If you’ve ever had to take a music class at school, you know how tedious it can be: reading notes, memorizing symbols, and learning to associate what you see with what you hear or produce. People who don’t have the skill don’t usually see the point in learning to read music; after all, some of the most famous musicians of our time have never done it. So why should you learn it yourself?
There are some pretty strong arguments for music reading, especially when you’re learning to play an instrument. For one thing, if you’re a beginner, reading music can help you become more familiar with your instrument and get a better feel of what movements create what sounds. While the effect is most easily seen in piano playing, it applies to any instrument and even voice training. When you know how to play things by ear and read notes, you’re not dependent on anything but yourself, and that can give you a boost of confidence when you’re performing.
Reading music also allows you to play a wider range of songs, sometimes even after hearing them once or twice. Sheet music for a wide range of pieces, from classics to pop and everything in between, are readily available on the Internet. If you know your whole notes, quarter notes and half notes, you can learn these songs in minutes, whereas other learners will need several days to master it. You don’t even have to take lessons for the basics; there are lots of books and websites where you can learn the symbols and practice reading simple pieces. And the more songs you can play, the more variety you can incorporate in your practice and the faster you will improve.
Start by choosing the right sheet music. A Rachmaninoff masterpiece may not be your first choice, but simple ones—even nursery rhymes, if you’re a complete beginner—can be just as rewarding when you find that you’re able to play it right off the paper. Eventually this will become second nature, and you’ll be paying harder and harder pieces before you know it.
Playing by ear is still important, but good musicians are always willing to explore techniques. Even if you reach a certain level without having to read music, knowing that you can when you need to may be just what you need to take more risks and bring your craft to the next level.