Should You Read Music?

This Blog is taken from my Greg Talks #2 - No.62 Should You learn To Read Music? 

In this blog I am going to be discussing whether I think it’s a good idea to learn to read music or not.  Although I am a bass player, this discussion is relevant for all musicians considering whether they need to read music or not. 

I recently put a few posts out on Facebook and Basschat, to see how people feel about reading music.  The overwhelming response was from established players who wished that they had learnt to read when they originally learnt bass. 

One poster said, “I‘ve played for 32 years , professional for many years, and am currently playing around 100 gigs a year. To find someone to help me just read music has been really hard, to the point of just giving up.” 

Another said, “The difficulty comes when you try to learn how to read music after playing bass for a period .  You’re trying to impose a framework onto something that you have already learned.  It’s difficult but not impossible.” 

Another said, “I used to be able to read treble clef - I am ok getting the pitch right, but reading rhythm eludes me.  Bass clef is still a mystery to me.” 

Another said, “I have tried to learn reading music many times and it always ends in frustration.” 

These are just a few replies that I received, but it gave me an insight to how many bass players and guitarist there are out there, that don’t know how to read music, but would love to. 

Originally I learnt to read music from aged four, by playing the piano, and then later at school, the trumpet.  I also learnt music theory at the same time.  By the time I picked up the bass aged 14, I already had a good grounding in music.  I learnt the bass by ear initially, playing in bands and doing different gigs.  Then a gig came up in France, where I would be required to read music.  So I got this together in a couple of weeks, using my previous skills from reading bass clef for the left hand of the piano. 

So this brings me to a question that I often hear being asked, “is it best to be able to play by ear or read music?” 

It’s so obvious to me that both skills are as important as each other.  There are though, certain situations where one skill might come in handy more than another.  For example, a classical musician would rely on their reading skills more than playing by ear, and it would be the other way round for a musician at a jam night. 

I often hear people suggesting that if you learn to read music, this will somehow take away from your ability to play by ear.  As if somehow, reading music is an academic practice that will interfere with your ability to play. 

Just last week I had a message asking for help, regarding whether to study how to read music or not. They said, “I have been told that I need to learn to play completely by ear first, before I study music.”  Now why would this be true?  Clearly it isn’t, as playing by ear and reading music are two skills that compliment each other.  They could be looked at as the yin and yang of performing! 

So where does the ability to read music come in handy?  Well, I would say that in these situations, it’s crucial: 

Going into a recording session cold, where you haven’t heard the material first. 
Playing a gig or rehearsal, where new music is presented to you on the spot. 
Learning a lot of material quickly. 

A fellow bass player said recently, “reading music is so important: it helps me to do things like walk into a gig or practice and sight read songs almost perfectly after only one shot at the song.” 

Now some of you won’t ever be in these situations, so I would say to you that if you have no interest in reading music, and you will always have time to learn material beforehand, that it isn’t necessary to do so.  I get that some players just want to have fun on their instrument, and don’t really want to study music , this is perfectly valid. 

In this situation, a bit of Tab might come in handy, just to help you out. 

But if you want to progress past a certain point, and make your life easier doing this, then reading music is only going to help, and at the same time enhance your playing ability.  Sure, if you started reading music, and didn’t maintain your ear training, then you would lose this skill somewhat, so it is important to work on both areas. 

There are famous players out there that we have all heard of, that didn’t or can’t read music.  But is that a viable enough reason for you not to do it?  These are some very unique, and talented players, and unfortunately most of us do not posses their rare talents! 

So is it too late to start reading music if you have been playing for a considerable time?  Well of course not.  I can’t stress enough about how easy it is to learn to read music from day one.  After teaching countless beginner students, on the piano, bass, and trumpet, I can say that it is easy if you learn to read from day one.  You just don’t think about it too much, as you are also learning where the notes are on the instrument at the same time. 

But that said, if you are in a position where you can already play, it is never too late to start to read music.  It can be frustrating at first, many people say it makes them feel like a beginner again.  But once you get over that initial hurdle, it gets a lot easier. 

I think the difficulty is finding a book or course that helps you to read, but isn’t aimed at the complete beginner. 

So for those of you thinking about reading music, don’t be put off by those that say it will affect your ability to play by ear, and just go for it.  You will be richly rewarded, and it will open up many more areas of music and gigging possibilities. 

I am currently working on my first video course for Greg’s Bass Shed, which will be ready for purchase around the end of 2019.  The course will cover this very topic -  how to read music for the bass player who can already play, because I feel this topic is really important to a lot of players.  If you are interested in this course, then you can express your interest on my website, by clicking HERE

I have also got a free PDF explaining how to start reading where the notes are, how to start understanding rhythm, and the key signatures and time signature.  This is very handy to have if you are starting to read music.  You can download this HERE 

Thanks for reading this, and as usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts, and personal experiences on reading music.  You can comment below this blog if you want.

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