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Why Aren't Guitar Players Better At Reading Music?

Away we go

We don't see guitar players do what we commonly call "reading music," and if you play guitar, chances are you wish you were better at it. Is it worth the effort trying to learn or to improve?

Most of us learn to read printed words in our childhood, and from then on we can simply read things. We also learn to read at such a young age that only a few people remember anything about the learning experience itself. Most of us could read aloud from a book we have never seen before and do a reasonable job of delivering the content to other people, with some expression, probably much better than a robot, at least for a few more years until the robots get a lot better. It is natural to assume, if you are not a musician, that reading music works in a similar way, and that musical illiteracy might be as crippling to a musician as being unable to read words would be to any person. To a church organist, this might be true, but in the musical world of guitars and troubadours it’s actually very different. Time for some "mythbusting." This is going to take a while, so hang onto your hat. I thought about breaking this up into smaller pieces, but it's all one big octopus with a lot of tentacles...

First understand that there is no such thing as a “trained troubadour” who just flips to a page in a hymnbook to play the guitar part for a particular song the way it is written there, and it's very doubtful you should try to become the first one. It can appear to observers that’s what we are doing if we guitar players have a music stand in front of us, but chances are all we have is words and chords written down. The piano player in our church and many others like her are reading music, and they indeed can provide music for services without having memorized the music and without needing to invent or create anything.

Let's take a good look at sight-reading and the underlying issues in what I call "troubadour education" which is the process by which people have always learned to play and sing songs with their guitars....

• Does skill at sight-reading notes on the guitar have any significant value in troubadour music or education? 

What is written down out there for guitarists to read? Little. Is it worth the effort it would take to get better at it? I say no, others say yes. We can use written music to help us input, memorize and learn certain pieces of music so we don't have to learn it all by ear. But there is a recurring idea that you are not a "real musician" unless you can sight-read well, and can play things "cold" for performances. Keyboard, string, horn and even some bass players do this often, which casts a disparaging shadow on guitarists who don't. It's this shadow I am concerned with.

• Why should sight-reading for guitar be an essential part of guitar learning? People are already learning to play guitar by the millions, without any involvement with institutionalized learning or sight-reading. The questions pile up quickly. Is it OK for people to play music and not sight-read? [YES!] Are we teaching instrumental or rhythm guitar? Big difference. Do we really need that many people who can sight-read music? [No.] Is memorization a better skill to cultivate? I don't read guitar music, but I have a very good memory for music I have learned. So is it "sour grapes" for me to say that it isn't worth my time to learn to read guitar music? Do I secretly wish I could do it? [No!] Should I tell people not to bother, or instead encourage them to start when they are very young and their brains are agile? Is it possible that like languages, only really young children can learn to do it really well? Guitar students usually have to wait until they are 13 or 14 and their hands are large and strong enough, so maybe by then it's already too late for them to learn to read music and wire their brains directly to their instruments like young piano and violin playing supposedly children do? What is going on in the Suzuki guitar world, where they are using little guitars and trying to train little people to play them?

Is it not reasonable to even talk about such a thing as a "proper" guitar learning experience. If we could convene a congress of players & teachers, and assuming that we could agree on a curriculum or a path of guitar learning, how could this ever be implemented? The internet, music stores and bookstores are crammed full of guitar education materials, and they are wildly different in how they approach the learning process. Are permanent chaos and confusion of purpose and methods unavoidable in the guitar education world?

• I think huge numbers of people have been led to believe that they are not musical because of failed sight-reading experiences that should have never happened How do we find those people and inform them that they might not be failed musicians after all? Could they be having rich musical lives playing guitar?

Real damage has possibly been done on a wide scale to people who wanted to play guitar and were put through the sight-reading experience. Imaginary barriers to music learning and an unnecessary sense of failure have invaded what should have been a far more joyous process. I have run into these people all my life, usually when I try to help someone learn to play guitar. I am startled at how many people in my small world seem to have been trampled by beginning music instruction, like dogs that have been kicked or injured when they were young, permanently skittish and reticent. Institutionalized music learning is basically operating like it is still the 1700s, though it can seem to be up to date when they are using computers and reading music from an iPad instead of a piece of parchment. I am convinced that I am not crazy to be suspicious and to be questioning the "authority" and "validity" of sight-reading for guitarists, and that the guitar education infrastructure desperately needs some serious "überizing."

