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As I see it, notation on sheet music is a tool for translating musical ideas into something that can be read/interpreted by others and played back, given they understand the same set of rules.

I assume also that the way one approaches to music or the instrument played makes thinking about music itself very different. So when it's time to write or create some music, maybe someone trained to see through the lenses of musical notation would come up with some sort of "patterns" or ideas that another person more used to digital creation would have different. It's like if the tool was shaping the craft somehow.

Some time ago I've came across a bass workshop by Victor Wooten that made me think about music in a different way. He explains music as made of 10 elements (notes, rhythm, space, dynamics, articulation...). He believes that all of these are equally important to make music, not even good or bad music, simply music, because you can find them in every melody or song.

Introduction made, now the question. On my personal journey to learn music I've tried guitar playing with no attention to music theory and after that some time in an music school. I'm not reluctant to theory, in fact I like it, but what I fail to see it's the point of making the staff the center of my learning when I don't want to be a classical nor professional interpreter.

I want to understand music, its elements and details to be able to express myself with no more limitations than my abilities. Beyond some basic knowledge of notation that certainly is good to have, is there any fundamental element that is better learned using music written on a staff? I'm thinking in rhythm but not sure.

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    There is a difference between sight reading and the ability to read and write music on the staff. Sight reading is the ability to play a piece as-written on the first viewing. The ability to read and write, without the skill of sight-reading, is valuable in itself. Which skill do you mean? – David Bowling Feb 17 at 16:52
  • Just my personal experience: you say you went to "music school" and then that you "don't want to be a classical nor professional interpreter". I'd say this is the root cause of your confusion. As my clarinet teacher told me just a few weeks before I dropped out from conservatory: "You're gifted but you're not taking this seriously. You're not paying tuition to learn a hobby; you can do that by yourself at home. You're here to become a full-time, professional musician. If you don't want to make a career in Music, this might not be your place." He was right. – walen Feb 18 at 8:47
  • @Topomoto point is wonderful viz notation fluency makes you better in the paradigm that the notation is natural to and makes more inaccesible distant paradigms. As an exercise try and notate this Indian classical lecture into staff notation! – Rusi Feb 19 at 9:29

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There is no simple answer here as it really depends on what you really want to achieve in music, and in what type of music and also what's your strenghts and weak spots.

Obviously Victor Wooten's example shows clearly you can be at the top of the game and rely solely on your ears. Tommy Emmanuel is another example, George Benson and many others.

But it also has to be said that they all have something in common - they naturally absorbed and learned music from the very very early age. Their "knowledge" of music is very visceral - a bit like a spoken native language. For those who didn't have a chance to absorb music this way the learning method is a bit different - a bit more like learning a second language. And that's where being able to read might help. It might help as it allows you to quicker absorb and analyse small detail in music, understand complex sequences, get your head around the form.

Pat Metheny said he always strived to be the best reader he can be for that reason. To understand and absorb more. I'd imagine it's also a tool to free up your memory if there's a ton o musical material to remember.

Bach, Debussy, they were writing and reading all their lives.

So there are different approaches and they are all fine. There's also different proportions of visceral/intelectual in different types of music, that's why again there's no simple answer.

  • Ok. So we can agree that certain reading skills would be beneficial to follow theory books or access to more repertoire, as others have said. Can you elaborate a bit what kind of areas will require more reading abilities? For example regarding to composing non classical material. – user57710 Feb 19 at 19:20
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    I think any musical material that is complex and not only classical gets complex. Example: listen to 'First Circle' by Pat Metheny, try to memorize and repeat the clapping pattern. With the help of the score it should take you a couple of minutes. Going just by ear you'll most likely waste lots of time. And at the end of the day we're talking about time investment here. – Jarek.D Feb 19 at 19:34
  • One last thing regarding composing. Do you see any differences between using sequencers or similar tools vs. writing on staff? I think the medium used for creation conditions the way we think about music itself. – user57710 Feb 20 at 11:28
  • Sure I agree. But conversely the more different ways of looking at the music we absorb the more possibilities we see. Composers writing scores might not be as obsessed with grooves and texture as modern djs, conversely modern dj could definitely gain some interesting insigths by studying for example counterpoint. – Jarek.D Feb 20 at 12:15
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I can read English. I could read a thesis about nuclear science, or whatever, but it wouldn't make a lot of sense to m, although anyone listening may be able to understand what was being read.

