system – it’s easy and useful.

If you are a classical musician, you might want to learn the classical “roman numerals” music notation method instead. The two systems — the Nashville and the Roman Numerals — are practically equivalent: they are both used to notate chord progressions. The only real difference between them is that he roman numeral system is more common in classical music, while the Nashville system is more widespread in modern music.

How Can I Learn The Right System For Me?

The main point I want to make with this article is that you should learn to read music only if this is congruent with your goals as a musician. As an example, if all you want to do is to play 12-bar blues, you are better off practicing your improvisational skills rather than learning standard notation. Also, if you discover you need to learn how to read music, you have to learn the right system for your situation. What you need at this point is a step-by step explanation about how to learn these notations by yourself.

As far as I know, there is no such comprehensive resource online, so I took the time to write a free eBook for you with an explanation of all the systems of music notation we have seen before. Click on this link to download your <a href=””>free eBook on reading music</a>.

About the Author

Tommaso Zillio is a professional teacher, guitarist, and composer, and is your go-to guy for any and all <a href=””>music theory</a>-related questions.

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