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I'm learning music theory by myself with online books and video lessons. I don't have much trouble understanding the basics of theory, such as intervals, basic scales and modes, but I have a huge issue with sight reading. I know that sight reading is important, but I find it hard to read notes in a music sheet on an acceptable speed and transpose the notes to my instrument of choice (which is a guitar).

I want to understand the concepts behind music and apply that knowledge to a guitar, but I feel that I may be missing something if I skip sight reading. Should I stop this bad behavior of mine if I want to become a better musician?

Important notes: Music is a hobby for me and I do not plan to play in any kind of band or such. I have a keyboard and I know that it is easier to learn sight reading on an instrument such as piano/keyboard due to how the notes on the instrument are placed, so if I have to change instruments to learn it I am able to do so.

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    It's absolutely possible to know a lot of theory and not be able to sight read. Standard music notation is about being a team player, yet obscures theory that is obvious in alternate notations. It is easier to number notes 0..11 in some situations, or to use frequencies and pitch ratios in other situations. Heavy Metal shredders with much scale/chord skill use tablature. It has unambiguous fingering. Microtonal (fretless) musicians are obnoxiously theoretical, and have little use for standard notations. – Rob Aug 22 '14 at 20:46
  • Yes, it is possible. I did. But that's probably because I play guitar the most, where transposing a song a semitone up is a whole lot easier than on a piano. However, I still can't sight read guitar tabs, although, it is possible. – Cole Johnson Aug 22 '14 at 21:45
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    They are two different things. sight reading ie the ability to pick up sheet music and play it without preparation - is a separate area of knowledge from music theory. . . which is just that - theory. You can be an expert in music theory without being able to play a note. Personally my theory knowledge is way more than my playing ability - and I so much wish it were the other way round. – peterG Aug 23 '14 at 0:35
  • Most, if not all, guitarist can't sight read even average songs perfectly the first time. Even my classical guitar instructor, who had a master's degree, had to spend around an hour to master a song with 2 voices. Unrelated, but if you're interested check this out woodpecker.com/writing/essays/guitarnotation.html – Gᴇᴏᴍᴇᴛᴇʀ Aug 24 '14 at 0:56
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    I'm reminded of a remark made by a classmate who majored in music: he said that our college's music department believed that "music should be seen and not heard." – David K Aug 5 '17 at 22:48

12 Answers 12

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I would say that since

Music is a hobby for me and I do not plan to play in any kind of band or such

learning to sight read isn't really important. It depends on you. I prefer reading normal music sheets rather than tabs or whatever, but this is just me. If you have time and energy to learn how to sight read,it most certainly won't be wasted.

but I find it hard to read notes in a music sheet on an acceptable speed and transpose the notes to my instrument of choice

This just takes practice. You need to practice sight reading in order to be able to sight read a piece and play it at the same time. It doesn't happen overnight. So, just keep practicing if you want to have satisfactory results.

I, personally, don't think that you would miss out on music theory if you don't sight read. You would miss out on music theory if you don't understand what you are playing on your guitar.

Let's say that for instance you play the 3rd fret on the E string and then the 2nd fret on the A string. If you know that these notes are G and B respectively, (and since you know about intervals -- thus you know that this is a major 3rd) you won't be missing out, no matter if you sight read them or read a tab.

it is easier to learn sight reading on an instrument such as piano/keyboard

I wouldn't say that this is necessarily true. Every instrument takes some practice to play while sight reading. Some instruments (like the ones you mentioned) might actually be a bit easier, but that doesn't make an instrument like the guitar that much harder to learn to sight read.

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I would actually say that the opposite is true, namely, that study of music theory is what matters, and that even if you don't practice sight reading (though you probably should), it's the study of theory that will make the biggest improvement in your sight reading compared to anything else.

Sight reading is a tricky thing to do, there is quite a lot of information, and unlike the arabic letters of the alphabet, there is very little in the way of unique characteristic that helps to differentiate between notes of a different pitch.