Pavarotti didn't read music, neither did The Beatles, and if you want to play some songs on your guitar I feel strongly that you shouldn't devote your precious musical time trying to learn to do it. I am going to present a number of arguments here for ignoring the idea of sight-reading music when you are trying to be a campfire-type troubadour guitar player. When I say "reading music" I am referring to the idea of clefs, staffs, and those quarter notes, rests and bar lines that the music world has used for centuries. There is also a type of guitar notation known as tablature or "TAB" and also things called chord charts that do have value, and which I'll talk about toward the end of this post. Learning to sight-sing, so you can learn songs from books or sing hymns in church, also has some value to a troubadour-type musician, but it's not the same thing as sight-reading on the guitar. And you can do it with a phone app now anyway. Now in the internet age, it's pretty rare to come across a song on a printed page that you can't find a recording of somewhere and learn quicker and better by listening to it.

If you go to a music festival of bluegrass, or blues, Cajun, celtic, old-time, cowboy, punk, rockabilly, country, or many other kinds of exciting music, it is almost a certainty that never during the entire duration of the festival will anyone read music. There may be a music stand somewhere, but it will have words or chord symbols on it, not notes. Does this mean that the music is somehow "inferior" or "primitive"? You will of course see music stands and sheet music at classical music events, sometimes at jazz events, and on TV when the late show band is playing. The other places you will always see lots of music stands is in churches, and at school music events, where children above the ages of about 10 and up are generally taught that reading music is the thing to do.

Sight-reading is only one type of musical skill, and should not be confused with musicality itself. There are large numbers of people who would like to play home-made music with their guitars and who need to understand that reading notes could possibly have nothing whatsoever to do with their musical education. (A large percentage of guitar instruction materials begin with "Notes on the E String" and my position is that if that is how a guitar method begins it is extremely unlikely that you should use it.) When I first got my hands on a guitar in 1968, I had a copy of Alfred's Basic Instructor Vol. 1 (1959) that started with the tune "And Away We Go" that my brothers and I tried to sight-read because the book told us to.

Alfred 1Away we goJoy of guitar

How did I realize in my complete ignorance back then that Alfred wasn't going to work for me? When I got my hands on "Joy of Guitar– 150 Folk Songs With 6 Magic Chords" at the local Toys R Us (for $1.31 it says on the price tag!) store it clicked, and I got the concept of playing chords while singing songs, even though I had no teacher and no friends or family who played guitar. Maybe I had seen Pete Seeger on TV or something. I dimly remember my brother, who was 18 at the time, told me that people didn't play notes like in the Alfred book, but played chords as they sang songs.

After almost 50 years of playing guitar at a very high level, I think I have gotten past the obstacle of feeling guilty that I don’t read music, though you can tell that it is a sore subject for me as you read this. I have also gone so far as to publicly declare that I think that written notation works so poorly for the guitar that it is senseless for guitar players to pursue it. I almost added "...unless they have a really good reason" to the end of that sentence, but decided to remove it. If you are going to college to study guitar, then you need to deal with sight-reading, but I would actually advise people to not go to college to study guitar, which removes the only good reason you would want to get good at sight-reading guitar. It might be nearly the only job in the world where you have to be pretty good at sight-reading guitar.

Entrance exams for music schools are almost entirely about sight-reading. I'd love to attend the World Guitar Sight-Reading Championship (if there were one!) and see what the best guitar sight-readers can do with music they have never seen before. Sight-reading guitar is in my opinion very much a dead-end activity that opens no important doors and leads to very little of value except perhaps whatever self-satisfaction you might gain by learning to do it poorly. Kind of harsh words, but bear with me and don't run away. I'll show you why I feel this way. It's really embedded in a lot of people that sight-reading is valuable, and I am not a large voice in the world of people expressing their viewpoints on guitar education. So I may get prickly from time to time here but it comes from love for all the people who might have been damaged by a system of teaching that is not ideal, and not doing much good for the vast majority of its participants.

Sight-reading is fundamentally nothing more than a way to play music you are not able to play from memory or to improvise. Personally, I am most interested in performing music that I do know or that I am creating in the moment, and I have discovered that I like hearing other people play music that they actually know or are inventing. Those extra dimensions of excitement and participation that music gets when the performer is not reading are vital and critical. I have sat through plenty of performances of people sight-reading and of those who are not, and I definitely know which type I prefer and why.

