To Read Or Not To Read

When to Embrace Written Music and When to Get Away from the Page

If you're wondering whether reading music is important to your (or your child's) guitar education, you'll quickly discover conflicting philosophies.  A classical guitarist may tell you that reading music is essential to understanding the guitar and communicating with other musicians.  A rock, blues, or folk guitarist may tell you that reading music is an unnecessary burden that distracts from musical expression.  They may even cite you a list of famous guitarists who can't read a note.

Whether or not a student should make reading music part of their education depends on:

  • age
  • musical interests and genre(s) of choice
  • goals as a musician


Most children should learn to read music, regardless of their preferred style of guitar.  The musical tastes of children evolve considerably as they grow.  If they like music enough to start guitar lessons now, who knows what paths their musical life may lead them down later!  As a teacher, I typically devote half of a child's lesson on learning songs written in notation. The other half of the lesson we dedicate to whatever song or style the child is excited about at the time.

The only exceptions I have made to teaching music notation were when the child was taking guitar lessons for therapeutic rather than educational reasons.  In these cases, the parents made it clear  that guitar lessons were to be relaxing, fun, and confidence-building.  Since enjoyment was the sole objective, I let music notation slide.

Musical Interests

For older students (teenagers and adults), whether you learn to read music depends on the style(s) you're interested in.

If you are interested in classical or jazz guitar, you must learn to read music.

Written music notation has been the standard method of communication in classical guitar for centuries.  There is no way to get around it.  While transcriptions to tablature exist for popular classics, tablature gives you an incomplete picture of rhythm and interpretation. What's more, if you want to play in any kind of ensemble, you will need to read music in order to learn your part and understand how it fits in rhythmically with the other parts.

Similarly, jazz guitarists have need to have a thorough understanding of music theory and the fretboard.  Music notation is the language in which theory is taught, and you can't ignore it.  Furthermore, jazz groups play together using lead sheets, where an outline of a melody is written in notation, and chord symbols for improvisation are written above the melody.

If your interests lie in rock, blues, flamenco, or pop music, reading music is not necessary.  Similarly, if you are learning the guitar primarily because you want to accompany yourself as you sing folk or singer-songwriter tunes, you don't need to read.  Your time would be better spent playing songs that you love, developing your ear, and strengthening the playing techniques that pertain to your style.


If a career as a musician is even a remote possibility or desire for you, you should learn to read music.  Understanding notation is a prerequisite to entry-level university music studies.  Regardless of your professional goals – whether you want to perform, teach, produce, record, compose, etc. – notation will be the chosen language of communication in countless situations.

Also, if you're the type of person who enjoys things more when you understand them, reading music will be a big advantage.  Guitar is a confusing instrument for beginners, full of seemingly random scale patterns and chord shapes.  Some students accept the mystery and enjoy the sound without understanding the language.  Other students go crazy with questions about how music works, and their doubts get in the way of their musical instincts.  For the latter group, learning notation and some basic music theory will help demystify the guitar and boost your confidence as a player.

As you're deciding whether or not music notation belongs in your guitar curriculum, keep these last couple points in mind.

First, reading music will never hurt your playing.  If you're curious about it but don't play a style that requires it, explore it anyway.  The only drawback of learning to read music is that it takes time.

Second, if you do decide to learn to read music, regardless of your reasons, don't get stuck on the page!  Remember that music notation is only a means to an end and not the end itself.  If you're a classical guitarist, commit some songs to memory and play them without the score.  Pick out melodies by ear, play around when the mood strikes you, and learn to improvise and invent ideas.

Written notation is an extremely useful tool and an essential form of communication in many musical contexts.  Just remember that the notes on a page are not, in themselves, music.  Music exists in our ears, minds, and hearts – use the page to help it arrive there.

Leah Kruszewski has been a guitar teacher for nearly ten years, specializing in acoustic, classical, flamenco, and fingerstyle guitar. Learn more about her private lessons.
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