Do You Or Don’t You?

Do you need to read music to write songs?  This question has come up time and time again over the years I have been writing songs and articles about songs, and it has always been a contentious issue.  This morning I read yet another article, a set of arguments as to why you must read music if you are to be taken seriously as a songwriter.

It came from someone who does read music, who has done so since he was very young, and who also teaches it.  One of his arguments was based on a quote by another instructor: “Words were invented so you don’t have to carry a brick around with you in order to tell someone about a brick.” He said reading (and therefore writing) music means you don’t have to carry a guitar when you can simply carry a tune.

It’s this whole idea of must that gets me.  I’m not sure about you, but the only descriptions I’ve ever heard of someone pitching a song to a publisher or record label was to either play it for them live (“carrying the guitar”) or playing it for them on a recording.  I’ve never heard of anyone passing a stack of sheet music across a desk and saying “Here, read this!  Isn’t it brilliant?” Maybe in the 1940’s. Whenever someone tells you you MUST do anything, they are either full of themselves or trying to promote something they’re selling.  I won’t even use that old argument “well, the Beatles didn’t read music!” because it isn’t even about who can or who can’t.

There are different scenarios you may experience as a songwriter, of course.  If you work with musicians who need to have music notation in front of them in order to play your song, there are ways to do that, including learning it yourself.  No argument there.  Is it beneficial to learn to read? Some, like the author of the blog I read this morning, would say yes. Others would say that it makes them think too much when they’re writing, and thinking can often stifle creativity.  Theory, and notation to some degree, is the “math” behind the music.

I am not against reading music, and I am myself able to do so.  What I’m against is absolutes.  To write a song, you do not have to write and read music.



  1. NO … That’s elitist BS! It is absolutely not mandatory. Any more than you need to know how to read in order to tell a good story. It doesn’t hurt, but it definitely is not “necessary” … IMHO.

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