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.

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.