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I have several related questions. I'll try to lay out the context because you maybe able to answer the questions I am not asking as well :-)

Context

  • I do not know how to read music.
  • I do not play any instruments - and in all likelihood, it is not something I am going to learn to do in the near future (next 1-2 years).
  • I have been taking several listening courses, and I've been trying to apply the theory by doing listening exercises. I find that it has really helped me to enjoy music even more, by helping me recognize sections, themes, forms, etc.
  • Several people on this forum have responded (or commented) on my questions, suggesting that I should learn to read music.
  • I have very little time, so I want to see if it is worth it for me to learn to read music or if it is something that I should leave for later when I have more time.

Goal

  • I guess I wish I could read music so that I could more easily follow structures & patterns in the music and learn to appreciate music on different dimension (more easily) such as: modulations, contrasting themes in different keys, changes in tempo,...

Questions

  • If I could read music without playing an instrument, would I be able to analyze music by reading (such as this answer: Is the Rondo in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15 ABABA?)
  • How can I go about learning to read without playing an instrument (does it make sense? is it possible? any references?)

Follow up

Thank you very much for the detailed and thought through suggestions & explanations. I have read and found valuable takeaways from each of the answers. I have a lot to think about, in the meantime, I'll continue my listening exercises and try to enjoy the music the best I can.

I have selected @Andy Bonner response as the answer, but like I said, I found valuable points in each of the answers. Thanks again!

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    You might want to edit to include a detail: most of your prior questions have been about classical-music pieces. There are plenty of other music cultures that routinely play and teach people to play without relying strongly on written music—you could probably find a community or even a private teacher to teach you Irish fiddle without reading music. But if you want to stick within the canon of "classical" music, you run into the problem that this body of music was mostly created within a culture that prioritized notation. It might also be nice to edit this question to focus a bit more... Dec 7, 2022 at 18:13
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    ... Because the question "Should I bother learning to read music" comes before "if so, what's a good way." Dec 7, 2022 at 18:14

7 Answers 7

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Short answer: the best way to learn something big and complex is to make sure you start at the beginning, and learn in small steps that build on each other.

Here's what I would do if you came to me as a private student. I'd figure out what your goals are—it sounds to me like your primary goal is to appreciate and better understand major works of the canon of Western, tonal, so-called "classical" music. You've recognized that you can enjoy a piece better when you study it, and you're very interested in the form and structure of pieces.

So the main focus of the study I'd assign you would be music theory. But I would definitely start by teaching you to read music, and I'd use an instrument to help you learn. I would probably encourage you to use piano, just because it's the most useful as you continue studying music theory. If you wanted to explore other instruments that are "easy to learn," then even a recorder or ocarina could get you started. To one of your core questions: Yes, you could "learn to read music" without ever playing an instrument at all, but it would be a bit like learning to read a written language without ever speaking. It's possible, but it's much easier to put it into practice, just because it will engage experiential pathways in your brain rather than purely conceptual ones. You certainly don't have to learn to play well, or quickly, or at anything more than a beginner level. I can't play anything on piano up to tempo that's much harder than a scale, but I still find it helpful to do music theory analysis sitting in front of a keyboard.

The most important thing is to "scaffold" your learning. I would advise you to get the starting book of a beginning piano method; this will probably start with some tunes that use only two or three notes. As you play them, you'll get familiar with the placement on the staff for those pitches. The beginning tunes will probably use all notes of the same length, too; after expanding your range to 8 or so notes, they might start varying the rhythm with longer or shorter notes. You "learn to read music" the same way you learn the instrument: by introducing only a few concepts to yourself at a time.

In fact, music theory study is similar. I can't teach you about German sixth chords before you know what chords are in the first place, and the definition of a triad, and a sixth, and that means talking about intervals, and that means talking about pitches. Similarly, analyzing the form of a sonata-allegro movement often comes down, not to recognizing melodies, but to identifying changes of key (or "tonal areas,") so that means understanding key, tonality, tonicism, tonic and dominant chords, cadences, etc.

Now, to answer the "question you didn't ask": If your end goal here is not to play an instrument or know music theory, but to enjoy music more by understanding it better: there are other kinds of study you can explore as well. To appreciate a musical artifact, it certainly helps to understand the context that created it. I would recommend exploring a course on the history of Western music. As you start at the beginning with ancient and medieval practices, this will open your ears to systems of music-making that are as far removed from Mozart as Charles Ives is, but as you proceed through time, by the time you get back to Mozart you'll understand how he was informed by Haydn, who was informed by Bach, and so on. Meanwhile, I'd encourage you to study the musics of other cultures too. You might not enjoy all of them as much as "classical" music, but they help make you aware of conventions within Western music that you might have mistaken for universal aspects of music, but are in fact cultural (like "having melody and harmony," "being in a key," and dividing the octave into 12 half steps). Being made aware of the phenomena, you're better able to appreciate them in Western music rather than take them for granted.

