The Merits Of Reading Music

Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.

There is a modern tendency among musicians to shun the practice of reading music. I understand why, since the ability is increasingly unnecessary for the creation and execution of rock and roll and its offshoots. But sheet music has a secondary function as a communication format. Being able to read music allows another channel of communication; functionally, it lands somewhere between being fluent in a foreign language and owning an operational record player.

See also: -Beck Defies Sheet Music: The Six Most Insane Excerpts from the Odelay Transcription. -The Power of Profanity -Better Living Through Music Archives

There has been much analysis of Beck's sheet music-only Song Reader album. I find the release most interesting because this is the only moment in recent history in which people are being rewarded en mass for being able to read music. It is also a chance to experience what the enjoyment of music entailed in the time before recordings. Some call Beck pretentious, but this resembles assumption rather than pretension. All releases rely on an assumption; an mp3 release assumes you have a computer and an Internet connection and a CD release assumes your car stereo still works. Like a cassette-only release, Song Reader uses an outdated assumption as an aesthetic. Beck is often guilty of trying too hard, being ironic, and trying too hard to not appear ironic, but at least the songs didn't come out on wax cylinder or piano roll.

This is where I have to admit that I am a music theory nerd, the kind of insufferable dude who studies Stravinsky scores in bed while his wife is trying to sleep. I fully believe that the more I learn about the guts of music, the more I appreciate listening. At the same time, I do not think that reading music or understanding chord progressions is at all necessary for the enjoyment of music. It irks me to hear somebody say they don't understand theory enough to connect to jazz or classical music; if you need to learn to like music, you can never truly love it.

I can relate to musicians' attitudes of apathy towards music education, but I am stunned by the amount of people who are adamantly opposed to learning about theory or sheet music. People tend to brag about never learning how to read music as if this is an uncommon or difficult path, which is like saying "Oh, I never learned the periodic table" in an arrogant tone. There is another common belief that knowing theory will demystify music and make it less special. This is similar to the logic that diehard Creationists use to justify ignoring science.

I know that Song Reader is little more than a curiosity in the grand musical scheme, but I am sure it has inspired some folks to relive their elementary piano lesson days. It has probably caused a slight spike in the sales of Yamaha keyboards at thrift stores. I don't think Song Reader is a genius move for Beck, but I am excited about what it might inspire in people. Anything that gets people either thinking about or playing music differently, anything that widens a communication channel, is inherently good for all of us.

No musician is an island. If the message that frees you from a shipwreck happens to be written on manuscript paper, be prepared.

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