MD Education Team Weighs In On: Reading Music
Is it necessary and/or important for drummers to learn to read music?
We asked the members of the MD Education Team if they think that reading skills are crucial. Here’s what they had to say.
I believe there are great advantages to being able to read music. The following are just a few examples.
Reading Empowers You
Whenever I encounter a student that doesn’t read music and doesn’t have much desire to learn to do so, I try to encourage him/her by stating that reading music accelerates your growth and greatly expedites the learning process.
Imagine how tedious it would be if we wanted to learn more about any subject but couldn’t read words. Having to wait around for someone to spoon-feed us the next piece of information would get old pretty fast. Advertisement
Now suppose one day a musician decides he would like to explore a different genre of music, like samba. If you have the ability to read music, you can simply go the music store, purchase a book on that topic, and begin. Of course, it’s always important to check in with a live instructor or an expert in that given style to fine-tune things and make sure you’re on the right track.
Increases Chances of Getting Work
Many of us on this panel perform in multiple bands, teach private and/or group lessons, do recording sessions, perform in musicals, etc. All of these activities, which help to sustain a career, wouldn’t be possible without the ability to read music.
Reading music and understanding note values and musical terminology helps us to communicate with other players, especially in time-crunched situations. For example, if you’re subbing for another musician, one of the guys in the group might say something like: “In the bridge, play dotted-quarter notes on the ride cymbal, then go back to straight 8ths for the final chorus.” If you understand and speak the language, then you’re good to go! Advertisement
This is an extremely useful tool that requires not only the ability to read music, but also being able to transcribe beats, fills, and phrases. Whether you’re learning someone else’s material or trying to quickly jot down some of your own ideas, charting/transcribing is one of the skills that many working musicians value most. Some people have the misconception that charting and transcribing means writing out every note, rest, and time signature. While that’s one way to do it, charting can also mean quickly writing down a song structure (8 measures first verse, 4 measures pre-chorus, etc.) and a few key fills or changes in the beat. I do this routinely, and it only requires a basic knowledge of how to read and write. Being able to chart out a few things allows us to play the music with confidence, even if it’s for the first time.
Let me begin by saying that I believe the goal of reading is not to teach your eyes and hands what to play; it’s to develop your ears and your overall knowledge of rhythms, drums, and music. I’ll also say that the relative importance of reading depends on the kind of player, student, or teacher you want to be—not at all important for some, but critical for others.
I divide reading into two different types: dynamic and static. Dynamic is reading while playing, or playing while reading (i.e. sight-reading). Static is looking at notated music or drum parts, studying what they mean and how they sound. Advertisement
First, I’ll talk about dynamic reading, which I think of as two types. One is single-line reading, like what you’d find in any number of snare drum method books. It’s good to work on this type of reading as soon you begin to play drums, although you can start at any time and at any age. I don’t think it’s the most important thing for young/beginning students to practice, but it’s good to start the rhythmic recognition/repetition process early on because it helps to develop the ears as your eyes, brain, and hands are teaching your ears what the rhythms sound like. I like to have students play something, and then I’ll write out what they played and show it to them, instead of doing it the other way around. Reading seems to be less threatening and intimidating this way.
The second form of dynamic reading involves drumset parts. I often call this “chart interpretation.” There are drummers at all levels, from world-class to beginners, who don’t read charts or parts and often don’t need to. Although I believe it’s good for a drummer to be able to read charts and drum parts, the extent to which it’s useful varies from gig to gig. For example, playing standards with a jazz trio may not require the same level of chart reading as playing in the studio for a film date.
For this type of reading, it’s very important to be able to chunk together measures or sections. You want to try to get your head out of the chart so that you’re not reading beat-to-beat or measure-to-measure. Look for ways to connect larger sections in the music, and listen closely to identify musical phrases and the overall form of the piece/arrangement. Many, but not all, drum charts are written as rough guides, leaving it up to the player to interpret and make music out of them. Advertisement
This type of reading develops a deep and comprehensive understanding of rhythms, drumming, and music. For me, this is the most exciting and important reason to be able to read music. The point is to study and analyze the information—whether it’s from a score, transcription, or exercise—and make something new out of it. Static reading helps your hands, eyes, brain, and ears stay connected. The process of understanding, examining, exploring, analyzing, synthesizing, turning ideas upside-down and inside out, and creating new ones is at the very heart of learning and growing. Exploring the infinite possibilities and combinations of things is part of what helps us stay lifelong learners—we’re always changing and always growing. You don’t have to be able to read music to do all of this, but it does make it easier.
