Do you have to know how to read music to play?

This has come up before in another thread and after responding, I thought I’d copy and paste my response out front hoping someone else that’s discouraged may need some encouragement as well.

Do you have to know how to read music to play an instrument? No. You only need to know how to make that instrument create the sounds you want it to. People that play for a living often go to universities where they study music theory, but not everyone. I can’t think of anyone in an 80’s hair band that went to a formal education setting, anyone else? They picked up a guitar and day after day started noodling around on it.

Don’t get discouraged if you can’t read music. Think of it like this. Plumbers go thru 4-6 years of education to get their journeyman license. They don’t need that license to change a faucet washer, but they know how to plumb a new construction building right? Same with electricians, it’s what they know how to do versus what they actually do that you’re paying for.

Glen Campbell, one of the most accomplished guitarists anywhere in the world, didn’t know how to read music! Tommy Emmanuel can’t read either and he’s hell on wheel with a guitar. How could Glen of been one of the wrecking crew studio musicians and not be able to read music? Because he knew how to work around it and get the sound he wanted from the guitar.

Glen was so good when Jimmy Webb was writing Wichita Lineman, Glen came over to his house at Jimmy’s request. Jimmy sat down at the piano and started playing what he had worked up so far. Glen watched Jimmy’s hand on the keys and started playing harmony on the guitar along with Jimmy simply by watching Jimmy’s hand movements and knowing what sound would come out of the piano. Jimmy was astounded at his talent and they went on to have great success together.

Please don’t let the lack of reading music stop you. You can still be a great player and have loads of fun and never understand music theory.


I can’t make heads or tails with reading notation. Heck, I can’t even figure out how to play Euchre and people have been trying to teach me that since I was 16, I’m 66 now and couldn’t care less about it or reading music. I have fun playing by using tabs and just listening to a song, those work the best for me.

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You don’t need to be able to read music to play. But it does help. If you can, learn it. I say that as someone who has learning disability and finds reading music a real challenge. The hardest lessons in B2B was not Billie Jean, it was the lessons right after on reading music. I never got past those - it was like gibberish to me.

If you can, learn it, it will help


I can read music like a book, I still can’t play, lol.


Yes, but it’s worth learning. It’s better on complex rhythms than TAB, and you can also track the melody if you have that part.

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Modern tabs also have rhythm information, often identical in fact. Songsterr is great for this.



I’m still struggling with tab. It’s not as easy to read but it’s a great indicator of exactly where to play. A well written tab can really optimize the economy of motion. You just can’t help but admire the person who wrote them. Not all tabs are equal.


:+1: I’m with you, @Al1885.


Yep. Both tabs and standard notation are valuable resources that convey similar info in different ways, with good tabs conferring slightly more info due to the positional hints. But if you know the fretboard it rakes like five seconds to start realizing different fingerings even with tablature.

I prefer standard notation but it’s just got much less coverage across genres than tablature.

With you 100%

You lost me a little here. I don’t think tabs show “more” info. IMO, the positional hints are countered by the lack of actual note information. “5th fret E string” doesn’t tell me to play an “A” unless I already know my fretboard, in which case, the positional info isn’t really an advantage.

Absolutely incontrovertible.

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Yeah I meant an implicit “coupled with fretboard knowledge, …” there.

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I agree that reading music isn’t a necessity to be able to play. It is, however, a great tool to have in your musical wheelhouse.

Billy Joel, one of my favorite piano players and songwriters, no longer reads music. Growong up, he used to improvise Beethoven-sounding pieces because he disliked sight-reading music so much. He says he was blessed (and cursed) with a great ear.

I offer that as further evidence that not reading doesn’t prevent you from becoming a bassist or a musician.

It does open doors. It gives you a shared vocabulary with other musicians, and yet another way of learning music.

I’ll end with a funny story. I’ve done lots of music. For a time I was doing musical theater. I love singing.

One of my skills is I’m pretty good at sight reading vocal parts. It came in handy on one particular musical. I was part of a small men’s ensemble and had a few solos.

The main lead was a talented singer. Great voice. Couldn’t read music worth a lick. Didn’t stop him from getting the part of course and he was phenomenal in it.

He had to hear the part a few times before hw could sing it though, especially on tbose few songs where he was singing tenor instead of the lead.

Great guy too. The two of us would joke around a lot in-between practices.

We were practicing one day some of those tenor parts for the first time. He was struggling.

He said, “I sure wish I could sight read music like you.”

Without missing a beat I replied, “I sure wish you could, too.”


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yes … you can play music without reading, but it helps to know how to read and know theory. There are some who don’t read and are great players, and some who read and are mediocre players. I find the faster I get off of chord charts and sheet music and get down to playing by ear and memory the better off I am.


Yes yes yes yes and yes.
Reading can be a great shortcut here, and can allow you to do the ‘emergency fill-in’ or studio session right off the page, but having it in the ear is where the real music happens.
Whether you’re reading or not.

I like reading.
I think that the Wooten description/comparison of language is always great here. You don’t need to know how to read and write, but it sure is nice.
But it’s so circumstantial and based on what applications your music life puts you in.

If you have the time and patience and can work on it every day, read. If you don’t have the time or patience to work on it every day, don’t. It gets worse if you take time off, so it needs some serious dedication to stick.


I’m sure that Pino Palladino would be a great bass player if he could read music.


Here is a good video from Victor Wooten on how people learn music and learn English

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I agree. If he could just read music he would be so awesome and more versatile across all genres, oh wait! He’s already all that, lol.

Well said!

I think music is like reading. Scale, mode, arpeggio, etc are equivalent to grammar. You can apply them correctly/ properly without knowing what they are called. Like using past, present and future perfect tense. My 9 year old use them correctly about 80% of the time and she has no idea what they are called.