Professional horn players are expected to be able to read from the printed page, as are classical string players, though most classical soloists memorize their music and are generally not sight-reading when they perform an opera aria or a featured solo with a symphony. The task of sight-reading music certainly favors players whose instruments play mostly one note at a time, such as horns, woodwinds, bass, and violin family, which can play 2 notes together. What most of us don’t know is that the number of people in the country who can sight-read guitar well enough to make a living is statistically zero. The number of guitarists sight-reading on commercials, jingles and recordings, or occasional pick-up gigs is probably much smaller than the number of professional players in the National Basketball Association (currently a little over 400), and infinitesimal when compared to the number of people who play guitar. (Call or email me if you are one of them. I want to hear from you, especially if you think I am wrong and should not write things like this. I'd like to talk.) The number of well-known and successful troubadours who are playing concerts and making recordings who can or do sight-read guitar music is also statistically zero. Guitarists just don’t have or need that skill. There are a few who can read some things in the music business towns (New York, Los Angeles, Nashville and London), though the only place you will find any significant concentration of players who can sight-read guitar at all is in music schools where they are training the next generation of sight-readers, whose job will be to train their successors. There aren't a lot of careers left where your job is to learn a highly refined skill, and then not use it to do anything meaningful except teach others to do it, passing on the esoteric skills and perpetuating the cycle.

Sight-reading is a great way to make sure that the church has someone to play the piano or the organ at the Sunday service, so the congregation can sing hymns, and it works for things like orchestras and big bands, but peasants who want to sing some Dylan or John Prine songs at a party have absolutely no need for reading notes or dealing with staffs, clefs or rests. Troubadours need to know some music theory, but not reading notes on the staff. Even if they could read, whatever they are likely to be playing is almost certainly not written down anywhere.

The overwhelming majority of guitar players you will encounter or listen to, however, are just using their instruments to accompany songs or playing things they know. Most guitar players play instinctively and/or from memory, and not from instructions given by symbols on a piece of paper on the music stand.

It is very difficult to learn to read music on guitar, for reasons we'll explore further here, and it likely would not help you much even if you could master it.

Let's look at the issues in troubadour sight-reading ...

1) The music education world that has always been the primary endorser of the value of reading music does not recognize the musical value of someone playing an instrument and singing at the same time.

This isn't the same issue as sight-reading itself, but to a Modern Troubadour like me, it's a big deal. It's hard to take seriously the ways of the organized music education world when they don't even acknowledge what we troubadours do as art or worthy of study. Any music school that might tell Fats Domino that he has to either be a piano major or a voice major, or says that Ray Charles or Doc Watson can't enroll in their school because they can't read music– to my way of thinking has made it clear that they are startlingly ignorant of some pretty vital things in music. And you wonder if their viewpoints on other musical topics might be equally untenable. People have been playing instruments and singing at the same time since the beginnings of the human race, yet until quite recently not even a progressive school like Berklee College of Music considered a singer-songwriter to be a "real" musician, and they still don't allow you to major in "roots music" there. Could be 50 more years till the "wave" hits all those other college music programs, and even if they do allow troubadours in, it may be because they need their tuition money and not because they respect their art. How out of touch with reality and modern culture can school music education get? Keep this in the back of your mind as we explore other aspects of the relationship between troubadours and reading music.

2) The music notation system we use was developed for the keyboard and works poorly for guitar.

The 2-dimensional guitar fingerboard doesn't map very well to the musical staff any more than the round Earth maps to a flat piece of paper. If you think about it, musical notation is fundamentally just a graph of pitch against time. Time is the horizontal (x) axis, and the notes on the staff go vertically, forming the y axis. Notation evolved with the piano keyboard, and it is a one-dimensional thing, with the pitch moving horizontally. So reading piano music is just a 90 degree rotation, with pitch as the y axis, corresponding to the keyboard, and time is added as the horizontal x axis. The reason so many pianists can read music is that the notation system was designed for the piano and it apparently works with the human brain and hands. The reason guitarists don't read is not their fault-- it may just be the fault of the notation and of the instrument.

