To Read Music or Not: Musical Tribes and Approaches

Music is like a mountain. There are many approaches to the summit (that can never be reached), and it seems impossible to view the other approaches with all that mountain in the way.

George Crumb, The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto Perpetuo) from Makrokosmos

George Crumb, The Magic Circle of Infinity (Moto Perpetuo) from Makrokosmos

To declare my viewpoint, I am a conservatory educated musician (reader). I started my musical journey meeting Mister Crotchet in school piano lessons (reader) before going on to become kinetically musical playing punk drums and bass guitar (non-reader).

Nowadays I seem to be identified as a classical composer type and firmly in the reader camp. I run into musicians or their parents who suspect my training must have restrained as well as trained my mind. These folks seem to feel defensive about not reading music and sometimes launch into complicated and passionate defences of this approach. I see this same dialogue played out online too and I think it is worth exploring a little here.

The TL;DR version is that ultimately music is sound used to communicate. The multiplicity of possible ways to understand and communicate instructions for creating that sound are decidedly subordinate to the sounds and their effects. Whatever works for you is great, but understanding some of the implications of the path(s) you choose to climb the mountain is useful.

In Favour of Reading Music

The main pro-reading argument for me is, it never hurts to have another tool in your bag. The ability to read (and write) music can be a lifesaver in some musical scenarios and gives you access to some musical activities that are closed off or very hard without this skill. There is no compulsion to use the skill if you don’t want to. So no harm, no foul.

For me the greatest gift reading music has provided is access to a method of studying and understanding music. This is not directly about the creation of music, but it has been an essential part of filling my mind with ideas and insights. These sparks have lit spots of tinder within me that have inspired me to create music myself and given me deeper understanding of and love for some wonderful music.

The other side of the equation is that the ability to write a score has allowed me to extract ideas from my head and communicate it to some generous souls who turned it into music for me. To do this without being able to write a score and parts would have been almost impossible. The areas of music where this is essential are somewhat limited but I am glad they exist and some wonderful sounds are made there by better musicians than I.

As a performing musician the ability to read (sometimes at sight) have allowed me to participate in creating music in ways that would otherwise be impossible. This ranges from playing Bach contrapunctus with friends to being able to get through jazz combo gigs when I don’t know all the tunes (thank you Real Book).

In Favour of Ears Alone

The fundamental argument against any need to learn to read seems to be that it makes music an intellectual experience, divorced from the true nature of the exercise. This thread expands to an idea that musicians who work without visual aids are purer and more musical. I think there is some merit in the former idea, but it needs qualification.

I feel it is important to remember that the ability to read music is only a tool. It is not useful to let it become Maslow’s hammer. JazzAdvice​.com lay out some great reasons for jazz players to get their noses out of the Real Book. In a larger sense reading can make you lazy.

There are times where being lazy is not so bad. Playing a wedding gig where the ability to fake your way through pop tunes will keep people dancing, or when skimming through tunes to find something to play in a group for instance. When it becomes a crutch that you can’t walk without there is a problem.

This is the main danger for me. That we musicians can use a skill to build a prison. This can be guitarists forever soloing in minor pentatonic (or mixolydian mode), drummers always playing fortissimo possibile or not being able to make a sound without lines and dots to bury your face in.

Written music is also inherently limited. The range of sounds even a semi-competent player can make is massive. It is almost impossible to communicate everything using standard notation and extended notation is very cumbersome to decode (and still has gaps). Learning how to fill in the gaps is part of what makes a great reading musician, but it is true the system is flawed.

I’m Glad I Can Read Music

Reading music has been a boon for me. When I started to write music it allowed me to communicate with a fluency that would have been difficult as an introverted teenager. I could give my school jazz band a lead chart, or a chamber group some parts and just mumble some directions and music flowed forth. I wasn’t confident enough to communicate through singing parts or playing each part I could hear in my head.