Rhythm is actually far easier to read because there is far more that characteristically distinguishes each individual note, namely the stems, flags and fill of the circle.

The primary functions one must understand when reading music relate to theory, namely the key signature in which the piece is written and intended. When one observes which sharps and flats the key signature has, this illuminates almost immediately which notes are viable and which notes are not. In other words, the key signature eliminates a lot of possibilities and potential confusion because, to sound correct, there is only now a limited subset of notes to choose from, e.g. only the notes in an Eb scale perhaps, which means that you know several black notes and several white notes are out of the question.

This then means that one may focus less on the absolute note names and positions of each note on the staff, and may then refer to the relative distances between successive notes, combined with the scale which is being used, to determine which notes the music is probably referring to.

I for one, personally, have been almost always horrible at sight reading, but over the years of e.g. reading chord charts on both guitar and piano, and over the years of haphazardly attempting to solo, in an improvisational manner over chord changes, I have found that my sight reading ability has actually dramatically increased with pretty much no actual practice in actually spending time reading standard written musical staff based notation. This is because I have studied each of the 12 keys so in depth, and have learned so many songs, and have practiced my circle of 4ths, 5ths, 3rds, half steps, whole steps etc, that I just have a familiarity with each key and the territory and relationships across which music most often progresses.

This means that when I try to read music, so much of it is so much more immediately obvious to me that I don't need to actually "read" every single individual note, and this ability to read without reading is something most good teachers I've had have confirmed as being the general appropriate way to read music.

So, you really probably should practice reading music in its own right, but realize too, that study of theory and composition, of key and of modulation, are critically important to actually increasing your ability to read music as you practice that skill.

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It is important to be able to read music to some extent. But the ability to sight read, which means to be able to pick up the music and just play it, is not all that essential. I can sight read a single vocal line, but in theory classes, we used complex scores that there was no way I could ever sight read them.

In fact, sight reading was part of a different class, called ear training. And that class was pretty much everyone's worst class. Yet all of them were not only good enough with theory to pass, but also actually played written music in concert. They just learned the music slowly over time.

So, no, I would say that sight reading is not all that important for learning music theory. What's important is that you know what the notes mean. Sight reading is a skill that can open up possibilities for playing your instrument, but it has little to do with actually understanding how music works.

  • "but it has little to do with actually understanding how music works" That was exactly my doubt. I was concerned if I would not be able to understand how music works in theory if my sight reading is undeveloped. – TonySniper Aug 22 '14 at 19:28
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    @TonySniper Just note that I don't mean that you don't need to know how to read music. That's a different skill, and it's pretty important. But reading and playing are different things. – trlkly Aug 22 '14 at 19:31
  • I understand that. I am able to read simple music sheets, but as I said, my problem is that I read them slowly and that I have trouble playing what I read. I'm working on my reading skills nonetheless, hehe. – TonySniper Aug 22 '14 at 19:33
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Whilst agreeing with most of Shev's answer, I feel that sight reading is a lot more straightforward on a keyboard type instrument.For each note on the stave, there is only one place to play it. Thus it makes more sense, and the 'geography' of a melody is simpler to translate onto the keys. With a guitar, there are sevceral different places to play the same note, so it can confuse quite easily. There would be no need to use anything but the treble clef initially on keys, but if you're into theory, then the bass clef would start to make sense with keys, not guitar. (Unless you're on bass!)

If you do go for guitar, the accompanying tab may or may not help. It's usually one person's idea of where the notes get played. It's not usually the only place, though, and this in itself may mess up your learning process.

Being able to read will only be an advantage to you, so go for it - it'll also put some of that theory into practice, with timing, etc.

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I feel that I may be missing something if I skip sight reading

I think so. Understanding (and being confortable with) traditional music notation is very useful, and specially in combination with the understanding of the theory (scales, chords, etc). For example, you can detect at first sight the tonality of a piece, and spot quickly the chromatic notes, etc. Not only that, but most classical guitar works and study books are writen in that way. Furthermore, it's much detailed (well specified) notation than a tab (you can play a piece without having ever heard it). And, even more: you can even read some music sheet for other instrument (eg, piano) and sight-play it almost instantaneously on your guitar (even with trasposition, just by mentally moving the notes up or down visually, in the staves). I play classical guitar, I'm totally amateur, (you can check my profile) and I value all this inmensely.

