I've been playing guitar for the last two years, and never came in contact with pieces in standard notation. This is probably because I never had any lessons, and am self-taught.

But the thing I want to know is where I might come in contact with standard notation, at which point, and for what reasons?

I'm neutral about this, and have no use for standard notation at this time other than writing music, but would like insight on this.

13 Answers 13


I think it depends how serious you are about your playing. If you just want to learn to play songs then you can probably get by with just reading tabs. The internet is full of them after all.

If however, you wish to get into theory and writing music then it is absolutely necessary. It may also be necessary if you wish to play and discuss things with other musicians (though it's entirely impossible you won't run into it there).

It would recommend it either way, but then I've been playing for many years and I started out on the clarinet, so I had to learn. I think it really helps you understand what your playing - and thus allows you to improve that playing, but as you've mentioned, you've been playing for two years and still haven't encountered a need to learn, so you may be fine.


I'm learning classical guitar - and standard music notation is an absolute must for this. I guess the answer to your question is kind of obvious if you're talking about classical guitar, but most people don't have that in mind when they say 'guitar'.


I once learned standard notation to some extent while doing guitar lessons. After a while I started to get really rusty.

On a guitar teaching website, a saw a video where the author mentioned some exercieses he did when he realised he was starting to forget standard notation. That's when it hit me.

The reason I was forgetting standard notation is that I wasn't using it in the least. Except when practicing standard notation. Why was I praticing it, then ?

Some people have a need for standard notation. Others don't. If you find yourself in the second category your time can be better used than learning standard notation and then making sure you don't forget it.


Depends. What do you want to accomplish? If you have aspirations towards being a studio musician or playing in "the pit" on Broadway or whatever... Then the ability to read is essential. Not so much if you are a "roots" musician who likes to pick and grin on the back porch.

You'd be hard pressed to find a single one of the great blues masters who could read a note...

Jazz.... I would say that a great number of jazz players are pretty fluent, but mostly what you would be provided with in an ensemble is a "chart" rather than a fully written-out piece of music. Jazz being muchly about improvisation, after all.


Why on Earth not learn standard notation?

It doesn't harm any of your existing skills, and it might give you a better understanding of how music works and how other people put their music together.

Depending on what you're playing, and who with, it might not be a skill you use every day.

You don't need to be able to play a piece straight from the sheet music on sight; just a basic understanding of what it all means will probably suffice. Then if it becomes a core skill in some future playing situation the constant practice will reinforce the skill.

You are never going to miss out of an invitation to a playing session or an opportunity to play more because you can read music.

  • 3
    A valid reason not to would be if, in the time you could take to learn it, you could do something more valuable instead. Commented Dec 24, 2015 at 0:46

Not unless you're learning to compose music and happen to be composing on the guitar, or you are learning classical/jazz guitar. Can't think of another reason other than to impress other musicians with your geekery.


To be quite honest here with you, learning standard notation is pointless other than for the geek aspect of it. Some would argue with this, but learning standard notation does not give you any advantage over someone who just knows how to play by ear and read guitar tabulature.

I am pretty sure that a lot of famous guitarists weren't trained in standard notation. Jimi Hendrix certainly didn't know standard notation, but it didn't make him any less of a guitar player. Same goes for a few other people, including Herman Li of Dragonforce.

Learn it if you want a challenge, but I'd honestly spend all of that effort perfecting your technique. Learn to master the art of sweeping or something.

  • Is learning standard notation useless when writing music? Unless all you're writing is formulaic three-chord songs, then no. Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 21:43
  • If the writing is done in the modern way, straight to tape, then writing it isn't so necessary. I'm 83% supporting Neil on this point, though. Commented Mar 31, 2011 at 1:38
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    I guess I write music the antiquated way, then. :) Commented Mar 31, 2011 at 2:13
  • 83, not 82 or 84 :) Commented Mar 31, 2011 at 18:00
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    @Dwayne, "I don't quite understand the advantages standard notation gives you when it comes to guitar.". It's a flexibility thing. It makes you more marketable. If you, and another guitarist who is equally as good, are competing for a session or live gig requiring the ability to read, and you can't read charts without chords and they can, guess who'll get the job? It's the same as knowing different styles and having the equipment needed to get different sounds. You're making yourself more available.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Apr 1, 2011 at 4:46

Learn notation if your musical world puts you in a position where you need to.

Learn notation if your musical world is limited by being unable to. (Well, we know it IS limited, but do the limits worry you?)

Learn notation if you're interested in 'theory'. The forums are full of confused questions from (largely) guitarists who think they can understand the grammar of music without knowing the language.


Personally, I think it is really important to be able to read and play standard notation. It is not an easy thing to get good at. I think learning how to read the notes on the treble clef is relatively easy. There are apps that will help you practice this. The really difficult thing is learning where those notes are on the fretboard.

  • Have you any explanation as for why it's important to read music that you could add to your answer?
    – user45266
    Commented Jan 19, 2019 at 7:23
  • When my sheet music has standard notation and tab, my eyes gravitate to the tab, simply because it is easier to read. Tab, to me, is like the answer to a puzzle. So I just end up playing the numbers which indicate the string/fret to play. I don't think about what key I'm playing, or what note I'm playing.
    – jaypas
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 14:01
  • If you want to work with other musicians that play violin, clarinet, flute, piano, etc you need to read and play standard notation. If you are asked to play a guitar solo, you can’t tell your music director, oh, wait, I have to write it out in tab, that would just be unacceptable, I would think.
    – jaypas
    Commented Jan 20, 2019 at 14:43
  • "that you could add to your answer", hint hint
    – user45266
    Commented Jan 21, 2019 at 6:26

I got my first guitar 25 years ago. I have been playing in church for about ten, often receiving new chord sheets a half-hour before I start to play them. I have only received sheet music once, and even then, I just played chords. Generally, I get chord sheets and occasionally MP3s.

I have been trying to pick up the skill, to some success. I can't sight-read, but I can get to the point where I can scratch it out. My sons took band in middle school (some are still taking) and they have that particular skill in spades. It makes me sick. And if they can combine that skill with playing the notes they read, they might be able to step to the next level. But as is, I'm one of the players who "knows theory" in the band.

So, I don't consider it to be a crucial skill for guitarists, quite the opposite, but certainly it's a skill I wish I had.


I play jazz, and I study sight reading. It makes it a lot easier to have the skills to play up to speed when you're handed an unfamiliar tune from a fake book. Also, part of my learning process is transcription, which absolutely requires music reading/writing skills to be at all efficient. I find tab to be much less expressive, and avoid it for that reason, although I have no religious objections to it. So for me reading is a useful tool. Your context may differ, and other skills may take precedence. I will say that it certainly won't hurt you to know.


I have to echo the notion that unless you want to work in studio situations where you're going to have sheet music put in front of you all the time, it's not necessary. Is it useful to be able to read music, but for the average person, it's not essential. You can still absolutely learn things about music theory without being able to sight read.


if I correctly understand the question, surely you should to learn how to read a score, not to be a disabled disadvantaged musician, not just reading a tab. Fastest way is to take a piano or a classical guitar or a violin score and to name/mark each note with a pencil, after a 500-1000 of pages you will have a sight-reading skill for life, later you should mark only altered notes, goal is to develop visual-audio-motion strong associative connections to control sound production effectively similar to a car or a moto driving. Players like JS Bach and perhaps F Mendelsohn had a big practice of rewriting scores, which helps to develop sight reading strong skills. You can use also software like Finale, GuitarPro, MuseScore and Sibelius, which Bach`s family sadly did not own in Baroque times.

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