Should Your Child Learn To Read Music?
A common concern I get from parents is that their child is not reading enough standard notation sheet music in their lessons. Instead, they seem to be memorizing the music or learning it by ear.
And it’s a valid concern.
I mean, if you signed up for music lessons, you’d fully expect your child to learn to read music. It’s a fundamental part of becoming a musician, right?
Well, not necessarily. Maybe. Sometimes.
How’s that for clarity?
Don’t worry, we’re about to discover why reading music is important, when it’s not, and whether your child should have more or less of it in their lessons.
To start, I always ask parents, “Why do you want your child to be able to read music?”
And there’s no wrong answer, but it is important that we determine our ultimate goal for the student rather than just have them read music for the sake of reading music.
What Is Your Hope For Your Child In Music Lessons?
Do you want your child to become a professional musician? To study at the college level? Do you want to increase their level of focus and self-discipline? Or perhaps you want to build their self-confidence and discover more about themselves through musical exploration?
Or maybe all of the above.
The answer to that will determine where our primary focus should be.
Why Your Child Absolutely Should Read Music
To be clear, I strongly believe in the value of learning to read music. I learned how to read proficiently in college (no band or orchestra for me as a teen, just rock n roll to the max, baby!), and I’m glad I did.
Why I’m glad I learned to read music:
- Better understanding of what’s happening in the song
- Best way to visualize notes, rhythm, and dynamics together
- Easy to reference when I forget what to play
- Relaxing now that I’m good at it
There’s really no downside to reading music. It definitely will improve your skills as a musician and give you the ability to communicate with musicians of other instruments more easily.
For some instruments, reading music is the best way to see the notes. This includes piano, woodwind and brass instruments.
And if you plan to study music at the college level, reading music is non-negotiable.
When Reading Music Really Doesn’t Matter
However, for most people, reading music is not important at all. Like zero.
Let me explain.
The vast majority of students learning to play an instrument will not go on to study at the college level or become pro musicians. It’s just not what they want to do professionally. They use music to unwind at the end of the day or as a creative outlet.
For these students, the end goal is stress relief, relaxation, and creativity.
Reading music is not needed to play an instrument in order to achieve any of those things.
If the end goal is to play music, what difference does it make how we get there?
Let’s take a look at three imaginary students with very different approaches to learning music.
Student 1: Learns By Ear
This kiddo can hear a melody or set of chords and duplicate it in a matter of minutes. But if they tried reading the music on paper, it would take them an hour.
If the end goal is to play the music, then this kid’s ear is the clear winner.
The music notation only leads to the child feeling frustrated and by the time they can play the music at the end of a long, tedious hour, their excitement for the music is gone.
They’re so worn out that the joy of playing has been sapped.
For many, using the ear is very hard. So if it comes naturally to you, run with it!
In fact, I’d say that the very best musicians I know are better at watching, listening, and interacting with other musicians than they are looking at notes on a page. They have incredible ears.
It’s the difference between having a conversation and giving a speech.
Student 2: Memorizes Everything
This student does a better job of watching their teacher play something and then duplicating it. It’s like the game of “Simon,” where you try to replicate the pattern of lights that flash before you in the correct order.
This is a great skill to have, but it has some downsides:
- While practicing at home, the child has no one to watch and copy so they struggle without the example being provided
- They frequently need to use YouTube, which is an incredible tool but can lead the user off path and suddenly they’re watching 45 minutes of cat videos
The upside to this approach is that if you can read music at a basic level, you can quickly memorize the music on the page and reference it as needed.
This gives the student more time to focus on making the piece musical and less time staring at a page just hoping to get the notes right.
I encourage students to memorize music as quickly as possible so they can focus on enjoying the song.
The more time you spend reading the music, the less time you have for paying attention to technique, rhythm, and tension in the body, which can lead to a more stiff, less musical performance.
Student 3: Reads Music Only
This student can read anything. They’ve spent years learning to read music and run circles around other students (and yes, it takes years to become proficient at reading music).
From Bach to Beethoven to modern Disney classics and movie scores, this child is unstoppable.
Or so it would seem!
Because of their extreme commitment to reading, they have not spent time learning to create with other musicians. They struggle with improvisation and creating music on the fly.
Without sheet music in front of them, they’re a bit lost. How are they supposed to know what to play?
Meanwhile, other students may not have the reading skills of this individual, but they excel at making up songs, watching and listening to other musicians they are jamming with, and can play off new ideas almost instantly.
So, our reading student remains in isolation, forever chained to their sheet music.
Wow, that got dark fast!
Ok that final example was a bit extreme, but I definitely knew music students in college that could play anything written but struggled to interact with other musicians in any meaningful way.
Our Approach: Teaching Students To Read Music
At the end of the day, we strive for balance.
Ear training leads to learning your favorite songs just by hearing them.
Students that memorize music get to spend more time having fun with the music.
And students that read can play just about anything placed in front of them.
Ultimately, our goal is to build confidence for our students with a side of self-discipline and creativity. We most consistently achieve that by honing their strengths while continuing to improve the areas they struggle with.
But it all comes down to your goals as a parent. What is most important to you for your child?
Again, there’s no wrong answer.
But I hope this has provided some insight into the benefits of reading music and why I believe it should be part of a balanced musical diet and a means to an end rather than the end itself.