I also gained access to an understanding of the workings of music through reading along with recordings and score analysis. I still have some of those scores and I can see the excitement when I figured out how a modulation worked or how a theme was passed around the orchestra.

As an added bonus I found that some people made scores that were beautiful. My first encounter with this was George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children. Unfolding the massive pages of the score was a wonderful moment for me as a young aspiring composer. The scores of Witold Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki were fascinating to me also.

A beautiful score is not the music, but these carefully created artefacts of craft hint at a way of thinking about music and its creation. As a teenager even the notion that these things could be thought about and were mutable was eye-opening. By the time I discovered the wonderful John Cage’s book on notation I was hooked on learning about this meta-music.

What Does it All Mean?

Music is a massive thing, culture, practice, craft and communication (at least). There are many ways to divest this feline of its pelt. I am glad I learnt to read music, but I can now see that I built some obstacles with this skill. I would recommend young musicians learn to read, but only after learning to make music (as opposed to sounds) on their instrument.

There is no need to Meet Mr. Crotchet before you can make his sound, and be wary of him and his companions. Music is, after all, sounds for communication and not pigment on a page or pixels on a screen.

Artistic Freedom and the Path to Happiness

MusicalCherubsIf you could do anything what would you do? This question is an interesting thought experiment particularly for artists and musicians. Derek Sivers has posed it with some interesting commentary on his blog in the form, What if you didn’t need money or attention?

He poses this question from the perspective, if you needed nothing in your life what would you do? Through looking at two example groups he raises some common issues. Entrepreneurs and musicians both need attention and money and both can become focussed on attaining those losing their spark or purpose in the process.


For me sustaining my family has long been a reason (or excuse) to postpone making music. The uncomfortable relationship between art and commerce is well documented. Commercial art is frowned upon and poverty is worn as a badge of pride by some and held up as a mark of failure by others.

In the West we live in a society that produces such abundance of wealth that nobody need want for anything, but we have adopted money as a method of ascribing value to people and their activities. Bankers are more valuable than nurses, teachers and even artists.

Art in our society is a commodity and its value is specified by demand. This conditions artists to seek attention for both reward and validation.

What if we were free from all this?

What would we do if our physical needs were all met? Would we all fall into Robert Anton Wilson’s predicted behaviours of recreational drug use and sexual gymnastics? Some of us would but I think that for those with an urge to create and communicate there is a desire for something more.

Perhaps this is a need for a kind of attention but not connected to the validation of wealth. It is a desire to communicate something.

Recreating my musical self with the aid of (community) gravity and other invisible forces

Comet Donati by Bond 1858

Image of the Comet Donati taken by W. C. Bond in 1858. The comet leaves its trail as it passes on its elliptical path through the solar system. Periodic activity can feel like long-period comets but perhaps not everything needs to follow such a long orbit.

I have had a somewhat unsettled relationship with making music for a long time. It has always been a passionate one, but it has often been difficult to the point of not being an active musician for many years at a time. I always seem to return though and I’m going through that process again now.

Perhaps because I’m a bit older and more self-reflective, if not wiser, I find myself watching this process as it is occurring and trying to make sense of it. When I was younger it didn’t need to make sense, it just happened, but perhaps I’m not as trusting or brave as I was then.

I have been prodded out of my comfortable isolated process by an interesting, intimate and introspective article by Clutch Daisy. Where’s Your Head At? looks at the effect of an increasing level of self-awareness in his creative process. (That’s my take on it anyway and I hope it’s at least partially accurate)

Clutch’s article has resonated with me because my current musical state is redolent with self-awareness. I haven’t made much music for ten years and the process of restarting is not an easy one in many ways. Simply justifying using the time is no simple thing as I could be spending that with my family or looking to fill it with more remunerative work.

In so many places heightened self-awareness inhibits action. Like a teenage boy in a new lumbering graceless body I’m contemplating the dance-floor and wondering how I’ll move. With my interrupted musical life it is simply a fact that needs to be dealt with though so I’m trying to incorporate the meta-process into the process somehow. Continue reading