Some notes appear in 4 different places on the guitar fingerboard, and though you might be able to read a written single-note melody line (jazz guitarists like George Barnes did this pretty well in the big band days) and infer what string a note might be on, you'll trip up when there are chords or complex fingerings you don't already know well or haven't studied. Only guitar, piano and accordion and to a lesser extent mandolin, ukulele and banjo can play chords. As you might imagine, the process of reading fingerings of chords on these instruments, or guitar pieces that involve melodies, rhythms, harmony and chords being played together is a much more complex process than reading single-note melodies in straight time.

A 2-dimensional piece of paper can show a reasonably good representation of one-dimensional keyboard graphed against time, but it would take some kind of 3-dimensional notation to work for guitar. It may be that com puters will allow us to do this, and it may need to actually be a movie-like thing or 3-D virtual reality notation. But even if it were developed, I have no illusions that it will come to be adopted in the foreseeable future into our present system of music education and performance, and guitarists will have to remain philosophical and put up with the way things are.

Bowed string instruments like violin, bass or cello can play 2 notes at a time (double stops they are called) which adds a level of complexity so that it can be difficult to sight-read more complex string music that goes beyond just a melody line. The musical distance between strings on a violin is 7 half steps, there are only 4 strings, and the bow can only play 2 at a time. So there are a lot fewer permutations of particular notes or groups of notes that can show up on more than one string than on the guitar, which has more strings, that are also musically closer together to each other (4 or 5 half steps). Except for super-high positions on the neck, no notes appear on more than 2 strings on the violin.

There is only one of each note on a piano or a horn, so the strategies of fingering various groups of notes are significantly more straightforward than on guitar. There are often a number of ways of executing a group of notes on guitar, and it takes more than a glance at a page to sort out the various fingering choices. There are about 40 possible notes on guitar, as compared to 88 on the piano. About 11 of these guitar notes can be played on 4 different strings at different places on the neck, and all but about 7 or 8 of them show up on at least 2 different strings. The choice of which fingers and which strings to use to play a passage on guitar also depends on context, and the notes that precede or follow it might cause a guitarist to finger something differently in order to have proper continuity.

The difference between a pianist reading notes and a guitarist reading notes is not unlike the difference between a language made up of an alphabet, and one that uses hieroglyphics or glyphs like Asian languages. Think of Roman numerals, and how clumsy they are.

3) There is a great deal of vital musical information that written music cannot convey.

It’s not a coincidence that immediately after the appearance of recordings and radio broadcasts about 90 years ago, people in huge numbers began learning songs and music from broadcasts and by listening to recordings, not from reading. What also happened was that styles of music that featured rhythmic syncopations and grooves were suddenly passed on in a way that sheet music had never been able to transmit. The music that people were learning and enjoying got vastly richer and more sophisticated, and they could learn tonally and rhythmically complex music from recordings instead of only from each other. Phrasing, dynamics, tone and intricate rhythms associated with various "styles of music" have proliferated dramatically since the advent of recorded and broadcast music. How could you possibly learn to play cajun fiddle style if you never heard it done? The spread of blues, jazz and the development of rock & roll could not have occurred in the sight-reading-do-it-like-Martin-Luther-did-it music model. Yet this is the model that schools and churches still perpetuate, and may be the reason that there are not many styles of music that are primarily sight-read. 

How could you notate on a printed page what Reverend Franklin's preaching style is like, and how it might differ from the way a different type of preacher might deliver the same words? It’s almost amusing to imagine monks in the 1400’s trying to write music manuscript for the solos of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet work, or Professor Longhair's New Orleans boogie piano grooves. How could you possibly notate the timing, tone and dynamics so that someone who had never seen or heard it done could reproduce it from a printed page? I have a book of piano arrangements of Jimi Hendrix songs, that is almost funny in its cluelessness, and it's entertaining to have my phone software play it. Listen to my phone sight-read Purple Haze from the book

Many might find this funny, except that it's too close to truth. My wife and I hired a local piano teacher to teach our boys. He asked what song they wanted to learn, and they said Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones. So he sent away for the sheet music, came back in a week and put it on the piano, and proceeded to show them how to play the song. They said "That's not how that song goes!" and lost interest instantly. I still have the piano sheet music. (Next time I find it I'll have my phone app read it to me.) Makes me wonder who wrote the piano arrangement, and how much money they or the publisher have made selling it to piano teachers. When I read Keith Richards' book, I found out that he got that amazing distortion tone on the guitar with a Gibson Maestro Fuzz Tone pedal that he never used again. He also got sounds on some of their old records by putting a cheap cassette deck on Pause and Record and turning up the input knobs. Now Richards can't even get those sounds anymore because he doesn't have that cassette deck. How could you notate the tone of the opening riff to Satisfaction on paper so someone would know what it should sound like? It's not an organ stop. That riff changed rock and roll guitar forever, but you can only appreciate or learn it by hearing it. (That Stones album was the first record I ever owned, and I still have it 51 years later.)