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    You can learn to read music without learning to play any instrument at all and still have that learning be worthwhile. All you have to do is learn to read music that you sing.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 8, 2022 at 6:54
  • I'd consider it's a lot easier to learn to sight sing after having some experience playing an instrument.
    – Tim
    Dec 9, 2022 at 9:18
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The simple answer is to start learning an instrument. Specifically, you should learn basic keyboard skills. Learning to read sheet music and learning basic keyboard skills are very similar bodies of knowledge.

If you have a computer, then getting a MIDI controller and learning the basics of it would immensely improve your understanding and appreciation of music.

A MIDI controller is a keyboard, that can be quite small and affordable, that plugs into your computer and sends note playback instructions to your computer. On your computer you would run software that listens for MIDI note playback messages and then plays the corresponding notes through your computer speakers or headphones.

Combined with some free online materials about playing keyboards or piano, reading sheet music, and music theory, such a keyboard would enable you to synthesize the theories, practices, and sounds of music in a way you cannot do easily without an instrument.

If you can afford a few lessons (it doesn’t have to be a commitment of time and money every week), even better. There are people who can teach you online if you prefer.

A second alternative is to learn to sing. Singing is great because you always have your instrument with you. The main disadvantage is you cannot sing chords, so a keyboard would help much more in the understanding of harmony and counterpoint.

Many areas of knowledge in music overlap. Performance, theory, composition, analysis, aural skills, acoustics, and appreciation are all connected. A person cannot reasonably master or even merely excel in any one of those areas without at least basic understanding of most, if not all of them. While that may seem like a lot of time and effort to put into studying at least a little bit of each of those topics, the rewards are literally unmeasurable.

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  • I would challenge that a keyboard is necessarily the best option. It is entirely possible to become proficient at reading music, whilst being unable to play a keyboard beyond a very basic level (single notes at low tempo). The skills involved in the hand manipulation to play chords and/or seperate voices are completly seperate from the abstract skills involved in reading music. If you can read music it shouldn't take much work to learn which keys need to be pressed and when to perform a piece, but that doesn't mean you know how to play them. Dec 8, 2022 at 1:09
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    @user1937198 Keyboard is definitely not the only good option. Any instrument is better than no instrument. The reason why keyboard is my top recommendation is twofold: Primarily, the keyboard provides a visual map of how pitch classes are organized in western music theory. Second, keyboards are the most flexible and broadly useful instruments. They can easily play chords, melodies, and counterpoint. MIDI keyboards can be used with a computer to approximate any sustained or percussive sound. And there are products available at a wide range of price points. Dec 8, 2022 at 1:14
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    @user1937198 I would also point out that keyboard skills and vocal skills are required for every music degree at accredited US universities, partly for the reasons I’ve outlined and also for other reasons of general musicianship and utility in almost every kind of career in music. For better or worse, in western music, the keyboard is the master instrument. Dec 8, 2022 at 1:17
  • They are the most flexible, but they also are complicated as a result in the motion control required. I may be biased as someone who always struggled with that side of music, never progressing beyond the hunt and peck stage of keyboard play. Dec 8, 2022 at 1:19
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    @RedSonja - yes, it was an available instrument when I taught, in UK. It's where most of the teachers didn't have a clue, and most of the pupils developed some sort of dislike for music...
    – Tim
    Dec 9, 2022 at 11:49
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What is possible and what is practical are not necessarily the same thing.

Yes, you can learn to read music without playing an instrument. But, is reading without playing a practical way to learn notation? You will probably have an easier time learning to read if you are also learning to play. You want at least an introductory skill level for both.

Some of what you want to be able to do, which to me sounds line music appreciation listening enriched with following along in the score, can be done without full reading ability, without understanding the complexities of reading pitches and analyzing harmony.

  • First and most importantly you would need to learn how to read rhythm and keep time
  • Next you need to recognize the "systems" of staves for ensembles, know how to find each instrument in the system, and be able to aurally recognize which instruments you hear when listening
  • If you can keep time, and follow the rhythm, and hear which instruments get the main line, you then need to jump between the instrument parts within the notation systems to follow the melody and have your listening follow along with the score
  • Certain markings in scores delineate sections, things like key signature changes, different bar line types, and tempo/performance indications, so watch for those

If you want to get into the harmonic/tonal aspect of reading scores, absolute essentials include...

  • Learn all the key signatures and basic cadences in each key, be especially aware of the tonic, mediant, leading tone, and subdominant scale degrees of each key,
  • Learn about cadences and the handling of the sixth and seventh scale degree in minor keys

Be practical and start with scores that are easy. https://imslp.org/ is a great source for scores. Start with sets of classical dances like minuets or German dances and focus primarily on the rhythm.

For the harmonic aspect just identify cadences by type and what key they end in. Those cadences will also be the primary delineators or sections and form in the classical style. Another thing that you can do to examine the basic tonal material is look for accidentals in the score and simply try to identify what key/mode changes they effect. You don't need to do a full Roman numeral harmonic analysis to get the really important aspects of tonal design in a score. Just identify keys and cadences.

Baroque era solo and trio sonatas could also be good starting points for following rhythm and parts. But be aware of the performers ornamenting the written music (you might hear a lot of motion that isn't explicitly written in the score.)

