Do you need to be able read & write music to be a good musician?

Reno Silva

Hello everyone! Well, here is one of the biggest debates between those who love music theory and those who don’t partake in it much. Do you need to be able to read and write music, or furthermore be proficient in music theory to be successful, or be “good” as one would put it?
This is a loaded question, because many will swear by it, arguing that it improves your musicianship. Truth be told however, some of music’s BIGGEST names, could not read or write a note of music. To be clear, my job is not to take a side but merely point out the strengths in each argument to leave you the reader to come to the conclusion you feel most comfortable with.
First off, let me give you some names of those who have gone on to be some of the most influential music icons in all of music history – who don’t read or write music. These would be (and there as many, many others) John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson and Miles Davis – it is a spectacular sample of names. They have gone on to not only be remarkably successful, but also influence a legion of people who themselves have gone on to successful music careers. They have gone on to write some of the most famous songs in all of music history. Maybe they had someone there to make sense of what they were playing and translate it onto sheet music, or outsourced some parts of songs to those who DO read and write music. The idea, the song writing, some of the most ingeniously written music came from someone who didn’t look to find clever ways of theoretically crafting a musical piece. Many of those names, simply found music theory too distracting from what they felt needed no explanation, and they ALWAYS had that advantage to make their case because when you were in the car and first heard some of those songs, the sheet music didn’t suddenly flash up on the windshield or windows. The speakers fed you what those musicians were able to convey without the said theory.
Now, on the flipside, is the rationale that knowing your music theory makes you a more complete musician. Some of the most intelligent music ever written was all constructed in the period when it was the only way to write music, literally WRTITING it down – there were no tape recorders of any sort during the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical periods. Not only were the composers entrusted with keeping their compositions safe, but the public would only hear the music “once in a while”. Imagine that! The song that you look up on YouTube because you can’t get enough of it, back then you would only hear it when you paid to go see an opera or performance, or if someone else was playing it during a street festival. Safe to say we have gotten spoiled!
We need to look at what drives a music composer to begin his craft – creativity. Creativity most certainly has no rules. It comes when it is enhanced by inspiration. In fact, for argument’s sake, let’s simplify it even further, just getting someone to grab an instrument to learn it on his own. Will learning music theory make you start to learn music better and in effect play it better? I personally think there is a separation between the two. The performance part of it still has many variables, both anatomically and adaptive.
Do you need to be able to read and write music or know your music theory to be a good musician? No, I don’t think so, but I do think it sure helps to know what’s going on musically. I personally think music theory is interesting, I think it also allows you to communicate better with other musicians in the studio, live, co-writing, to make sense of why you are stumped in a song you are writing….but I also think that the one thing music theory does not teach, is the voodoo emotion that exists in some of the biggest musician’s songs. I know quite a few people that have graduated from the Humber College music program then went hard into Motown music in order to learn the “feel” and the “emotion” that you will never learn in a classroom. I also have a hard time thinking though, how much better could “Yesterday” by the Beatles have been, or “Layla” or “Tears In Heaven” by Eric Clapton, or “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson if those artists had been more proficient in music theory? I for one don’t want to think it could have been, those songs are magic. That is the voodoo, the mojo or the unspoken gold that exists that I don’t think anyone can quantify let alone suggest they could have been better. I think both music theory purists and those who simply write from their heart and soul that know not a stitch of music should be allowed to co-exist and work together as much as possible because I think each side has a lot to always learn from one another.

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