It’s not an accident that once recordings showed up, people outside of the areas where styles of music originated were able to learn to play new kinds of music. This musical “absorption” learning process has continued to accelerate and expand with steady improvements in technology. Not only can almost anyone with an internet connection watch a staggering number of musical performances and instructional videos, but they can also discover and explore at no cost a significant percentage of the entire recorded output of the human race’s music. And people by the millions are doing this every day, and learning immense amounts about music as they do.

There are better ways to learn now...

I recently attended a local singing contest talent show, where about 20 young people between the ages of 13 and 27 were competing. I was expecting to be cringing much of the night, since I generally cringe in talent contests. But it was a great show, and the audience and even the judges were astounded at how good all the kids were. As far as I could tell, none of them had sheet music in front of them, and as I thought about it, I realized that probably none of those kids could read music, and that they had learned not only how to sing, but how to hold a microphone, be commanding, and even to move on stage by watching huge numbers of other great singers most of their lives on TV and on YouTube.

If you listen carefully to classical music, it essentially represents the pinnacle of complexity of what can be accomplished within the realm of sight-reading sheet music. All the rhythms and nuances have to be able to be representable on the page, and what we think of as "classical music" is essentially that body of music that sight-reading can convey reasonably well.

Scott Joplin's ragtime appeared about the same time that recordings did, and was an attempt to add the new element of syncopation to the stiff rhythms of the printed page. People were basically only able to learn it because they had heard it done and got the "feel" of the syncopation from live performances or recordings. Syncopation marked the beginning of adding rhythm to popular music, and even though ragtime's rhythmic complexity was vastly less than the rumba, James Brown or reggae, it obviously hit a nerve in the public and led to popular music adopting a rhythmic complexity it had never been able to before.

There are some technical issues we could examine, that I'll just skim here, of how rhythmic elements are conveyed poorly in written music, and issues of dynamics and tone vastly less. Music notation uses the idea of duple or triplet groupings, and measures have to have 2, 3, 4 or 6 beats. Here is a good example. It seems odd to me that the simplest and most ubiquitous song, Row Row Row Your Boat, is always written in 6/8 time. I've looked it up in various music education books, and it's just a flaw in the rhythm notation system that makes the music world decide that it is "clearer" or "cleaner" to make each beat equal to 1/3 of a dotted quarter note in 6/8 time rather than a quarter note in 4/4.The problem is that it has a "triplet" feel, and in the "mer-rily, mer-rily..." part you really feel it as 4 equally accented beats, each of which is itself a triplet: 1-2-3,1-2-3,1-2-3,1-2-3.

row row row your boat

I swear that when you or a child sings that song and feels the word rhythm, there is nothing there that suggests groupings of 6. Sing it to yourself. It feels like 4/4 with triplets to me: "Row row row your boat" feels like 1-2-3-4 and so is "gently down the stream..."

I own a copy of the original sheet music for that song, as popularized by Kunkels' Nightingale Opera Troupe in 1852, and known as The Old Log Hut. It is written in 4/4 time, and has the lyrics "All that's past is gone you know" instead of "merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily"

row row row your boat

4) There isn't very much sheet music for you to work from even if you could read guitar music.

If you showed up from the Sight-Reading Planet and could read guitar music perfectly, it would do you little good. (I'd love to give someone from that planet a transcription of Jimi Hendrix's playing and see what came out.) You could play a lot of classical guitar and lute pieces, and a handful of other things like Chet Atkins solos that diligent sight-readers have translated into their language, and a good bit of jazz that has been transcribed and created by jazz guitar education people. If you wanted to play in a band, there are no gigs where your job is to sit at the music stand and read all the notes that have been printed there to show you what to do. This is what horn players do, but it ain't what troubadours do, but that doesn't mean we are second class citizens. Whatever all those millions of guitar players are doing out there is just not being represented on paper with notes, staffs and clefs.

