Lots of people ask “I don’t read notes. Can I learn a musical instrument?” We’re here to reassure you. You definitely can learn a musical instrument without reading notes. That’s because knowing how to play music does not mean you need to read music notes.
In fact, playing without sheet music is called ‘playing by ear’. Musical notes are like letters or syllables in speech. Melodies are built out of notes just as words are built out of letters. Think about learning to talk. Once you knew your syllables and letters, you probably never thought of them again while talking. You just think about what you want to say. And you didn’t learn to talk by learning to read first.
We humans played music for centuries before the current music writing system existed. The oldest musical instruments are bone flutes that are between 40,000 and 60,000 years old. But written music as we know it today was developed and refined by European church musicians in the middle ages.
There are many famous musicians who didn’t read music. Here are three: Paul McCartney, songwriter Irving Berlin, and opera star Luciano Pavarotti. While these folks didn’t read notes, they all were successful in a variety of musical styles.
Speaking of styles, there are many musical genres that have a learning by ear approach. (See below for more about other styles of notation). In rock, hiphop, and blues no one plays from sheet music. Many folk genres around the world also rely mainly on playing and teaching by ear.
Even some classical musicians are taught without notes using the well-known Suzuki approach. This method includes printed sheet music books but there are also recordings. Children are expected to learn to play their pieces by ear with the help of parents and teachers.
Why would I want to learn to read notes?
You may be wondering why anyone would go to the trouble to learn to read musical notes. Well, there are a lot of useful things that musical notation does for you, the music student.
Being able to read musical notes is as useful to a musician as reading words is to you in your daily life. Forget about writing the next great novel. Imagine how difficult it would be to not be able to write a shopping list or read a text message from your friend.
If you are able to read music notes means that you can learn a song without having heard it before. If you can write musical notes, you can jot down ideas you have for a new song. then you can share them with others who read notes. – your teacher, your music club mates, or perhaps the band you’re starting in the garage.
And reading notes means that you can create, record, or learn more complicated music. That’s why students of genres like jazz and classical often invest the time to learn to read music notes.
How do music notes work?
Musical notation developed over centuries. Which means that it is complicated and sometimes confusing. But, if you are learning a fretted instrument like ukulele or guitar, you’re in luck! These instruments have several different types of notation available. That means if you are a person who says “I don’t read notes” they are some of the easiest instruments to learn.
Here they are in order from least to most difficult.
Lyrics and Chords
Lyric and chord sheets have the words written out like a poem with chord symbols written above the words. Sometimes the chord symbol is a letter and sometimes it is a chord stamp. A chord stamp is an image that looks like graph paper with dots on it. Chord stamps are used for ukulele and guitar players as a diagram of how to play a chord.
Reading lyric and chord sheets is a type of music reading. The great thing about them is that you don’t have to read formal music notation. They can work well if you know how the melody of the song goes.
The downside is that you have to know the song to be able to play it from lyrics and chords. That’s because just looking at the lyrics and chord stamps does not tell you how the melody and rhythm of the song go. So, if you don’t know the song, you have to learn how it goes by listening to it, often many times. This can take a long time.
And sometimes the chord symbols are not correctly placed, so you have to be able to hear when to change the chord. Finally, before you can use lyrics and chords you have to already know how to play chords and keep a steady strum going.
Tablature (tab for short)
Tab is a sort of road map that shows you where the notes are on your instrument. There is tab for guitar, ukulele, wind instruments and even piano. Tab is not that hard to learn to read and is very useful for guitar and ukulele. Read our post about how to read tab here.
In the image of “Yankee Doodle” to the left, the tab is the bottom set of lines with the numbers on it. The top set of lines with black and white circles is standard music notation.
A big downside to tab is that it is specific to one instrument. So if you write something in ukulele tab and hand it to a clarinet player, you will only get a confused look. Another issue is that it is not that easy to notate the rhythm of the song in tab. Read more about tab notation and rhythm here.
Standard Music Notes
Standard musical notation is universal for all instruments. It is a diagram of the sounds that should be played. It shows whether the sounds should be high or low which musicians call ‘pitch’. It also how long or short in time the sounds should be, which musicians call ‘duration’ or ‘rhythm’.
It takes the longest time to learn to read because it shows the most information. We can pick up a sheet music written in standard notation hundreds of years ago and know how to play it. Melody, harmony, rhythm, articulation and expression are all clearly notated. So, this kind of notation is the most powerful, but also the most complicated. You can learn what you need of this type of notation as you go.
Music notation developed over time and has many odd things that take a while to learn. Music notation is complex so that it can express complex ideas. There is a lot of visual information on a piece of sheet music and it can take a while to get used to decoding it. Once you understand what sounds are being called for, you also have to learn how to play them on your instrument.
On the bright side, if you learn to write music notes on the staff, you will be able to communicate with other players. You can hand your music to someone else who reads music and they will be able to play it on their instrument.
Should I learn notes at the same time as I learn my instrument?
Get off to a faster start by focusing on playing
Most people who begin to learn a musical instrument are surprised at how difficult it is. So it’s best to start with an approach where you can feel successful early on. Your early successes will motivate you to continue playing. That’s why we recommend not worrying too much about reading notes at the beginning of your journey.
New research shows that multitasking is actually less efficient than doing one thing at a time. The brain can only handle so many new skills at once. Learning the coordination of how to play an instrument is plenty to focus on at first.
To play any musical instrument you will need to coordinate body parts in new ways. To play a wind instrument you’ll need to sync breath, mouth, tongue and finger movements.
To play guitar or ukulele, you’ll need to coordinate your hands to do two different things at the same time. You might also need to add singing to the mix. Plus remembering the words. To add in learning music notation can create an overload which will slow down your progress.
So, here’s the answer to the question “I don’t read notes. Can I learn a musical instrument?”: Yes, but timing is very important.
When is the best time to start learning to read notes?
When people can recognize what song you’re playing, you’re ready to begin learning to read music.
An added benefit: developing your ear
Think of the way children learn a language. They listen, then they speak, and only much later learn to read. They learn to speak by first listening carefully. If you learn your instrument this way, you will learn to listen carefully too. Since music is all about sound, it’s always a good idea to develop your listening skills.
All the above notation systems as valid, depending on what you’re trying to do. So, yes learn to read music if you would like. Once you’ve learned to read notation, you’ll be able to learn new songs more accurately and quickly. And you’ll be able to play music with others which is one of the great joys in most musicians’ lives.
Let us hear from you
Where are you in your musical journey? Have you learned to read music notation? Do you feel it helped or slowed your progress? Let us know in the comments below.