Depending on who you talk to, the answer to this question will vary from, “Yes, of course! You must.” to “No. Don’t do it!” Let’s talk about the middle way, and how the best answer for you depends on you, your strengths, weaknesses, and most importantly, your aspirations. It may also depend on who your teacher is and what resources you have available.
I think the most important take away from this message is this: “Don’t let your musical expression be limited by your ability (or inability ) to read music.” Would anyone say to a two year old child, “Stop talking. Stop figuring this out on your own! You must learn to read first. Only play what you can read.” Most parents know better! Yet music education is so often presented in this manner.
At the risk of stepping on a few toes, I’m sorry, but I must say, (because it affects so many students) many music teachers seem to fear letting their students improvise. Some students do play by ear quite well and do avoid reading their music. But if they can figure things out on their own, why not let them? A well rounded music education will include both sight reading and improvisation or playing by ear. If I were the teacher of that student, I would clarify the objective. If we’re working on sight reading, lets play it as written. If we are working on improv or playing by ear, let’s get off the page and learn how to do that too.
I was delighted to learn something fun from a friend studying harp at a conservatory in England. I’ll never forget the pleasing sound of her English accent as she described “disaster management.” While preparing very challenging classical pieces, her instructor would insist that she understand the chord structure of her pieces, and develop the ability to improvise ( “off the page”), so that when a disaster happens and notes are forgotten, she is able to improvise until she can recover.
The ability to play music as written is essential for most public education music courses such as marching band, orchestra, or concert band. It is obviously essential for serious classical musicians and music majors. It’s really handy for church music directors.
…reading music is absolutely NOT essential for casual musical activities such as jam sessions or popular music even at the professional level. No doubt, a top notch session player might sometimes be more marketable if he could read music, but NOT reading music was obviously NOT a problem for Paul McCartney or Glen Campbell.
…some instruments and genres have a wealth of delicious and wonderful, perhaps unrecorded, traditional tunes that you can learn on your own if you can read music.
Reading music can be a big plus so long as you don’t let it limit you to playing only what you are able to read. When learning to read your native language, they say, “You learn to read, then you read to learn.” The same can be said for music, but the value of reading music depends upon what your goals are. Our goals vary widely.
Another thing that varies widely is how readily people can learn to read music. It will come much more readily for some people than for others. Conversely, (and very fortunately!) people who have trouble with sight reading often do very well at playing by ear, memorizing, and learning by rote. So, if reading music is something that comes very slowly for you, learn to read if you want to, but please, please, please don’t let that be a brick wall between you and playing the music you love.
You can learn to play music much faster than you can learn to read it. I have a 9 year old piano student who can play arpeggios and accompany me while I sing Unchained Melody. Yes, even that flat 3 chord in the bridge. He also enjoys reading music, but it will be a long time before he can read what he plays in Unchained Melody. His physical skill to play music develops much faster than his ability to read the notes. His ability to understand the theory develops faster than his ability to read music as well. And that is true for everyone.
In all fairness to teachers who push sight reading: that’s what I used to do. Oh! It’s so much easier to teach them to read first! Just teach them to read, then hand them some music and say, “Learn this.” (...and then help them of course.) When my husband warned me against basing my teaching on reading music, I took the idea to heart, but oh! It is so much more work! I don’t have a handy book to follow. I have to create methods and materials. Fortunately, I LOVE creating materials, but it is quite daunting to keep up with everybody. So, I imagine that if there were more handy teaching materials that were not based on reading first before playing, I think more teachers would use them. If you know of any you like, let me know!
If you decide that you would like to move forward in musical expression faster than your ability to read music will allow, look for a teacher who can teach you to improvise and play by ear. I’m working on materials for beginner improv. I’ll share those as soon as I can. It’s called Canjam. Until you find a helpful mentor in this area, don’t be afraid to go exploring on your own. Einstein said that the highest form of research is play! Always feel free to play like yer three!
And if you decide to develop the ability to read music, be sure that you spend plenty of time reading at an easy level, and then progress very gradually to higher levels of difficulty. Fortunately, there are lots of materials around for that!