Sight-reading is a great skill to have, but I don't think that that, in itself, will particularly give you a great insight into music, or music theory. Learning how to sight-read may well help, as there are certain premises and facts that are important to know and understand whilst learning how to sight-read.

So, studying theory - with the all important practical playing in tandem to make it make sense - is your better route, learning how to sight-read on the way will help, but purely sight-reading things won't necessarily give you much insight into music. Apart from being able to pick up anything, and play it, so bringing that sheet music to life, and perhaps meeting other genres that, if you can't sight-read, may be denied.

  • Thanks for the reply. I've rephrased a bit my question because the point was not really clear. The things is if "reading music on staff" is any useful to help acquiring basics of music theory or even composing. – user57710 Feb 17 at 18:23
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(This answer addresses the original posted question, not the subsequent edit.)

I don't see how sight reading would help with learning the fundamentals of music theory, but there is a very strong case of the converse: a better understanding of music theory makes you a better sight reader.

So much of the "Classical" repertoire is built around fundamental patterns of scales and triads. When a pianist simply knows their scales, sight reading a Mozart piano sonata becomes much easier. Instead of tallying a string of 50 straight sixteenth notes, a student adequately trained in music theory will recognize those sixteenths notes as patterns of the A-major scale; the music then almost plays itself.

In the world of jazz, a string of nine chord changes might look completely foreign to someone untrained in music theory. But the adequately trained student recognizes it as a string of ii–V–I progressions; now suddenly the student hearkens back to their training and the improvisation flows naturally.

Keep in mind too that "music theory" isn't just written theory; it also involves ear training. Musicians that "don't want to be a classical nor professional interpreter" often prefer to play by ear. In such cases, the knowledge of common chord patterns makes playing by ear (not to mention composing) much easier and much more successful.

  • That's a bit my point or idea. Investing more time on ear training to recognize pitch, chords, intervals, etc. than in reading music on a staff. – user57710 Feb 17 at 18:33
  • Note that the question was slightly modified from a specific "sight reading" to "ability to reading and writing music" after this answer, in case the answer needs some adjustment. – Andrew T. Feb 18 at 13:22
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I want to understand music, its elements and details to be able to express myself with no more limitations than my abilities.

The trouble is, we DO limit ourselves to our abilities. If our musical journey is limited to 'monkey see, monkey do' we're only going to understand music that we can play, on our chosen instrument, at our level of technique.

It's useful to see music as notation. It can also be quite an eye-opener to see it as graphic display on a sequencer screen (but that's 'notation' too!) particularly when it's a performance not a quantized construction.

And yes, even a skilled, reading pianist has to consciously break away from writing stuff that lies under 10 fingers on a keyboard! (But he can, quite easily. His technique isn't a disability.)

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Standard notation inherently relates to a certain model of what music is - for example

  • The idea that music is made of 'notes' and 'rests'
  • The idea of rhythms as being constructed of units of time that are hierarchical subdivisions of a bar
  • the idea that a piece of music is assumed to be diatonic and can be said to be in a certain key

(There's no reason you have to think of music as being made of 'notes', or having a 'key' - that's just a particular model, albeit a very common one).

The more used to standard notation you are, the better you will be at thinking of music from the perspective of the model that is implied by standard notation. But if thinking of music in that way is already straightforward for you, then it might be that there isn't any major new musical concept that sight-reading or reading music is going to teach you.

That isn't to say that reading music might not be an incredibly valuable skill, of course. But then learning Chinese, or real estate law, or welding could also be incredibly valuable too. You have to focus your efforts where it seems the return will be greatest.

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I want to understand music, its elements and details to be able to express myself with no more limitations than my abilities. Beyond some basic knowledge of notation, is there any fundamental element of music that sight reading would help me to understand better? I'm thinking in rhythm but not sure.

After reading your waste introduction I assume that you actually mean understanding sheet music as you mention just some basic knowledge of notation and the 10 elements of music ...

