One of the questions I ask potential clients in their initial vocal assessment is if they read music and if they have basic knowledge of music theory. The responses I get range from eye-rolling to big sighs to bursting-at-the-seams pride.
4 Common Responses to Do Singers Need to Read Music and Understand Basic Theory:
- Group 1: “I don’t need to know how to read music or understand theory. I learn by listening. There’s no need.”
- Group 2: “No, but I’d like to if it weren’t so hard. It would make it easier for me to work with other musicians.”
- Group 3: “Yes, but it’s actually been a hinderance to my musicality because I don’t know how to improvise. If it’s not written on the page, I don’t know how to do it.”
- Groups 4: “Yes. But I also learn well by ear and if there’s not any written music, I do just fine.”
These are all valid answers because they are YOUR answers. We each have our bias – our experiences and our beliefs. None of the above answers is “wrong” or less than the other.
It turns out that the question, “Do singers need to ready music?” means nothing outside of the context of this much more important question: “What do you need more of to be the singer and performer you deeply desire to be?”
And then I have to also ask those if you who are music readers, “Is relying on reading music and theory getting in your way of becoming the singer and performer you want to be?”
Group 1: If you are able to move forward without being able to read music, then why would you take the time to do it? Keep doing what you’re doing. Your ear and improvisational skills are serving you well. You are moving toward your singing and performance goals. Any barriers you have are not related to music theory and reading music.
But if it is holding you back by keeping you from being your best, then it’s time to learn. That’s going to put you into the 2nd group.
Group 2: You’ve decided that reading music and knowing basic music theory would help you be the singer and musician you want to be. But you think it will be difficult to learn. You’ve probably thought about it in the past, but discarded moving forward with learning because of the perceived difficulty. You might have taken a swipe at it, felt like you weren’t getting it, and quit.
Often when we try to learn something that seems too hard, we blame ourselves, decide we can’t learn it or do it, and quit. Sometimes we repeat this pattern over and over.
The truth is NOT that you can’t learn it. It is simply that you didn’t. If the material is presented to you in a way that jives with how you learn best, is at the level exactly appropriate to you, and you really want to learn it, you WILL.
The only caveat to this is that you must truly believe that learning to read music and understand basic music theory will move you forward. If it is simply something that either an inner voice or someone else has told you to do and you don’t deeply believe it, you need to step into Group 1.
Group 3: What you need more of right now is practice imitating, listening, and rehearsing with no music in front of you. Just as learning to read music and learning theory took time, so does developing neuro-pathways to translate imitation of musical patterns into your own singing. Once you can do that, you can begin to deviate from imitating someone else’s pitch and rhythm patterns, and create your own. Just like Group 2, you may have tried this before and not succeeded.
But with guidance that is tailored to your specific needs and learning styles, you CAN learn improvisation, riffs, and runs without notated music to guide you.
Group 4: You have a lot in common with Group 1. What you know and have experienced are serving you well and your singing and performance challenges probably lie elsewhere.
So now what? How do you get what you’ve decided you need to become the singer and performer you want to be? It depends. It depends on how you learn the best.
- If self study works well for you, get online and review theory and music reading courses. There are lots of them out there.
- If working directly with someone is more your style and will help keep you accountable, let me know.I know some good people who are committed to student-centered learning and excellent teachers. I’d be happy to connect you with them. Disclaimer: I don’t teach theory and music reading. This is not a ploy to get you to study these things with me.
What do you need more of to be the singer and performer you want to be?
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