Do All Musicians Need to Learn Sheet Music

Do All Musicians Need to Learn Sheet Music?

Reading sheet music is one of the most difficult aspects of studying music. Music performance has many characteristics similar to spoken languages like grammar, syntax, and tone. 

Much as written language requires a knowledge of spoken language, written sheet music requires a fluent understanding of music performance in addition to recognizing and decoding the symbols used in musical notation.

Unlike spoken or written languages, however, performed music and written sheet music also have characteristics such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and articulation which must be accounted for. As a result, learning to play music and learning to read sheet music are very different from learning any other subject.

What is “reading sheet music?”

When music is written down as sheet music, composers and arrangers often use hundreds of unique symbols to indicate precisely how each note should be played. Given that most songs have hundreds or thousands of notes, looking at music notation on sheet music can be a very daunting task for a new musician.

Reading music isn’t required for all musicians, of course. Lots of successful musicians play “by ear,” by listening to the notes as they play them rather than by looking at the notes on paper. Indeed, aural transmission of music — sharing music between musicians by playing and listening rather than reading paper sheet music — is still the norm for musicians in a range of traditions from gospel to jazz to pop.

Most, if not all, professional musicians, however, can read music to some degree. So, beginner students studying with veteran teachers will learn something about reading sheet music. As any beginner music student knows, there are countless beginner sheet music books for every instrument from piano to violin to clarinet to guitar. These books are designed to teach new techniques and musical skills while also learning how to read beginner sheet music.

What is “music?”

In order to discuss sheet music, we must first understand what music is. Music can be defined as a combination of sounds, either pitched or unpitched, and silences with an intentional timing or rhythm.“Music,” therefore, is not on paper — music is performance, music is sound. Music can be heard in the air, or in our mind. But no matter how we experience the music, music is about doing, making, hearing, and responding.

Humans make music naturally, without any training.  Indeed, human beings have been making music for fun and relaxation for hundreds of thousands of years, long before writing was invented. A human fetus can hear and respond to musical sounds even before it is born. Infants instantly respond to musical sounds from their parents. Young children sing songs as part of their games, and we all hum or whistle tunes to help pass the time.

Today, music is all around us. Music is playing at the stores where we shop, on the radios in our cars, in our earbuds as we go about our day. Music is everywhere!

What is “sheet music?”

If music is the sounds of the performance of music, then sheet music can be defined as symbols written down that represent the sounds and silences of musical performance.

Music performance has been around for as long as humans have existed, but much like written language, written sheet music — also called musical notation — has only been around for a few thousand years. Ancient Egyptians recorded musical notation in the form of hand signals, many of which can be seen in tombs. Chinese musicians have been recording musical sounds in written form since the 5th century BCE (before the common era), and evolving into guchin notation by the 7th century CE (common era). Ancient Greek and Jewish musicians used symbols written above the words of prayers and hymns to help the singers remember the tunes and ornamentations for the performance of the music.

The type of musical notation many people refer to as “sheet music” is the descendant of notation traditions developed in Western European countries, most notably Italy, Germany, France, and England. Hymns and psalms used in church services, particularly music of the Roman Catholic Church, were reused week after week, year after year. However, church musicians didn’t always have a perfect memory of the tune of the music. Early attempts to record music on paper were intended to be a reference or guide to help the musician remember how to sing or play. 

The earliest sheet music in Europe used a single line with a series of neumes (notes) around the line to indicate whether the note was high or low, long or short. One line, however, was not very accurate, so additional lines were added — first two, then three, then four. Five lines, the most common type of notation seen today, didn’t appear until sometime around the late 1500s. Over the years, more and more symbols were added to further refine the various elements of musical sounds — pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, timbre, and tempo, among countless others.

Thus, it’s important to understand that anytime this article refers to “sheet music,” we’re specifically referring to the five-line musical notation tradition developed in Western Europe by church musicians, especially monks singing and teaching Gregorian chants of the Roman Catholic church. There are many other musical notation systems for used around the world that didn’t originate in Europe.