The short answer is, yes, but the long answer is maybe not. If you want to be able to work in many different situations in the music business, you should be able to read music. And either you’re a reader or you’re not. There’s not much middle ground. A good reader can handle any type of chart, be it a lead sheet, big band chart, musical book, hand-written chord chart, or a bass/piano/melody part used as a guide.
If you want to be a pro, you should be able to read. However, you could be a pro in a band, memorize the songs, and that’s all you need. Buddy Rich wasn’t a reader. He would hire another drummer to play the arrangement while he sat out front and listened. Here’s the hitch: Buddy could memorize the arrangement after just hearing it one or two times through. Clyde Stubblefield is also not a reader. I produced a record that he played on and was a little concerned when we got into the studio and found out he couldn’t read. Everyone else had charts. His friend Pee Wee Ellis, who was also on the session, said, “Don’t worry about it.” Clyde listened to the run down, got on the drums, and played it perfectly. Advertisement
So there you go. Either learn how to read or learn how to memorize songs really fast and really well. I’ve always found it best if you can memorize the music anyway. That makes it much easier to concentrate on the groove and make the music sound good.
I believe every drummer should learn to read as well as write music. How I learned to read will help explain my approach, which is grounded in the jazz tradition. Back in the mid-’50s I heard Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, Sonny Payne, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Papa Jo Jones, and others live at Jazz at the Philharmonic and Peacock Alley in St. Louis, Missouri. I watched, listened, absorbed, and copied what they played.
At home, I had a great time in my fantasy world playing along with the world’s greatest jazz musicians on records. My imagination served me well, but I soon found that there were many patterns and rhythms that I wanted to play consistently but wasn’t able to recapture. After struggling with this, it became clear that I had to learn how to write music. I had learned how to read basic notation in grade school, and Haskell Harr’s book helped with some simple snare drum exercises. Advertisement
When I heard Art Blakey play his signature Afro-jazz rhythm, I was so moved that I had to be able to play it. It was too complex and beyond my memorization capabilities at the time, so I started to write it down. While playing that cut over and over on my record player, I figured out the cymbal rhythm first, and then added the tom parts. The bass drum and hi-hat were easy. I used a kind of graphic notation that I later converted to standard notation.
So that’s how it started for me. At first I thought some of the magic of improvising in the moment might get lost from writing out the rhythms, but that was a chance I had to take. And it was worth it! Not only did the magic not go away, but a new kind of marriage of improvisation and intellect brought me to a place where I had more control when I needed it, and I still could call upon the deep listening required for improvisation. I bought Jim Chapin’s Coordinated Independence book and his Music Minus One records and just started to figure things out.
Later, the great St. Louis jazz drummer Billy Schneider showed me ways to interpret simple drum parts, and then Tom Siwe at the University of Illinois helped me refine things a great deal. But my personal experience, and my observation of students’ needs, still has reading as an accompaniment to being able to hear and interpret by ear. Most drummers that have come to me for lessons over the past fifty-plus years play with an aural approach, and it’s a joy to show them what the rhythms they’re playing look like when notated. This allows them to expand their ideas and become composers of their own drum parts. Advertisement
In the beginning, I encourage students to listen, play, absorb, and then write things down. The other way around takes more time and can get in the way of the music of drumming.
From my perspective, the answer is a huge YES. Of course, you always hear about those great exceptions to the rule, like Buddy Rich, but just imagine how much bigger the group of outstanding drummers who can read is. Some even studied other instruments, which led to them developing a completely different understanding of music that helped them become a better drummer in return.
Understanding the structure of music and rhythm in written form is a vital part of our work. How do you teach without being able to read music? How do you sub in a commercial top-40 band without being able to read charts? How do you prepare for a studio gig if you’re not able to make notes and additions to the charts? How do you keep track of new ideas that you come up with while you’re practicing if you don’t have a recording device available?
If you only practice what you already hear, chances are that you will have a hard time developing new ideas. Interpreting a syncopated reading text, like Ted Reed’s Sycopation, in various ways will get you to play things that you didn’t imagine or couldn’t hear before. Plus, many doors of opportunity to becoming a professional player will stay closed forever if you don’t develop and maintain your reading skills. Advertisement
The good news is that developing reading skills is something that basically anybody can learn. It’s just a question of how much time you want to dedicate to it and how disciplined are to stay on course.
Like many loyal MD readers, I consider myself a blue-collar working drummer, meaning that if my phone rings and the person calling is interested in booking me for a gig, I take it in order to pay my bills. In many cases, I’m in situations where one rehearsal is all the time I have to put all of the pieces of a show together, so having the skill to read fluently enables me to say “yes” with confidence when just about any opportunity comes my way.