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Sight reading is an extremely rare skill which is mostly used by high level performers auditioning a piece they have never seen for a part in a musical or band. For nearly all other players, it is unrealistic to attempt to play a piece you cannot easily sing or with which you are unfamiliar. The main value of reading music is NOT to play it the first time (or even the 10th time) you see it. The value of the written music is to help you get the feel of it, and to be used as a reference, not as an exact procedure. Music doesn't come from what is written. Instead, it comes from the feeling of it, the rhythm, the flow. Notation usually gets in the way of listening and letting it flow. Don't get trapped by the written music. Play it from your feeling, and let your ear guide you. Thanks, Mark Tennenhouse

  • Thing is, if you've ever taken typical piano lessons or school concert band lessons, you are trapped by the written music. Unless there are clear typos or approved errata, your teacher will often force you to fully follow all musical directions on the score by the time you need to memorize or publicly perform the piece. Also, sight reading is not "extremely rare". Sight reading at full speed can be, but if you want to continue your school concert band lessons without being disruptive, you need to be able to sight read at the speed of the conductor's baton (which can be half speed or less). – Dekkadeci Aug 6 '17 at 13:58
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Learning music theory without sight reading is like learning poetry without reading. Sight reading is not essential to music theory, but scores are the written language in which the music theory has been laid down.

Now with a guitar, "sight reading" mostly describes a reproductive skill, like being able to recite a text you did not know before. It is not necessary to read out loud in order to understand a text. In a similar way, it is not necessary to actually play some material in order to understand underlying music theory.

Playing from tablature is sort of like reading from a phonetic transcription: you only get what is necessary for basic mechanical reproduction (and it may work even in languages you don't know), but the underlying structure and sense is harder to see and that may reflect the quality of the reproduction.

So being able to work with scores tends to give you more of a story about the music (including more theoretic stuff like voicing and leading) than working with tablature.

With regard to music theory, sightreading skills just are a skill making scores more familiar, and those are the language that music theory employs for pinning down things.

It's like knowing physics when doing math. Just a different threshold of entry and a different level of preexisting basic familiarity. But not the same story quite.

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There's only one way you can learn theory without knowing how to read music: a teacher explains and shows you. So you can get this either with in-person lesson (teacher sitting next to you) or online video lesson. That's it.

  • I think the question is about whether or not it's necessary to learn sight-reading, not how to go about learning it. – jdjazz Aug 5 '17 at 22:44
  • I guess I answered the question in a roundabout way. The short answer is: it's not necessary to learn how to sight read music. – Michael Martinez Aug 6 '17 at 2:40
  • I see now--it's not necessary because a teacher is an adequate substitute. – jdjazz Aug 6 '17 at 3:01
  • Correct. If you don't know how to read music then someone has to physically show you where to put your fingers on the keys and what it all means. – Michael Martinez Aug 6 '17 at 3:21
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Bro, when I was a kid I took 4 years of grueling music lessons from a piano teacher who went to Juilliard. We did the whole sight reading thing. Just rote sight reading, different classical pieces. I would go to her house and she'd pull up some random classical piece, and I would spend weeks learning it. Mozart, Bach, Chopin, etc. It was pure torture and it caused me to hate piano. I know about 0.5 classical songs from that time, and I can't even sight read anymore because I forgot everything. I look back at those 4 years as the biggest waste of time musically in my life. She didn't teach me anything about theory, just sight reading. It was almost like I had missed the entire point to music during that time.