Nevertheless, as a result of European imperialism and colonization, the vast majority of formally trained musicians the world can read sheet music from the Western European tradition. 

For this reason, learning how to read Western European notation (“sheet music”) makes it much easier to share music with musicians from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures, and traditions all over the world.

Different perspectives on reading sheet music

Who needs to read sheet music? At the most basic level, no one “needs” sheet music. If you can hear a song once or twice, remember it perfectly, and perform it on your instrument without any instruction, then you don’t need sheet music at all. Learning music by ear from another person is referred to as “aural” transmission of music. Every human has learned music by listening to it — for example, learning nursery songs as a child or memorizing a favorite song from the radio. Sheet music isn’t required to learn music if you have time, patience, and motivation to do so.

However, if you’re like most people, you can’t remember a song perfectly just by listening to it. It’s much harder also to understand how to play the song on your instrument just by listening to the song a few times. Which keys should you press, and in what order? This is where musical notation, or sheet music, comes in handy. Here’s a summary of a few different schools of thought for why reading music is or is not important.

Musicians who (usually) read sheet music

Reading sheet music has lots of benefits for musicians because sheet music is a powerful tool for learning new music quickly, a useful resource for remembering learned music, and an essential skill for studying music theory. Therefore, practically all trained musicians can read music because they learned how as part of their education. In addition, most beginner musicians who learn to play an instrument through formal music lessons from a teacher also learn how to read sheet music as part of the process.

Music Theory Basics for Beginners
Learn more about music theory by clicking the image above.

Genres of music that use sheet music extensively are popularly referred to as “classical” music. This is actually a misnomer — musicologists (researchers who study music history and culture) define Classical as the era of music composition in the 1700s and early 1800s, including such notable composers as Mozart and Beethoven.

Perhaps a better term for this genre then would be formal music — music that is composed for instrumentation like piano or orchestra, that requires high-level musical skills to perform, and that is intended for a musically-literate audience. Because formal music is typically very complicated, reading sheet music helps musicians learn the music faster and perform the music more accurately than if they just hear it.

Musicians who (usually) don’t read sheet music

Why would someone not learn how to read sheet music? Throughout history, most people have never learned how to read sheet music but many have still been great musicians. Lots of musical traditions prefer learning music directly from another person because, for all its benefits, sheet music is only a representation of the music.

For example, folk music traditions in the United States and other countries pass their music from person to person aurally by listening and learning the music from other musicians.

Jazz, pop, and gospel musicians often take a hybrid approach to learning and sharing music. Most often, musicians that play these genres learn music by listening to recordings or playing with other musicians. Sometimes, in these musical traditions, musicians might use a lead sheet to learn and remember music. Lead sheets typically show the lyrics and/or melody of a song as well as appropriate chords, but not all of the information. In order to really “learn” the music, therefore, it’s important to both look at the lead sheet and also listen to performances or recordings in order to get all the information needed to play the song well. 

Nevertheless, learning to read music can still be very useful for musicians who play by ear, so many musicians also read the five-line staff notation just like that of formal music. Whichever system works for the circumstance is the best one to use!

The basics of Western European musical notation

Sheet music is a written language which attempts to record the acoustical characteristics of musical performances. Acoustics, the science of sound, helps us understand how sounds move in and through the air around us. Every sound has three basic acoustical characteristics:

  1. Frequency: how fast or slow the air vibrates for a given sound
  2. Duration: how long or short the sound lasts
  3. Volume/Loudness: the amplitude of a sound, or how loud or soft a sound is

In music, sounds are usually referred to as notes and silences are referred to as rests. The acoustical characteristics of notes have direct and indirect parallels in music:

  1. Frequency → Pitch, how high or low a note is
  2. Duration → Rhythm and Articulation, how long or short a note lasts
  3. Volume/Loudness → Dynamics and Articulation, how loud or soft a note is

Because of the complexities of acoustical sounds, sheet music may have literally thousands of musical symbols which have been written about extensively. For the purposes of this article, here is a quick primer on sheet music notation for each category of musical characteristics.

