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Why Learn to Read Music?

by Mark Heinemann

© Copyright 2001 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.

I was talking with a student recently about why it would be a good idea for him to learn how to read music. He knows what he wants to learn; blues, bluegrass and funk music so why would it be a good thing for him to learn how to read when I can teach him those styles by using tablature or by working with the ear?

It's a good question to answer. When you learn how to read music it immediately opens doors to a whole world of sound that you might not normally be able to access by ear. You can open up a book and suddenly you are playing a Sousa March or a Strauss Waltz or you might be playing through one of Miles Davis's pieces or the many arrangements of his works by arranger Gil Evans. There is also music from the renaissance and opera, musicals and the heavy hitters. The four B's. Brahms, Beethoven, Bach and the Beatles. What about the fifth B. B.B. King. Because these days you can find his solos transcribed in books. Or even the music for Metallica who are influenced by baroque music. Their pieces are scored out onto paper. You would have to have a fabulously developed ear in able to learn their music note for note. And there are many more styles beyond this.

When you read music and can play through different scores it enables you to study with the masters throughout the ages. You can steal from Ellington and Bach and find out what they were doing. How did they shape their melodies, what made them stand out. This enables you to write better music yourself. All composers had to begin somewhere. They all copied their predecessors and then took their music to another level. Mozart studied Bach, Beethoven studied Mozart, Brahms studied Beethoven, Wagner studied Brahms, Richard Strauss studied Wagner and so on. This is a great source for material because you can incorporate these melodies into your playing and soloing. What a feeling that would be to do a little musical quote from Bach while you are in the middle of a Blues Jam.

Also it enables you to play music which isn't normally played on the quitar. This stretches you as a player because music that is written for the quitar has certain characteristics which is particular to the quitar. When you read music on the quitar that was originally intended for the Piano lets say you are forced to do unusual skips and intervals, chords that might not normally be written for the quitar. I spent time playing flute music out of the seventh or 10th position. I also played the viola part for the Schubert Trout quintet on the guitar by listening to the recording and following the score. John Coltrane spent many hours playing music that was written originally for the Harp on the saxophone.

Why do we normally start with music that is classical when we are learning how to read? The reason is that Classical music is traditionally the one that deals the most with the written page. Through the conception of a piece to the execution of it. This style of music has primarily meant that it was written down and the players played it from a score. It doesn't mean that you have to become a classical player in order to read or that you have to stop with classical music and not explore other styles. It is just a vehicle for learning.
Today the truly great musicians can improvise in any style as well as read anything that is set before them. Years ago when I was in New York I was at a recording session and I got to see Ken Bichel who is one of the cities top synthesizer players. The session was coming to a close and as usual Ken had to attend the session for the entire three hours even though his part which would function like a small string orchestra would be put on last. Finally the composer was able to put the part in front of him and Ken got the right setting on his instrument very quickly. They did one or two takes and that was it in a matter of minutes. When he had finished his part Ken jokingly called out NEXT!

He was that good he could get to the heart of the music right away which makes him and the services he can offer very valuable. It is something to consider because when you can read music it opens up doors to you where you could get gigs. Taking different gigs that come up also broadens you as a player because each gig will have a different set of requirements. I have almost always learned something new or had to learn something new when I have taken a gig. It's like getting payed to learn. What situation could be better than that? Recently an opportunity came up to play a gig where we were going to do all italian music. I had never played italian music before but beause I was able to read I could take the job and in the process get exposed to a whole new style of music.

Reading music also frees you up to set your thoughts down on paper. You are no longer limited to composing just through memory. You can write extended pieces. Even the great blind spanish composer Rodrigo would dictate his pieces to someone who would then set them down on paper. You can also experience the joy of writing for instruments other than the guitar and hear how they sound in combination with each other.
Composing and reading music ultimately improves your ear because the more you read music the more you are able to hear it at sight in your head. That's how Beethoven was able to continue to compose even after he had become deaf. His hearing had become totally developed inside of him. This ear training will help you when you are learning licks by ear off of recordings. What a person is playing doesn't have to be a mystery, through the development of your ear you will be able to recognize what is going on quicker.

So that's the plug for reading music. There are plenty of great musicians who will never read music. And I am glad that they are out there. Some of those people I admire and love. But I do know that reading music helps to deepen you as a musician and it helps to take in more of the whole of this thing called music. It's no different then saying I just want to eat steak and potatoes. Because some day you just might want to taste an asparagus and have that experience. And who knows what you might want to have for dessert.

© Copyright 2001 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.