From my point of view, it’s easier to sustain a good quality of life, performing in a variety of musical settings with great musicians, if I’m able to read music. Learning to read was another step forward in my quest to becoming a complete musician. Like with developing any new skill, the more you read and immerse yourself in situations that require reading, the better you’ll become. Advertisement
Learning to read takes time, patience, and effort. This process is no different then learning another spoken language. The key is absorption and integration. Learn the language at your pace, but be sure to make yourself vulnerable by taking gigs that require reading, whether it’s with community bands or orchestras, high school musicals, or local college ensembles that need percussionists to cover parts.
In order to get to a point of proficiency, I practiced sight-reading something new everyday, for many years. I still do this. My earliest teachers stressed this fundamental each week in lessons, so I grew up sight-reading often. Because I can read, I can also pick up a copy of MD and work on new technical or conceptual exercises each month. This inspires me to continue working hard at my craft.
As a drummer with a long history in education, my first and immediate instinct is to say of course you should learn how to read music, as it’s the foundation to being an educated drummer. However, there are always exceptions to the rule, where drummers lead a very successful career (either through luck or innate talent) without ever reading a note. Below are some thoughts on whether or not it’s worth learning to read music, depending on the type of drummer and musician you are. Advertisement
Someone with a ton of natural talent, like Eddie Van Halen, never read a note of music, yet he reinvented how to play the electric guitar. If you’re a drummer who’s somehow reestablishing how technique is utilized on the instrument through concepts never seen before, then perhaps it’s not vital to read music because your inborn ability is allowing you to accomplish your goals. However, keep in mind how incredibly rare it is for someone like this to come along. Innate talent isn’t something that can ever be designed or planned.
If you have a band that’s extremely successful and you’ve built a lucrative and emotionally satisfying career in music, then you’re one of the lucky ones that doesn’t have to mold your future by becoming as well rounded as possible. Yet, be aware that if your project falls apart, you’re left to assess who you are as an individual rather than a band member. Perhaps learning how to read, even on a limited scale, as you’re enjoying your success will help avoid starting from the ground up if your band breaks up.
Deciding on what type of drummer you strive to be is a good determining factor of what level of reading you’ll want to reach. Someone who’s predominantly a jazz drummer, or someone who has ambitions to be as well rounded as possible, is going to need to have a good handle on reading. But a drummer with a great ear in the world of rock may not need to read on most gigs. Advertisement
There’s an ongoing argument regarding reading amongst drummers who learned “on the streets” versus those who have come up through the educational system. One advantage of coming up in a community of natural musicians is the exposure you have to learning from other players, either by jamming together or by watching one another perform. For those types of situations, reading is not a necessity. But you may catch yourself in a situation down the road where you can’t accept a job because they use charts or require some other form of reading.
Regardless of where you stand, keep in mind the state of the music industry now. There are many more players than gigs, and the ability level of drummers has improved ten-fold just in the past few years. Learning how to read and play your instrument properly will ensure a greater amount of opportunities for you.
A New York City studio musician once told me a story about how the great pianist Errol Garner held up a recording session with a roomful of musicians for over thirty minutes to learn an arrangement because he couldn’t read the music. The point was that time is money in the studio. Some time later as I asked another player who was on the session about it and he said, “Yeah, but Errol Garner wrote ‘Misty,’ which is one of the most popular songs of all time. How many people can claim an accomplishment like that”? Advertisement
While I’d agree that it’s best to be a quick study in a studio recording environment, the above story reminds me that good musicianship ultimately requires us to be good with our ears first. Steve Gadd talks about this in his classic instructional video, Up Close, when asked about the importance of reading. After he explains the importance of knowing the road map, he says, in regards to specific rhythms one might see, “If you can’t figure it out, better just to listen to it the first time…and get through it the next time. The only thing you’re there for is to play the music. You’re not there to show people you can read.”
Even with that in mind, you’d have a hard time convincing me that it isn’t important for a drummer/percussionist—or any musician for that matter—to learn to read music. But whether it’s necessary or not depends partly on if you’re trying to make some level of a career out of playing music.
I tell my students that if they’re looking to play professionally, then it’s important to be able to cover a variety of musical styles, to play at a wide range of dynamics and tempos, to be able to program rhythms, and to read music. Advertisement
Some drummers will tell you that they don’t bother with reading because it “messes up their feel,” and I feel that that’s a weak argument based in insecurity. Put on a recording by the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, for example, and check out how that band swings in the hands of players who can also read like classical virtuosos.
