Most people associate music theory with music reading: analyzing key signatures, notes on the staff, sight reading, etc. But for songwriters, I think it's important to differentiate between the two.
Music theory is an understanding of the way music is created and the way it functions. It’s SO important for songwriters to have an understanding of music.
Music reading is a method of communication – a way of representing notes visually. It’s a great skill to have, but isn’t as essential for songwriting.
Because the truth is, you can have a crystal clear understanding of music theory – (keys, chords, scales, etc.) without ever reading a note of music.
That’s why in my songwriting courses, I don’t use examples with musical notation. I don’t want to exclude the people who can’t read music, and I don’t want them to have to try to de-mystify musical notation in the middle of all the music theory they’re already trying to absorb. Because music theory should be their first priority.
It will slow you down.
Becoming fluent in music reading is a process. Just like learning a language, it takes time. LOTS of time. We’re talking, sight-reading practice every day for years.
The ultimate goal of music reading is to become fluent – meaning you can hear a melody once and notate it. Or you can grab a sheet of music you’ve never seen before and play it through without stopping. Or you can sing a melody just by looking at the notes on the staff – (and not have to play them on a keyboard first).
A lot of musicians never even get to that point. (and that’s fine!)
But if you aren't fluent yet, using music notation will probably slow down your process. Stopping to notate every melody you’ve written before you move on to the next line will disrupt your songwriting flow. So will banging out notes on the keyboard to figure out which notes you’re singing.
Music reading one method of communication - but there are other ways to communicate your music! Recording a melody as a voice memo will probably be faster. And if you’re trying to teach that melody to a musician who hasn't been classically trained, chances are they will learn the melody easier by hearing it than by reading it.
It might change the way you write.
Music is auditory. Music notation is visual.
When you’re writing a song, the ONLY thing that matters is what it sounds like. No one is going to be judging your song by how it looks on the page. Most people won’t even SEE what you’ve notated, unless you’re handing out sheet music at your shows. (Although that WOULD be memorable...)
My composition professor in college used to advise that we never write a song in our music notation software. Because it will change the way we write. Music should originate from the sound and THEN be notated, not the other way around. You should hear a melody first in your mind (or play it on your instrument) before you even think about notating it.
Here are a few of the side-effects from writing through notation:
It will distract you from what's important.
When you’re first starting out as a songwriter, music reading isn’t what you need to focus on.
You should focus on getting the basics of music theory first:
Once you have that solid foundation, then music reading would be a great piece of the puzzle to add.
So what the heck is music reading good for?
Don’t get me wrong, music reading is important. (My piano students are probably SHOCKED that I’m hatin’ on music reading right now because I stress it SO much in their lessons!) For classical musicians, music reading is ESSENTIAL. The ability to sight-read and pick up music quickly will make your life much easier in the long run. Here are a few of the areas where music reading will help you:
Playing your instrument
Notating your own music
Working with other musicians
So back to the original question: Should songwriters learn to read music?
The answer is, it depends on where you are in your songwriting education. For more beginning/intermediate songwriters, my answer is usually "not yet." But if you’ve mastered the basics of songwriting and music theory and think you’re ready for that next step, then it's a useful skill to have.
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