Should You Learn To Read Music Or Not

By Ryan Duke

Reading music sounds scary for most guitarists. Most modern guitarists have no idea how to read music and are often scared of it. It can feel overwhelming and/or boring for most people. The longer you’ve played guitar the less you will want to do it because it will feel like starting over and no one likes that feeling. But there is an easier way to approach this.

Modern guitar players for the most part don't come across music notation, ever. There are some exceptions of course, but I want to address the common guitar player. Just because we don’t need to read music often doesn't mean we shouldn't read music, but let's make it easier and you can decide for yourself how deep you need to go. Or better yet, get a dedicated guitar teacher who can help you navigate this new terrain.

Reading Rhythm Notation

Most guitarists find lyrics online with chords placed above the syllable where the chord change happens. But this doesn't tell us anything about the rhythm, tempo, time signatures, or timing of the chord changes. This is probably the worst way to communicate music, but unfortunately the most popular. I say probably the worst because maybe there is a worse way I have yet to come across.

Lots of guitarists read tablature, but still many can not. Tablature tells us exactly where to put our fingers, but doesn't tell us how to play it other than the sequential order. Specifically it doesn’t tell us the timing.

Sometimes you will find tablature that uses rhythm notation below it. This is extremely informative and very useful for deciphering how to actually play all the notes. It will make something go from sounding very strange to sounding like the real song.

It is also very common in books that there is no music written out for guitar, but the chords show up in the music above the notes of the vocal melody which is written out in music notation. As if the singers ever read the notes. It would be more likely a guitarist would read the notation than a singer. I personally have found reading notation for vocals to be very helpful with singing. But let’s get back to the point...

Knowing how to read rhythm notation is much less difficult than reading the melody and harmony notation. And if you exclude the melody and harmony notation, specifically when playing chords it is much less overwhelming.

This is also a great stepping stone to actually being able towards read melody and harmony notation. Because even if you can read the melody and harmony you still need to read in time.

I you can read tab, reading rhythm notation is a great place to start. If you can’t read anything reading rhythm notation is a great place to start as well. There is more to reading music beyond the rhythm, melody, and harmony, but understanding the very basics of rhythm will get you a good start.

In the end it is most important that you play the music and have fun and reading isn't required for this, but reading can be a great aid in the process and will open up more doors of opportunity depending on what you want to do with music.

About the Author:

Ryan Duke is a professional musician, guitar teacher, and owner of Seattle Guitar Mentor delivering guitar lessons in Seattle.