What is musical illiteracy?

SATURDAY, September 26, 2020 – 4:44 AM

If I call someone “illiterate”, it may sound like an insult.

It is not. It simply means someone who never learned to read. A musical illiterate is a person who can’t read music.

Is that a terrible thing?

Yes and no. If you only want to play by ear, and if you have someone else to write down your music, you may be OK. Paul McCartney can’t read music. Nor could Dave Brubeck. There are hundreds of fine musicians who can’t read music.

Then why is reading music so important?

Because if you can’t read music, you can’t play anything written down. You can’t play anything you have not heard, and if you have not been born with a really strong ear, you won’t be able to figure out music just by listening.

How about famous musicians, rich musicians, who can’t read? Do they regret not learning to read?

Usually they do. They may not find it terribly important to their lives, but all the ones I’ve talked to have said: “I know I’m a good musicians, but I wish I had learned to read music.”

How does musical illiteracy happen to musicians?

In almost all cases it’s bad teaching or no teaching at all. Teaching reading is difficult, and learning to read music is also difficult for most people. In fact, I think at first it is difficult for all of us.

What’s the cure?

Better teaching, and more research into how to teach music reading more efficiently. I’ve been specializing in this area since I started teaching, about 50 years ago, and not much headway has been made.

Is music reading something that only a special minority can learn?

No. Absolutely not. If only 1% of all the people who start lessons learn to read music well, that means a 99% failure rate. It does not say that most people can’t do it. There was a time when no more than 1% of all the people in the world could read books. That had nothing to do with the ability of the average person. It had to do with lack of opportunities in an age in which most likely no one knew how to teach the reading of language to the average person.

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