Should I Learn To Read Music?

I’d like to explore the question “Should I learn to read music?” by looking at the questions that have come up in the lessons, clinics and gigs I’ve done over the years.
I’m going to hold my hand up straight away and tell you that I’m very new to music reading.
I didn’t get started properly till Sep 2009, 27 years after I first touched a Bass Guitar, and nearly 25 years after turning pro.
So, it’s never too late.
I took on a tour that required me to play EXACTLY what was written every night. I finally had to get it together.

What’s The Point Of Reading Music?

Reading music notation doesn’t qualify you as a great musician any more than the opposite being the case.
It does, however, open opportunities up in work (Film/TV music, jingles, Big Band, Orchestral,etc) and education.

My Ears Are Great And I Learn Fast. Do I Need To Learn To Read Music?

From the time I started learning Bass Guitar in my bedroom, I was blessed with a good ear so I could pick things up very quickly. My memory was good too so, generally, once I learned something, it stayed learned.

Now, great as that is, no matter how quick you are at learning by ear, the challenge is that you have to hear the music before you play it.

There are many musical situations where there is no chance to hear the music in advance. You get the charts and you get the count off.

How do you handle that?

Is It Difficult To Learn?

My answer to this is simple. Most of you reading this text have some level of ability in reading words in English. Some better than others but you’re all doing it, right?

It’s a language that many of us learned from childhood, along with the associated symbols to represent the sounds of that language.

That’s all music reading is.

You can do it.

Will it Hamper My Creativity?

This is a common question and it comes from everyone from young to old, from beginner to musicians who have played by ear for years (I was one of those long-term non-readers. I never asked that question but I did feel I was missing something by not reading music).

I answer this question with a question;

How can INCREASING your understanding of
something get in the way of creativity?

It’s only a tool for representing the sounds of music.

Have you ever heard anyone say; “You know, I wish I never learned to read English at school. I’m SURE I’d be able to express myself so much better without it”?

If you learn to read music, you have access to a whole universe of MUSICAL INFORMATION,
some that has existed for centuries. You can study this music, practice it, add it to your vocabulary.
All because someone mapped it out on paper. It’s just a map. Not the territory.
But if you can’t read the map, you’re lost.

But I Can Name Many Great Musicians Who Don’t Read Music!

Now, this is NOT to say that “literate musicians” are better musicians. Everyone can name
legendary innovators in music who couldn’t read a quarter note if their life depended on it.

This isn’t about them. It’s about YOU and what YOU want to do musically in the future.

If you’re an innovator, a strong musical personality and/or a leader who will never play anything other than your music on your terms, that’s fine.
In fact, it’s fantastic. Then you just need to be lucky that what you do is in demand enough for long enough.

If not, it’s just handy to have the skill of reading music in your toolset.

For me, I always wanted to play as much music as possible, in all genres, with any kind of band, as long as the vibe was good.
I had the talent to “get by” in a lot of situations but I knew there were things that I was excluded from.
NOT because I couldn’t play the music.

Just because I couldn’t read it.

Couldn’t I Just Stick With TAB?

I won’t go into the TAB debate too much here, other than to say this;

The time you spend on an incomplete system of notation (which lacks rhythmic
information, dynamics, etc) could be spent learning a complete system.

If you’re going to look at a piece of paper anyway, why not just go the whole hog?

Ok, I’m Convinced…Where Do I Start?

Find A Good Teacher.

Shorten your journey by taking some lessons with a teacher who can show you how to relate the notes to the dots on the page in an efficient and systematic way.

Make Mental Associations.

Link what you see on the page with what you know about chords, theory, harmony and rhythm. You’ll begin to see patterns emerge (for example, the lines of the stave are arranged in thirds, as are the spaces. If you don’t understand what that means, find a good teacher!).

Learn Single Notes But Also Intervals.

As reading music is a process of “map reading”, try to find as much “shorthand” as possible.

Can you recognise a “Root-Fifth” type Bass line without playing it through? Do you know what a triad looks like on paper?

Practice Regularly. You don’t have to do eight hours a day, just look at a single piece of music and work on the SAME piece till you have it mastered.

Only then do you choose another piece of similar or slightly higher difficulty level.

Never Give Up!

So, with that said, are you still asking;

“Should I learn to read Music?”

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Leave A Reply (7 comments so far)

  1. Pete Truin
    6 years ago

    YES mike!

