I’ll say this now before the trolls are set loose: You don’t have to know how to read music to create meaningful music.
There…now on to the important part…
Some musicians can’t read music; others can’t play by ear.
When I speak to musicians who can’t play by ear, the response is often: “I wish I could do it; I wish I could improvise.”
But there’s a different attitude amongst illiterate musicians. There’s more arrogance. They pride themselves on not being able to read music. In some cases, they’re celebrated for it. “Wow! You play great music but you can’t read music? That’s impressive!”
This could be for numerous reasons. For one thing, illiterate musicians are resisting and rebelling against the status quo. Education’s default method of making music is through reading. They’re telling everyone: “See? You don’t have to know how to read music to play music! So why read music?”
The main reason though, is because reading music isn’t practical. At least, it’s not practical in their immediate communities.
The end goal for musicians is music. Playing is the only way to achieve this goal. Reading music does not create music. In a sense, sheet music, and having to read sheet music, is an obstacle. Besides, the ability to read music would have no bearing on the music they hope to contribute to the community. So why read music?
Well, what if you want to reach outside of your community? What if you want to share your experience with future generations? There would have to be common ground; there would have to be a universally accepted language. Written music accomplishes these things.
We don’t celebrate illiteracy in society because we’re engaged with many diverse communities everyday. Why should musical illiteracy be any different?
Here a few more thoughts on music notation. Please feel free to add your own!
- Notation is common ground
- Notation is fixed and can have historical significance
- Notation is a sign of discipline
- Notation enhances the study of the materials of music
- Notation allows musicians to explore the extremities of expression
- Notation adds another dimension to music. As we use words to describe our thoughts and feelings, we use notation to describe music.
Interesting questions to consider: What if nobody read music and everybody played by ear? How would that change things?