Yes, I know. We are traditional musicians. We do not need to be able to read staff notation in order to perform, or to learn. And, we can, of course, rhyme off a list of legendary musicians who never learned to read music, and managed just fine, thank you very much. So why are we even having this conversation?
Here’s why. Becoming musically literate – in other words, being able to read and write down music using staff notation – is a skill that can help us in so many ways, as traditional musicians, singers and teachers. And, it’s one of those skills that is, as they say, easily carried.
Learning to read music is a massive confidence booster – trust me! I have seen so many musicians, from students right up to professional players, panicked and overwhelmed in situations where they are the only ones who cannot read staff notation. Where they feel that little bit less able and less accomplished than other musicians who have this skill. And, of course, we manage – we pick the music up by ear and retain it, or we scribble out an ABC version that we can read. And that’s more than enough to allow us to move on to the main business, to playing the music. But that uncomfortable feeling of not being able to do something that those other musicians can do with such ease often lingers.
If that has ever been you, imagine how brilliant you would feel if you were the musician who was able to accept that page of sheet music – or that trad orchestra score – and off you went, reading away! Imagine the confidence you would have from simply adding this skill to your toolkit!
Have you ever wanted to learn a tune that you could only access in notated form? And then had to hunt for a recorded version or something written out in ABCs? Or maybe you know the rudiments of music notation – enough to encourage you to through that laborious exercise of writing out the ABCs under the dots? It’s time-consuming, isn’t it? Imagine if you could cut out all of that interim work. You could take the sheet music, and simply read the tune off the page? Wouldn’t that be great!
Being able to read staff notation immediately makes you a more versatile musician. By being musically literate, you can learn by ear or by note, depending on the situation you find yourself in. You are also able to expand your musical horizons, should you so choose – for now you can pick up and read a tune from any genre of music. And, being able to read means that you are in a position to collaborate with musicians from any other style, with a whole new level of confidence.
4. Teach Trad Better
I hear this a lot from teachers who never learned to read music themselves. Their students are increasingly finding themselves in situations where they are presented with staff notation (e.g. in trad orchestras, online music sites) – and they feel guilty that they have not (and cannot) equip them with this skill. Imagine how great you would feel if you were able to empower your students with the ability to read music fluently. Imagine how confident your students would feel. Imagine how many possibilities that might unlock for them? Just because learning to read staff notation was not necessarily baked into traditional music lessons before now, does not mean that it can’t be, going forward. Teaching traditional music in the 21st century needs to take all of the new opportunities and resources that students have access to into account. Being musically literate is certainly a skill that will help them engage with all of these fully and confidently.
5. … and there’s more ….
Being able to read music will unlock a world of repertoire – with immediate effect! Of course you can always pick up tunes by ear. And that more and more resources offer ABC alternatives to staff notation examples. However, there are so many published collections of tunes out there, full of hidden gems just waiting to be recovered. Not to mention that being able to sit and play through a tune book is a delight in itself!
Being able to read music can also help you understand the basics of music theory. And, again, while we don’t need to know this in order to be able to play traditional music, it does help to be able to get in under the bonnet of the tunes and really understand (and articulate) what it is we are doing.
Once you can read music, you can write it down. No more pages of ABCs. Instead you can translate all of your notes into pages of sheet music – either by hand or using a simple music notation software like MuseScore.
So, how might learning to read music help you?
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