Studio legend Bernard Purdie, who might have the best feel ever, surprised me when he took the opposite point of view, once stating, “The chart is what gives me freedom.” He pointed out the value of having a piece of music that laid out the direction of the song for him; it allows him to relax and do his thing.
Personally, I’m probably most relaxed in a musical environment where I have the repertoire committed to memory, or at least understand the forms the songs, so I don’t have to read charts. But my ability to sight-read has provided me with opportunities to play music with some great musicians that I wouldn’t have had the chance to work with otherwise. Advertisement
This is one of those questions that seem to come up all the time. Is it necessary for a drummer to learn how to read music? Certainly not. Is it important to learn how to read music? As far as I’m concerned, it’s very important. I feel this way for a very basic reason: the potential benefits to learning how to read far outweigh the relatively small amount of work that goes into learning how to do it. You can get a basic understanding of the fundamentals of musical notation in a few months of lessons with a good teacher. This basic knowledge then opens you up to being able to learn from thousands of books, e-books, magazine articles, and websites.
If you’re a younger player reading this and you intend to make a go of it as a professional or semi-professional drummer, then I would say you are required to learn how to read music. The music business is getting more and more competitive, and you will need every skill possible at your disposal to give you a chance for success. When it comes to the gigs I do, such as Broadway shows, corporate events, and filling in with cover/tribute bands, my ability to read and make charts is essential to me being able to take the amount of work that I do. Even in my prog bands Happy The Man and 4Front, reading skills come into play because I often make charts to help remember the insanely complex arrangements. There’s a lot of work that you will have to turn down if you can’t read well.
If you can’t read music, do yourself a favor: Find a good teacher, and spend eight weeks or so getting your basic chops together. I guarantee that you will be surprised at how easy it really is, and I think you’ll be excited and inspired by the new world of knowledge that becomes available to you. Advertisement
In my twenty-two years of teaching private drum lessons, this is probably one of the most-asked questions I get from new students. Before answering them, I throw this question at them: “Do you do you think it’s important to have a drivers license and a vehicle if you are planning on becoming a professional working drummer”?
It’s not essential to be able to drive, but the chances are pretty good that you’ll have to find your own way to most gigs. Of course, there are other ways to get around, but having the independence and convenience of driving yourself will always look more attractive to the person hiring you. The same applies with reading. Having this skill make you more attractive and versatile to some bandleaders, producers, and musical directors. Reading will also help you develop your creativity and your style as you learn new concepts. And you’ll be able to learn new genres and song repertoire in a shorter time than if you were learning by ear.
I never want to discourage new students from having fun. Let’s face it: no one was inspired to play drums from opening a drum manuscript. I record my classes on DVD, and we don’t visit reading in the first few lessons. I want students to have a great experience. When I start talking about reading, I tell them that on many top-40 gigs I’ll just lift the grooves by ear and memorize the song arrangements, so no reading is required. But then I tell them that sometimes I’m hired by many different bands at one time, and I don’t have enough hours in the day to dedicate to retaining all of the music by ear. Because I know how to read, I can transcribe and write out drum parts and/or full charts and use them on the shows. This saves me so much time, and relieves a lot of stress on the gig. Advertisement
Reading is essential. Of course, there are many gigs where reading will not be necessary, but the skills developed from a focused, educational approach to reading prepare you for non-reading situations. For example, you will be able to recognize rhythms as they’re being played by other instrumentalists and then replicate them, when required.
My studies with Richard Wilson and Murray Spivack included a very aggressive reading program. Modern Reading Text, Common and Odd Time, Portraits in Rhythm, and many other books were thoroughly practiced. I tell my students that reading is like lifting weights. The heavier you lift, the easier it becomes to lift lighter things. So the more difficult reading you practice, the easier everything else becomes.
In my opinion, reading music is a must. Could you imagine trying to function within society without being able to read and write your native language? It would be difficult to accomplish even the simplest tasks, like ordering food at a restaurant or following directions to a friend’s house. This is also true of reading and writing the language of music. I read and write music everyday. I’ll give you three examples: Advertisement
I work with many different artists, and it would be impossible to memorize a full set of tunes for each of them. I write shorthand charts for each tune and store them digitally on my iPad and physically in a file cabinet. The charts usually consist of the main grooves, ride surfaces (hi-hat, ride, etc.), and the song’s form. With that information, I can do a short review of each tune prior to the gig without the hassle of relearning the entire song.
Learning and Teaching
Being able to read music enables you to learn new ideas very quickly. If you can read, you have all drum resources at your fingertips. You can learn concepts from famous teachers like Gary Chaffee, John Riley, Jim Chapin, and George Stone. From a teacher’s perspective, I can also write down ideas, which allows me to custom tailor a lesson for a given student’s interests and deficiencies.
