A number of famous musicians have bragged that they can¹t read a note of music – from film composers Danny Elfman, to Broadway composer Irving Berlin, to Rock star John Lennon – not to mention a whole slew of pop, jazz, country, and rock musicians. So, is reading music necessary for music lessons?
Yes, I think it is. Furthermore, I don¹t think it is that difficult to learn. In fact, I question the claims of musicians who say they don't read music – because it is my belief that most musicians do read music…. it is just that they don¹t read it very well!
You see, music notation is just a graphic representation of music. Every day you can pick up a newspaper of magazine and see graphs: of statistics, financial forecasts, or any number of things. Most everyone can understand graphs and charts in a newspaper or magazine. So, it is not that difficult to understand music notes written on staff lines, just like a graph. When the notes go up, the music goes up. When the notes go down, the music goes down. It is really very simple.
But yes, music reading is a little more complicated than that! For example, there are time signatures, key signatures, flats, sharps, accidentals, and note values, etc. These are further subtleties that make music notation complex. It is my belief that when musicians say they don't read music, they are saying that they do not fully understand the complexities of more advanced music notation. Or rather, they are just unsure of the many complexities found in notation. This, however, does not mean that they are musically illiterate; it just means that they are insecure with some of the aspects of notation.
It is worth noting: if you want to study music, chances are great that your teacher will assign you music books that involve reading music. Music notation is the preferred method for any course of music study. [One possible exception might be a notation called Tablature, which is special notation for guitar. However, this is still notation.] Therefore, your success in progressing on an instrument will definitely be tied to becoming literate in reading music.
The good news is that most beginning method books (and your teacher) provide excellent progressive information on reading music. Like any learning process, there is a certain effort that needs to be made. However, the rewards are great. Just like learning to read English is a great way to learning just about any subject that can be written about, music notation is the way to learn just about any music in the clearest, concise way.
For further information on reading music, I suggest an excellent book, "The Musician's Guide to Reading and Writing Music", by Dave Stuart, published by Miller Freeman Books, distributed by Hal Leonard. Dave is a very humorous writer, and makes learning notation fun and enjoyable.
– Guest contributor, Ernie Mansfield