Fast forward 10 years, I picked up guitar. And unlike piano the guitar is all about "hacking" music. So just theory (scales, modes, chords, etc) and not a big emphasis on sheet music. rather tabs and music theory and modern music rock/pop/etc as opposed to classical music. I loved it. I played guitar for alot of years. Now I'm back to piano. But with a guitar mindset. And I couldn't be happier. To me now, it's all about playing by ear and music theory. and I believe that music theory (scales, chords, etc) works better with playing by EAR than it does with learning sheet music. sheet music just teaches you to become a robot that plays to the T something, that somebody else wrote hundreds of years ago.

If you "must" get notation because you get desperate then there's always tabs for guitar or synthesia for piano. They're both easier than sheet music. The only reason I'd think someone would go for sheet music is if they played in an orchestra or played classical music for a living. For all those using sheet music because they're trying to learn music as a hobby. Frankly, I think it's a total waste of time. It's difficult and unintuitive. ESPECIALLY for guitar. the only reason you'd use sheet music on guitar is if you're a guitarist that plays classical music. And even then tabs are more effective. I took a course on guitar sheet music for a semester in college, and just like my experience as a kid, I hated it.

The most important skill as a musician is the ability to play by ear. Period. It takes just as much practice to play by ear as it is to sight read. So say it takes 3 years to be an accomplished sight reader, then it's 3 years to be an accomplished ear trained musician. And what I mean is, by being good at playing by ear, you can listen to ANYTHING on the radio or in your head and quickly play it on your instrument. If you can get to the point where you can play what you hear in your head, and understand the theory behind it to boot. Then myyyy man, that's what it's all about. You can play anything, and you can improvise too.

p.s I know what I said might sound biased, but hey, this is MY experience and my opinion.

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Absolutely.

I speak as someone who over the years has studied theory without learning to read sheet music. For 2 reasons:

  1. I made music using a DAW for many years without a keyboard/piano
  2. I'm a software developer who writes music related software. Theory knowledge was required for a number of projects I've worked on

As a musician I regret not learning to read music early on. Reading and playing music from a sheet is a valuable skill. It really helps when studying other musicians/composers work.

If, like me, you work in a DAW you can apply your theory knowledge on the piano roll. It's also very useful when tuning samples, vocals etc.

There's a great selection of books by Michael Hewitt that teaches theory from a "computer musicians" perspective. It's called Music Theory for Computer Musicians. He has other books too that discuss composition and harmony.

Without being able to read music though you will struggle when it comes to reading something like ABRSM's "Harmony in Practice".

Take your time, grab some good books, and study. In time you will likely want to learn how to read music. I suggest you grab this book and go through it in your own time.

I hope that helps.

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Yes - I compose orchestral music as a hobby, but I don't play any instruments. So, yes, technically you can learn theory without knowing how to sight read

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I know that most people think reading is important. But I've found there is a much easier way to proceed.

There is plenty of proof that knowing how to play an instrument has almost NOTHING to do with being able to sight read. They are two SEPARATE skills just like speaking and reading. For example, the Beatles couldn't sight read music at all. Neither could Stevie Wonder. Neither could a ton of famous musicians including Eric Clapton and Lionel Richie to name just a few. But, they could play A LOT of songs by ear and they knew how to play chords VERY well.

I honestly think that learning chords and songs is the shortest and most natural way to learn to play piano and guitar. For beginners, it's MUCH better to just learn songs. Then, after you can play a dozen or more songs on your instrument, it will be time to return to learn to read.

So, first learn to play a dozen songs. Then you will find that learning to read and play at the same time is MUCH easier because your hands and mind will be able to easily play the chords. BUT, if you try to learn how to play WHILE reading from sheet music, it's going to take you a VERY long time to learn even basic songs. That's why so many people quit learning music. They didn't realize that learning to read should come AFTER learning to play.

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    You haven't mentioned theory in your answer, and the question is "is it possible to learn theory without sight reading?" Could you add a discussion of where learning theory fits into the sequence? Without that additional bit, I think you haven't answered the question. – jdjazz Aug 5 '17 at 22:52
  • At the moment this hasn't answered the question in hand. It's answered a different one! The relationship between theory and sight reading needs to be in your answer to give it credence. – Tim Aug 6 '17 at 6:32

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