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Why is Sheet Music Still Considered Necessary for Music Education?

What a shame that high-caliber musicians could get turned away from music schools simply because they have no desire to read notation. Most schools don't currently have a notation-free track to put them on anyway.
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All four Beatles. Elvis Presley. Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Page. Eric Clapton. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Bee Gees. Eddie Van Halen. Robert Johnson. Slash. Angus Young of AC/DC. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Adam Jones of Tool. James Hetfield of Metallica. Danny Elfman. Stevie Wonder. Dave Brubeck. Andrea Bocelli. Wes Montgomery. Jimmy Smith. Charles Mingus. Erroll Garner. Irving Berlin. Chet Baker. Pete Townsend. Tori Amos. Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain. Taylor Swift. Bob Marley.

Aside from being famous and legendary musicians, what do these people have in common? They did not read sheet music (notation), nor did they need to in order to create and perform some of the most indelible music of their time. While notation has its place, it is not in any way necessary in order to fulfill your highest dreams, goals and aspirations as a musician. In some circles, that equates to heresy but the truth is that in the 21st century, reading notation has never been less essential to making music. Sure, before the advent of electricity, sheet music had a lock on the music market. Even in the early 20th century, a popular song would sell a million copies of sheet music to eager readers everywhere.

But things changed. With jazz and blues came new styles but most importantly, freedom from the script. With rock and roll came three chords and the truth, hallelujah! Anyone in their garage could bang out a few power chords and claim punk status. And now with modern digital instruments, people don't even have to understand a thing about music theory or play a traditional instrument in order to create beats and songs. It's uncharted territory and a lot of new music is erupting from this new paradigm; some good, some not. But who's to say that this music is not valid, especially in the eyes of its creators? If it has a chord structure and a melody, it's a song, even if you made it out of loops on a computer and regardless of whether you have any real understanding of music or can decipher notation. And whether it hits on the charts or at the very least fulfills your own desire to create music, isn't that all the validity needed nowadays?

"Never hate a song that's sold a half million copies." - Irving Berlin

But a notation-free paradigm has so far proved unattractive to traditional music education, which relies on notation for its claim of musical legitimacy (and relies on Federal accreditation dollars tied to notation-based teaching standards). That list of musicians at the top shows in very certain terms that notation is not an actual gateway to musical knowledge, learning, performance or writing. In fact, it acts as a firewall to the majority of beginning students who attempt to navigate it. I would imagine someone like Bob Marley wouldn't have made the cut at Berklee or Julliard but that has literally no bearing on his musical contributions, abilities or worth. So why do we still insist that our schools and teachers must use notation to teach? And why aren't we more receptive to notation-free teachings and teachers? And more importantly, musicians?

"I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to." - Elvis Presley

As the author of a notation-free approach to understanding music, I can tell you that most of the music publishing companies that I initially approached with my manuscript were dismissive or slightly hostile to the idea that my book used no notation, as if people couldn't understand words, numbers and concepts without it. It took years before I reached some forward thinking people at Alfred Publishing who understood what I was really trying to do: not just enable people to learn to imitate other peoples music but to acquire the language skills to begin making their own music. To create actual musicians with their own voices, not just regurgitators. New creators, new voices, new visionaries to freely open their gifts to the world while having the ear to interpret all other music as well. More musicians= more music; more music= a better world. A world full of dreamers who can actually fulfill their musical dreams because they speak- and hear- the language of music.

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. - Victor Hugo

A bit of history: since before Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano in the late 17th century, notation was how music was recorded. As a recording, it is meant to be reproduced to exact specifications of tempo and dynamic, therefore turning the pianist into a human phonograph needle of sorts. To deviate from the notation was seen as blasphemy, highly criticized even when done brilliantly, such as when Glenn Gould released the Bach Variations in 1955. Over 50 years later, there's still some uptight critic calling him a "willfully idiotic genius" for such daring behavior. Such tiresome nitpicking! But it only matters because he dared to deviate from the script. And the script no longer exclusively serves every situation, outside of an orchestra.

As a musician, your ability in most live situations to quickly transpose a piece or adapt to sudden deviations is way more valuable than being locked to an inflexible script, as is your ability to stretch out and at times improvise. And this is one of the main shortcomings of notation: it doesn't give you any real understanding of the language itself. It's phonetic and inflexible. And so those who read notation well do not usually learn to use music as a free language or "speak" music with others. Imagine if every time you wanted to have a conversation, you had to pull a script out of your pocket and read it verbatim? It's one thing if you want to read someone's speech and perform it once in a while. But what about your own thoughts and conversations, your own expression and catharsis? How can you better attend to and voice the music that lays waiting inside you?

"As long as the two of us know what we're doing- i.e. John and I- we know what chords we're playing and we remember the melody, we don't actually ever have the need to write it down. Or to read it." - Paul McCartney TV interview

Yes, you can write music via notation if you so desire, though I would again reference the list of musicians at the top and consider this: not only did all those artists not need notation to write music, but the act of writing without notation directly facilitated their ability to create the music they did. For just about all non-classical/theater music, the use of notation is almost non-existent. I myself have played as a sideman on many major tours with artists like Lisa Marie Presley, Everclear, Nick Lachey, Seven Mary Three and more and never once have I been given sheet music. In fact, it's the exact opposite: here's the CD, see you on Thursday.

At that point, how your ear interprets the structure of music is everything and your sight-reading skills are useless. If you learned how music is formulaically and numerically structured and you learned how to apply that to your listening skills, you'd be able to take on any situation, charts or not. Adding notation reading to your skill set will matter more after you've gained the context on which to build that knowledge. But necessary it is not, especially if you have a grasp of chords and melody.

"It's all down to a chord sequence. I could be fiddling on the piano and just looking at the lyrics and I'll play two chords together and I'll think "Oh, that sounds really good." You stumble on things by accident. Certainly, chords are very important and melody is very important. I could write a melody to more or less anything." - Elton John TV interview

So how does traditional music education change course and open itself to a more holistic understanding of music and an path of equality for notation-free learning? How does this behemoth of traditionalism embrace the timeless mathematical simplicity at the heart of music and allow all who are interested the path to pursue their musical dream with legitimacy and respect? Is Education, Inc. interested in fostering free-thinking minds and nurturing those with innate, raw ability who have no use or need for (or interest in) notation? So far, the answer is mostly no.

"I would not have majored in music because when music becomes technical for me I don't like that part of it. I can't read music." - Taylor Swift

What a shame that high-caliber musicians could get turned away from music schools simply because they have no desire to read notation. Most schools don't currently have a notation-free track to put them on anyway. Luckily for all musicians, music is freely available to understand, practice and study outside of schools and most professional bands generally don't require degrees for you to audition for them. If that group of legends I listed at the top can achieve their dreams and goals without notation, then so can anyone, including you. You would most certainly be in exceptional company!

"Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything." - Plato

Robbie Gennet is the author of The Key of One, a notation-free approach to understanding music and developing your own voice. Find out more at and pick up the book at (DVD included)

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