  2. Fred mccann
    5 years ago

    Really enjoyed reading that thanks. Have decided to start this journey myself using Stuart Claytons books and i am making steady progress.
    Its not easy but the longer you leave it the more difficult it seems to get.
    Doing it everyday as you say seems to be the key.
    Thanks …Fred

    • Mike
      5 years ago

      Hi, Fred!
      Stuart Clayton is a great teacher and author…a good person to follow!
      Consistency wins every time, my friend!
      keep me posted on how it goes with you and if I can help.



  3. Martin Elliott
    5 years ago

    This is a great article, Mike. It’s very well argued and I like the way that you admit to learning how to read music late in your career. It’s not easy to do that when you have already reached a high level of playing. You clearly know how to focus on your work.
    Thanks posting it! Best wishes to you,

    • Mike
      5 years ago

      Thanks, Martin. Great praise coming from you.
      Yes, the notation reading came late to me as I totally relied on my ears and memory, plus,
      I was very rarely placed in situations where I was required to read, even if I knew how!:-)

      I’m certainly no Laurence Cottle, Steve Pearce or, indeed, your good self in terms of
      sight reading (that’s a work in progress!)
      but I can work through many charts if I have a day or so to look them over.

      I’d need much longer to prepare for Frank Zappa’s more esoteric charts but I do OK now with Billy Cobham’s
      current charts plus I did a few last minute gigs with Jack DeJohnette a while ago where I had to cover for
      the great Jerome Harris playing through-composed music.

      I hope I can show readers of this blog that it’s never too late to acquire any skill if they really want it and
      are prepared to put in the work to get the result.

      Hope we get to chat again soon, Martin,

      all the best,


  4. Ben Singer
    3 years ago

    It really does depend on what you want to do. I recall a few years ago auditioning for a music school, because I wanted to pick up some more piano chops. I was astounded in the process to hear how many of those doing the audition were already very accomplished pianists. I had already cut an album and toured it around, and all these young people could out play me in a blink, yet they thought they needed more schooling. To me this was a clear cut example of getting bogged down in the math and not recognizing the sound of what you could already create.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • Mike
      2 years ago

      Hi, Ben and thanks for the comment.

      For me, it’s not a binary thing but I get where you’re coming from.

      Ultimately, music is an auditory art so, if you can
      hear things and create/replicate them
      without (or rather before) theory, reading, etc, you’re
      playing with house money, so to speak.
      And that was me for 25 years.

      I just wanted to have a handle on the other side too.
      The ‘walk in, open the pad, play one, maybe
      two takes, next piece, lunch, next few pieces,
      go home” scenario…which, if you can only
      play things you’ve previously heard,
      excludes you from that game.

      As I said, it’s a handy tool…but we still need
      to be musical with our tools.;-)

      I hope you got what you needed from the
      school (or not) and moved forward with what
      you clearly already had.

      All the best,




Michael is a freelance Bass Guitar player, who studied at the much lauded

Bedroom School Of Music.
(just means he's self-taught, don't panic!)

He began his professional music career in 1983, playing Bass Guitar with his brother, drummer Mark Mondesir
(John McLaughlin, Jethro Tull,
Glenn Hughes),
forming a trio with guitarist

Hawi Gondwe
(Amy Winehouse/
George Michael).

Since then he has performed with
artists as diverse as;
Jeff Beck, Billy Cobham, Ginger Baker, Eddie Harris, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Oumou Sangare, Usher, Whitney Houston, Imogen Heap, Sir George Martin, State of Bengal, Hermeto Pascoal, David Garibaldi, Jan Hammer, Ty, Zoe Rahman, Jim Mullen, Ronnie Wood, John Serry, Andy Summers, Django Bates, Gary Husband, Chante Moore, Lulu, Nitin Sawhney, Lenny White, Chad Smith, Courtney Pine, Jocelyn Brown, Jason Rebello, Brice Wassy, Neneh Cherry, Nikki Yeoh, Bernard Purdie, Iain Ballamy, Bill Bruford, Julian Joseph, Leni Stern, Mory Kante, Keith More, Trilok Gurtu, Aster Aweke, S-Club 7, Talvin Singh and Pee Wee Ellis.

Michael entered the Pop, R&B, Funk and Dance music world, composing tracks on albums by funk trombone legend Fred Wesley and singer/songwriter, Lewis Taylor.

In September 2009, Michael joined the
Thriller Live world tour.
He is currently part of the visiting faculty of various education establishments including the Royal Academy of Music, Rhythmic Conservatory of Copenhagen and British Academy of New Music as well as teaching privately at home
(schedule permitting).

Michael Mondesir uses:
Yamaha Basses, Costalab Pedals and Elixir Strings.