Reading and understanding of sheet music will be of an interactive benefit for the process of understanding music theory, listening, analyzing and also for the skill of sight reading. Each moment you are investigating to improve your skills for reading scales, intervals, triads and all sorts of chords, rhythm, solfège, clefs and scores will have agreat benefit for all other occupations with music, also for someone who comes from computer music or any instrument.

Don’t forget that all the genius performers who were musical analphabethists were not those genies because they were lacking of reading knowledge, they didn’t know to read sheet music because they were poor and didn’t have the opportunity to learn it.

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Reading is pretty basic to understanding theory, because we name things differently based on the notation (e.g. an augmented fourth sounds the same as a diminished fifth). Reading also gives a notation to rhythm, and articulation through slurs, legato lines, staccato dots, etc.

In any field it's useful to have some kind of nomenclature. It gives you something to wrap your head around and communicate with others. You could get along by demonstrating what you mean if you don't have a language to describe it, but notation gives you a faster and clearer method.

That said, "sight" reading means being able to interepret a piece that you haven't seen before. I think it's a useful skill for the work I do as a guitarist, but it's certainly not essential for all guitarists, and the speed at which you can recognize things like intervals and chords isn't much of a barrier to understanding music theory - if you can follow and understand the written examples in theory texts, you're reading skills are sufficient, and reading faster won't help al that much.

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You have to see that musical sheets gives to you only 2 things:

  1. WHAT to play/execute;
  2. HOW to play/execute.

For the first one the sheets will brings to you all the notes or elements which are contained in the song. Is valid reforce that music is not made only of sound and notes but it is made by silence as well. Then this part brings this elements for you.

Once you know what you need to play (or even sing) the song now you have to know how to perform these elements and this will took by the second topic. If you know all notes and silences you have to do, the sheet music will teach you the durations, expressions, dynamics or even feeling.


Knowing this you see that sheets can not teach you any music rules or theory, but you don't have to quit from its learning.

Why?

Answering: you need to know that sheets are the VISUAL form of a sound. We only can LISTEN to a sound, but we can't see it. The sheet is the way that humans can to SEE the song.

Then, if you really want be a person that understand music you really have to do it completelly, and learn sheet reading is a part of this knownledge.

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While the primary purpose of sheet music may be a way to communicate musical works so that a musician can play the piece that the composer intended, it is also a (practically) universal language among musicians to describe notes, scales, chords, and other elements of music.

You could probably express a lot of the ideas of music theory in a digital format, or even in guitar tablature, but the number of people who would be able to read it (or write more theory in the same format) is much more limited.

If you want to learn theory, you'll need a teacher (or teachers) and you'll need to be able to receive instruction about music in a form in which they know how to deliver it. It's possible to learn quite a bit of theory merely by ear, without writing any notes, but to really learn a substantial amount of theory I think you need some way for people to be able to notate the ideas for you, and standard music notation is the way most teachers understand. So it's probably a good idea to learn enough of it to follow the theory lessons.

To borrow an analogy from another answer, there are fields of study where almost all current material is published in English. You could learn some of one of those fields in a different language, but if you want to really be up to date in the field, it pays to learn English. Knowing English won't make you a good nuclear physicist, but not knowing English might prevent you from becoming a good nuclear physicist.

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It is hugely beneficial for learning to be able to read and write. Without this ability you're illiterate. You could develop your own writing system, but then you would have to teach that system to anybody else you want to communicate with, and most probably your system would suffer from many first-generation deficiencies. Using the same common system of written language as other people is hugely beneficial too. Traditional Western musical notation has been developed through centuries of practice by countless people, for communicating music-related ideas to other people. Performers, composers, arrangers, theorists. And not just any ideas and aspects, but those ideas and aspects that all the people have deemed to be actually relevant, in a way that they have deemed to be actually practical.

Learning a language enables you to interact with a culture, people using the language. If you think you're a self-sufficient entity and don't need to be in touch with the part of musical culture and history that uses musical notation... Okay. :)

If you're not convinced yet, it would be possible to list all the useful technical properties of musical notation, but it would be an endless list. I think it should suffice to say "just learn it or otherwise you're illiterate". Though on the other hand, of course nowadays we have Youtube videos, speech recognition and everything, so we can gradually fade away this awkward reading and writing thing. ;)

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