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Reading; “Will he ever use it?”

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

A parent recently asked, “Why is he learning to read? Will he ever use it?” My immediate response was, “We’re going to use it right now.” I get asked that question so seldom, it caught me off guard. I guess the short answer is, “It depends on what his goals are.” Reading is used differently in different situations.

Here are just a few examples of, “how he’ll use it.”

Let me start by saying, the advantages of learning to read music are the same as learning to read english. If schools only taught orally, teachers would lecture and students would have to memorize everything without books or notes. It would be very time consuming and inefficient. Test scores would be much lower!

The most efficient method is written lessons. I can demonstrate one exercise and assign 6 similar exercises for them to work on at home. Otherwise, we might spend the entire lesson on one thing… and hopefully, they won’t forget it when they get home. It could take 5+ years to get through one book’s worth of material. That’s really slow progress at $40 per lesson.

Reading is invaluable for learning songs quickly. I have to learn 3-5 new songs per week. I’ll get a set list one or two days before the gig. There isn’t time to play along with the recordings and memorize everything, so I make cheat sheets. They’re also used by touring and studio musicians. When time is money, you have to learn fast. You won’t see Taylor Swift’s band reading onstage because they go “off-book.” But you’d better believe they can all read!

Reading skills are mandatory to join school and college bands. They read every note they play. Jazz band is a little different because they use drum charts, which are skeletal outlines of the songs. Charts mostly tell you what everyone else is playing, so drummers have to interpret what’s written. It also requires knowing a wide range of musical styles. With that skill set, a world of professional opportunities will become available.

Even if they don’t aspire to play in the school band (or Taylor Swift’s band), learning to read music will only enhance their experience. I ran into a former student who said he likes picking up books to learn new things. There are books on different styles, hand techniques, polyrhythms and exotic percussion. Song transcriptions are everywhere. Pretty much anything they’re interested in is available for them to explore. With some basic reading skills, they won’t have to ask someone to “show them how it goes.”

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