Reading Music - a response to Julian Lloyd Webber

Julian Lloyd Webber writes in the Telegraph about the need for music students to learn to read music. One of his arguments is that a thousand years of music would be lost if it hadn't been written down - and that makes sense.

However, in a modern world we have more ways than traditional paper and pencil to notate music. Musical Instrument Digital Interface (or MIDI) manages midi devices to create music and doesn't need the little black notes on paper; it's all done through electronics. Manipulating these midi devices likewise doesn't need some who understands the little black notes to be able to create music. All they need is to understand how to work a good midi program. Reason, by the PropellerHeads, is a piece of midi software that doesn't use standard notation to create music, and it's a versatile enough program to produce music of a quality to play on the radio. Cakewalk's Sonar (my personal favorite) is part recording software and part music generating software. Again, there is no need to generate little black notes, although Cakewalk can translate what you've created into something that looks vaguely like standard notation.

A good portion of the music played on the radio today is created by people who are not using music notation to create it. While many record producers can read music, much of their job is understanding the sound created and not they are not concerned about notes on the page. Hip Hop, Urban and House Music artists tend to use re-mixing of samples to create their music, which isn't coming from music notation, but rather from the actual sounds. It is possible to create music without notation and it is possible to record it for future generations without committing it to notes on paper. So, learning notation isn't necessary to learn music.

On the other hand, a great way to learn music is to study how other people have created music. As Julian says, there is a vast history of music written down which is the basis of much of what we enjoy today. While it's possible to listen to Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No 1, there is a great deal to be learned from looking at the music, seeing the nuances of the score that just aren't graspable (not by me, anyway) by listening to it.

So, should we have to learn to read music? I guess it depends on what we expect to be the end result. If it's for a degree in music, then yes, I would have to say reading music at some level is necessary, as a degree suggests you have a understanding of music beyond listening. But reading music doesn't make you a musician and not reading it shouldn't preclude you. In terms of Julian's suggestion that reading music is like learning the ABC's, I can't agree. A novelist can't write a book without learning his ABC's, but there a numerous musicians who can compose with notation.

That being said, I feel musicians should still want to learn to read music, and not reading it isn't something to be proud of. It just isn't a requirement (in my opinion).

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