I also enjoy writing books. Because I understand how musical notation works, I was able to create the entire manuscript for my book Playing With Drum Loops book. This made my publisher, Carl Fischer, very happy. Advertisement
In my opinion, reading is one of the many parts of the mosaic of a complete drummer. That doesn’t mean that you’ll be a better musician if you can read music, but it will affect your understanding of music and it will make it a lot easier to have a musical conversation with other players. If I couldn’t read music, I would have a limited approach in how I’m able to say different things on the drumset.
I would even go a step further and say that it’s not only important to read music in terms of drum notation but you should also learn how to write chords and melodies. One of my music theory and composition professors at the university said it best: “If you hear a ballad played by a really good jazz drummer, you will still hear the chords, even when he is soloing.”
Is learning to read absolutely necessary? Maybe not. But for me, reading has been one of the single most important skills—if not the most important—that I’ve learned. And I’m steadfast in my belief that you should try to learn as much about reading as you can, even if you just understand the relationships between the various types of notes. Most gigs don’t require stellar sight-reading chops, but knowing what a quarter note is, and what it looks like, is crucial. Advertisement
For me, reading is an essential skill on so many levels that to try to touch on them all here is impossible. I only know how to relate to music from a position of being able to read, so I don’t know what it’s like from the other side. Being brought up through the school system, playing in concert bands and jazz programs from an early age, reading and rudiments were the first things I learned. I don’t remember what it’s like to be traumatized by seeing 16th notes for the first time, but from a very practical standpoint reading is a skill that makes my life easier.
My memory isn’t always great, so I often use charts to help me remember forms, cuts, and other musical cues. I have notebooks full of songs that I’ve learned over the last twenty-five years. Without those, not only would I forget the songs but I would forget I ever learned them in the first place. Because I can read, I can grab any tune out of one of the books, and play it on a gig.
I don’t think reading ability is in any way connected to a person’s inclination to be creative or to the ability to communicate well from the instrument. History is full of great drummers and other instrumentalists who read poorly, or not at all, but played great music. Advertisement
Having said this, I do believe that reading is a valuable skill. For one, it opens an aspiring musician to a wealth of information through books and other publications like MD, which I practiced a lot out of in my formative years.
The other thing that makes reading valuable is that it helps in the communication of musical ideas, especially when time is short. I was just on the road in Europe for three and a half weeks. This included the recording of two albums (one in Spain, the other in Germany) with some great musicians that I don’t get to play with very often. I hadn’t heard most of the music prior to either session, so my ability to read was instrumental in getting the music right.
What does it really mean to read well as a drummer? More than anything else, it means that you can quickly interpret what has been laid out in a chart and do it in a musically pleasing way. What this tells me is that in order to be considered a good reader, you have to be a good drummer already. It’s impossible to call someone a good reader if that person can’t deliver a musical performance of the written material. Advertisement
The most difficult thing I’ve ever read and played was Frank Zappa’s “Mo ’N Herb’s Vacation.” Unlike a regular drum chart, which usually only contains simple accents, rhythmic kicks, and other basic roadmap indicators, this piece actually carries a unison melody played by the drumset and the clarinet. The variety of rhythms, which includes all kinds off subdivisions and groupings over one, two, and three beats, the orchestration, along with the dynamic and technical demands, were quite a challenge.
For those interested, here’s a link to a recording of me playing this piece during the dress rehearsal for a recital. It was taped on a cassette player alarm clock in November of 1989. I believe the chart can still be ordered through Zappa’s publishing company. Check it out if you have a chance. Needless to say, I couldn’t ever have played this without being able to read music.
It’s not absolutely necessary to be able to read music in some scenarios but it’s important as a working professional. And as a general rule, one can expect to progress much farther as a player when having the ability to read. Advertisement
Aside from the need to be able to read and write charts in band settings, I think the biggest benefit of being able to read is that it allows you to learn vocabulary that comes out of instructional books. Listening to music and transcribing licks is great and necessary in your development, but there’s also tons of great drum books that will take you out of your comfort zone to make you explore new ideas.
Many people struggle with learning to read and end up frustrated or giving up. I’ve found that the best way to learn how to read music is to also write music. Imagine a kid in elementary school trying to learn how to read a book without ever writing letters and words. It would be really hard to do, yet that’s how most music teachers teach. The goal is to get to a point where every piece of music someone puts in front of you is comprised of things you’ve already learned how to write.
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