Pitch

Pitch refers to the specific frequency of a note. Frequency is a scientific measurement of the speed of the vibrations of air molecules. The unit of measurement of a full cycle of vibration is called a hertz. For example, the pitch A4 has a frequency of 440hz meaning that the air molecules get closer together (compression) and farther apart (rarefaction) 440 times per second.

Thankfully, musicians don’t often have to worry about the mathematical frequencies of the notes. Instead, pitch in music is usually notated on the five line grid called a staff with low sounds toward the bottom of the staff and high sounds toward the top of the staff. Pitches are written on the staff using notes, with the note head centered around the line or space of its corresponding pitch. Pitches are named using two different systems, sometimes referred to as the German system and the Italian system. Which system you should learn depends on where you live and the system commonly used in your country. 

Typically, the tone sets used in music have 8 primary pitches referred to as a scale. Thus, the German system uses eight letters to name the notes of a scale — A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The Italian system, on the other hand, uses names referred to as solfeggio — Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Si (or Ti). The German system is used most commonly in British Commonwealth countries and the United States, while the Italian system is most commonly used in Italy, Spain, and Latin America. Both systems work roughly the same way, although like any language there are considerable exceptions and dialects that vary from region to region.

Of course, there are way more than just eight pitches used in music. To accommodate this, a musical staff is usually started with a clef — a symbol that defines which lines or space corresponds with which pitch. The two main clefs used are the treble clef (G clef) and bass clef (F clef). Notes on the treble clef are usually higher pitches, while notes on the bass clef are usually lower notes. Also, the patterns of the notes repeat themselves, so that after G in the German system, or Si in the Italian system, the notes start back again at A or Do.

Rhythm

Rhythm is the duration of a musical sound or silence, and its relationship to other sounds or silences before and after it. At the most basic level, sounds are notated in music with a note head and a stem. Silences are notated in music with a rest. In the English language, there are two naming systems for note values — the British or Commonwealth system and the American system. Both systems describe notes based on their fractional relationship to each other, with each smaller duration being half the previous value.

Here are the names of the most common note values in the American and Commonwealth systems:

Dynamics

Dynamics in music define how loud or soft a section of music should be performed. British composers of opera in the 16th century when music notation was being developed loved Italian opera, so In English, the terms for dynamics are typically written in Italian:

Pianissimo → very soft
Piano → soft
Mezzopiano → medium soft
Mezzoforte → medium loud
Forte → strong loud
Fortissimo → very loud

Often, the volume of music changes over time. In English, the words for changes in dynamics are also notated in Italian:

Crescendo → gradually get louder
Decrescendo → gradually get softer
Subito piano → suddenly soft
Subito forte → suddenly loud

Articulation

Articulation is the largest and most varied element of musical notation. Articulations are symbols added to a note that suggest changes to pitch, rhythm, or dynamics. Yes, you read that correctly — articulations are suggestions.

The interpretation of an articulation symbol during a performance depends entirely on the instrument being played, the musical genre, the cultural context, and the personal preferences of the musician.

Some common articulations are:

Why get tutoring to learn to read sheet music?

Much like spoken languages, sheet music notation is complicated with thousands of symbols and rules. And, also like language, sheet music often requires the reader to understand musical traditions and history, the idiosyncrasies of the composer or genre, and the many exceptions to typical practices.

Simply put, there is no way to learn how to read sheet music on your own — it’s just too complicated.

Sure, one can learn the basics like pitch names and basic rhythm. But, this is a bit like learning a new language by using a phrase book — is it useful to know how to ask where the bathroom is if you can’t understand the response?

Studying musical notation opens up a whole new world of music to musicians. When a musician can learn music by reading it rather than just listening to it, they can learn music from all over the world quickly and easily. They can also learn how to write their own music and share it with others.

Musical notation is a written language and so, just like any language, you can learn musical notation best from someone who already speaks and reads the language natively — a music tutor. Tutors of musical notation provide a wide range of activities and exercises to help new musicians learn how to read and interpret the symbols of music notation successfully.

Don’t go it alone! Find an expert music tutor who can help you master musical notation, and you’ll be amazed at just how much better you can communicate musical ideas with others.

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