James McVay: To Read or Not to Read?

June 27, 2011
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There are millions of guitarists in the world and yet the majority of them don’t read
notation. Why is that?

I myself am a self-taught guitar player who made a living playing by ear and lightly dabbling in “reading.” I went on to write movie scores (by hand, also self taught) and learned to conduct orchestras so I have some perspective on the subject of “reading” music.

First off, reading notation is only one of several ways to learn a piece of music. Notation in it’s current form has been around for about 400 years. If you consider the fact that music has been a significant part the human experience for tens of thousands of years you have to ask yourself - how did people learn music before there was notation? Music was handed down from generation to generation by listening and watching and mimicking what you saw and heard. Humans are genetically predisposed to remember melodies. In fact humans remember melody more readily than literal information. I bet you learned the alphabet with a song. There are anthropological reasons for this but that’s another story.

Secondly, there are two kinds of reading. Reading to memorize a piece of music and what’s called sight-reading. Sight-reading is a discipline all it’s own and it’s hard. Sightreading a single note line is one thing but reading chords on the fly is quite a different matter. The other kind of reading is what most of us do. We slowly analyze the dots and sound them out on our instruments and while it’s a pretty good way to learn a piece of music it has it’s draw backs as well. It’s important to note here that “reading” music is a “left brain” activity. It’s an analytical process, however music is an emotional experience and that leads us to the third aspect of “reading music”

Thirdly, reading notation distracts you from the emotional aspects of playing music. In my years conducting orchestras I experienced this firsthand. When your brain is engaged in analyzing the music so that you play the right notes the emotion of the piece gets lost. It just does... I’ve seen it over and over. Music without the emotion is flat and lifeless (my opinion). I believe most all of us are drawn to music in the first place because of the way it touches us emotionally. Now let’s relate this to the guitar.

The guitar is arguably the hardest common instrument in the world to read music on. When you consider the fact that there are multiple places to play almost all the notes on the guitar which ones do you choose. A piano player has only one place to play middle C while the guitar has five. To illustrate this scenario, imagine having six keyboards lying next to each other at the interval of a fourth except for the fifth keyboard which is a major 3rd above. Now, imagine playing a melody. At first you would play the melody on just one of the keyboards until you get familiar with the intervals of the other keyboards then you might begin to employ them. That process can be managed but when you have to play a chord and given the fact that you can only play 1 note per keyboard the process is quite daunting.

All of this is assuming you stick to one tuning on the guitar. As soon as you change the tuning all of those positions go out the window and you have to start all over again. How many of you play in more than one tuning? When I do a show I use four or five different tunings and to restrict the guitar to just one tuning is a disservice to it’s vast potential. The guitar is one of, if not the, most versatile instrument known to us humans. Let’s just enjoy it’s gifts. If you want learn to read then read—but if you don’t feel the need then
don’t. It does not, I repeat not make you a less dedicated musician. And one last thing, there is a long list of world class guitarists who don’t read music and yet they have left an indelible mark on the world of music.

James McVay
author of The Right Brain Guitar Method
rightbrainguitarmethod.com

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