Classical divertimentos can be another good source, because the music tends to be more straight forward.

String quartets are a good way to increase the complexity level, because there tends to be a lot more shifting of the melodic focus between parts. You need to jump between the various parts frequently to follow the main thread of the music.

Those are my suggestions for a practical approach. Again, if you focus on following rhythm first, it is do-able and can make listen more rewarding.

But, I have to end by encouraging you to try to play at a basic level. Take a look at Czerny's Recreations or Beyer's Preparatory School, Op. 101 both are good, gradual introductions to piano.

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You don't even need to learn to read music to become a great musician! This may sound controversial - it's not supposed to be - it's a fact. There are and have been many great players over time who are as such despite the fact they cannot read music. Just as, I guess, there have been many great orators who cannot read well.

Being a good listener is probably a better attribute, and being able to 'pigeon-hole' different parts of the music you listen to.

There will be many who say it's absolutely paramount that you do learn properly to read, and to those who deign to dv this, please also post your reasons.

Being able to play an instrument doesn't necessarily necessitate being able to read. But for some, it's a great help. How you could follow a score without that skill, I can't imagine. It will depend on what you're like, as in how far can you imagine things as opposed to actually do them. It could go either way, we don't know you or your strengths/weaknesses.

Not learning how to read music and not playing may well hinder your goal, rather like not learning how to read words, and expecting to become a great orator or actor, as previously hinted at, it depends on so many diverse factors, no-one here can tell you which works for you.

I imagine learning the theory of music may be more advantageous, although that in itself will inevitably encompass learning to read at least some music, to reach the levels you aspire to. So, you can try, without, and you may/not feel the need at some time in the future, that it's a necessity. Or - do like a lot of us , and dip your toes into actually playing an instrument - choose a favourite - which will probably involve reading those dots, bringing them to life. But bear in mind, reading them isn't even half the story of what you need (maybe) to achieve your stated goal.

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  • Anecdotally there may be great musicians who can't read music. However, I know a few mediocre musicians who can't read music (can't sight-read, don't understand basic theory) and they are a damned nuisance when you have to play with them.
    – RedSonja
    Dec 8, 2022 at 7:58
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    @RedSonja - I base my answer on having played with quite a few musos over the last 70 yrs, both in reading and non reading situations. I guess you only play with those who are expected to read. I've played with those, in that situation, and you're generally speaking, right. But in other situations, there's been no need to read, and the music made is wonderful, rather than a regurgitation of what's been played to death from the dots.
    – Tim
    Dec 8, 2022 at 9:40
  • Is this even trying to answer the question?
    – ojs
    Jan 11, 2023 at 14:40
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While you really should learn to play an instrument, it may help to install some notation program. Those programs can nowadays play entered notation by a built-in synthesizer. I, for one, use MuseScore because it covers my and probably other beginners' needs. Note, though, that you can learn to arrange that way. To play music and to learn the theory behind the practice is a quite different cup of tea.

While you copy existing scores in public domain (other scores vs. copyright are explicitly not covered here, at least I do not dare to recommend copying them), you will undoubtedly make errors. Listen carefully to find them, train your ears.

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You can start off by learning the Clef signs, great staff and how the notes are placed on it. Examine some sheet music and learn the values of different notes. Once you are familiar with them, try listening to some music while looking at the corresponding sheet music. Select simple ones at first. Any music student would be given theory knowledge before moving into practical. In your case because you do not want to learn any instrument, you can start learning from the basics mentioned above.

With time, you will be able to identify patterns in music such as musical forms by looking at the notations.

I'd like to recommend John Thompson's Piano book series for you to get an idea on sheet music. These books are practical books. But, they are graphical and will guide any beginner on how to read music.

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    Have to disagree that 'any music student would be given theory knowledge before moving into practical'. I'd have lost most of my students had I taken that stance. They come to play!
    – Tim
    Dec 8, 2022 at 9:51
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If you are a singer, start by learning the sound of the C major scale also where the notes come on the stave (the five lines). Between,(and over top/under bottom) are F A C E G B (bottom to top) and on the lines are G B D F A (bttm to top) so on which line or between which line the note is determines the note, I recommend you learn the sound of the C major scale, C D E F G A B C

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  • Not a lot of help studying an orchestral score, with so many transposing instruments' lines!
    – Tim
    Dec 8, 2022 at 9:53
  • @Tim Why is using the voice (which everyone has and most people know how to use to a basic level) any less help than learning any other single instrument?
    – gidds
    Dec 8, 2022 at 19:41
  • @gidds - not my dv. But on an instrument, one can see as well as feel what notes are being played. I can sight-sing, and really it doesn't matter what the notes are, i sing relatively Looking at a score, and sight singing gets me quite mixed up, wit the different clefs and 'keys'.
    – Tim
    Dec 9, 2022 at 8:15
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    Welcome, and thanks for adding an answer! You can see some tips on answering here. You can also edit this answer to make it clearer; there are many resources that explain which line of the staff is which, and you might note that you're giving bass clef pitches. Dec 12, 2022 at 18:40

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