This month I want to address a question I’ve been asked many times: “Should I learn to read music?” The answer may seem obvious, since any skill can be considered an asset. However, there’s an ongoing debate about the negative side effects of learning to play an instrument primarily through method books. After all, music is a language, and you can learn to speak any language without being able to write it. Let’s explore the three arguments I hear most often against studying reading.
People Who Read Music Aren’t Creative
I understand the thought process behind the belief that a musician who relies on notation is a “rule follower” with confined creativity. But take a look at the actual definition of the word notes. In music, we define them in reference to pitches and rhythms. But there’s another definition: “a brief record of facts, topics, or thoughts, written down as an aid to memory.”
Thinking of musical notation as a notepad to aid your memory puts things in a different perspective that’s not about limiting creativity but is allowing for more efficient creative expression. If I have an idea, I can write it down in music notation to clarify and log for reference. I have a very detailed lesson book that I carry everywhere. It contains a combination of text and musical notation. Both serve the same function; they’re brief records of thoughts that help me remember new ideas.
“Ah, mastery…what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills…and then sees the light under the new door those skills can open, even as another door is closing.”
—Gail Sheehy (American writer)
Reading Inhibits My Ability to Memorize
A while back, I asked Steve Smith what he was working on, and he told me he was transcribing a piece in 22/8 for a gig he was playing with Japanese pianist Hiromi. He was writing a chart to help him memorize the piece. Memorizing something in 22/8 by ear can be very challenging, but being able to write it out can help you analyze and internalize the patterns more efficiently. You can learn to be a high-level player without reading any music, but you won’t be able to learn or communicate new or complicated information as easily.
I do the same thing as Steve when preparing new music. I write charts to help me remember arrangements. And taking the time to figure out a phrase well enough to write it out helps me internalize specific figures. However, if you read all the time, your memorizing chops can diminish. I spoke to Kenny Aronoff about this, and he mentioned that it’s hard for him to memorize things because he reads charts so often. But I believe writing music into notation helps the brain process and remember things more easily.
Reading Is a Distraction
This final train of thought is that your listening abilities are hindered when you’re reading music. I agree that if you’re reading a note-for-note transcription on a gig, then your ability to listen and react is diminished. But your job is to play exactly what’s written, so improvising and interacting isn’t expected. This is different from reading a chart. A chart is a framework with important details for you to interpret in your own way. When I’m reading charts, I keep my ears open for opportunities to communicate and improvise with the other musicians.
While I can see both sides of the argument, I believe that having proficient reading and writing skills will ultimately make you a more efficient and employable drummer. Just remember to keep all of your other musical tools sharp as well.
Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more information, visit russmiller.com.