5) Reading music isn't the same as learning to play it or improvising, and probably involves a different part of the brain.

Reading, improvising and memorizing are very different activities that may involve different mental and musical skills, yet they get quite intertwined in music education, and we cannot ever be sure what we are doing when we perform music or when we hear others do it. Those of us who are good at reading may not be the same group who are good at memorizing or improvising. If you read a written paragraph or a passage of music over and over again it usually doesn't just embed itself in your memory. If you practice reading words or music, you may just get better at reading, but it does not automatically lead to you being able to deliver it without reading. You have to actively try to learn it for it to sink in, and learning to read something and learning to perform without reading it do not appear to be the same processes. Neurological research also seems to indicate that music might work differently in our brains than other cognitive disciplines, and musical learning maybe a unique form that isn't directly analogous to things like math or languages.

Search online for "reading vs. memorizing music." It's pretty interesting when people spout off on this subject (Examples: this and this are typical of the situation, showing that even within the communities of people who read or don't read music there is a lot of discussing, arguing, almost as if the people are from different planets or speak different languages.) It's also interesting to look at research, and to see what is going on in discussions of the value of memorizing in all kinds of education settings. It appears to me that the only people publishing "research" into music education are career music educators, and their books often cost $150 to $1200 and we are only hearing from one side of the issue. Gigging jazz musicians and blind blues singers aren't publishing their research, and I can't seem to find anything resembling a mountain-top where we can stand and look across all the disciplines of music learning and look for common ground, similarities or contrasting ideas.

6) Sight-reading appears to be something we either can or can't do well, and it's hard to improve.

Studies of musical sight-reading suggest that it involves something they call working memory, which means that you are able to read ahead a certain amount, and put the music into a sort of “memory buffer” where it sits briefly in a crucial intermediate step. Between the eyes inputting the symbols from the page and the hands and voice outputting the music on the other end, something happens in the brain to allow the whole thing to work. Read this paragraph aloud to someone, and you can feel that happening as your eyes scan a little ahead to see what is coming even though you are speaking continuously. Simultaneous language translators, who listen to someone speak one language and then say it to a different person in a different language, also rely on highly advanced working memories, that use this kind of memory buffer to process the information in a vital intermediate step. As Bruce Bowers at Science News put it: “the best sight readers combined strong working memories with tens of thousands of hours of piano practice over several decades.... Working memory appears to be a capacity that gels early in life and can't be improved much by learning.The article goes on to say that “research indicates that working memory capacity varies from one person to another and changes little from childhood to adulthood.” All the more reason to not focus on sight-reading as your path to music, since it takes thousands of hours to get good at it, practicing does not seem to help with the essential elements of it. Either people are innately good at it or they aren’t.

Research seems to indicate that people who are innately good at sight-reading often become music teachers, and naturally they expect that their students should be able to learn what they learned by similar methods. There are enough people out there with this gift that the skills can be passed down, though most students fail to perform at the level of their teachers. Musicians who are naturally good at sight reading would naturally think that whatever learning path worked for them will work for others.

Sadly, all those people who don't sight-read well have been cast off along the highway, often having been led to believe that they are unmusical, when the truth may be more that they are simply not skilled sight-readers. As long as we get enough people to fill the few sight-reading positions in churches and schools the system is declared healthy, when in truth it is failing the vast majority of people who enter into it.

7) Sight-reading only works in standard tuning.

For centuries, guitarists have played in literally hundreds of tunings, but the whole process of learning to read notes only works in standard tuning. If you are interested in any of the other common tunings (like DADGAD, currently the most popular non-standard tuning) then there is no way you can reasonably read guitar music. Guitar sight-readers actually allow one type of "cheating" and if you study classical guitar literature you'll find that they retune the bass E string quite a bit, most often to D, but sometimes to C or other notes. The music is notated as if it were not retuned, and the players learn to ignore the retuning. This means that if a piano player were to sight-read the same passage of music, all the notes played on the 6th string of the guitar would sound wrong. To guitar sight-readers, the rich and glorious world of non-standard tunings might as well not exist, since it lies outside their access.

8) Sight-reading on guitar transposes the music an octave.

Eventually saxophone and trumpet players are startled to find out that what they learned to read in the key of C was actually sounding in Bb or Eb. (There is an extinct type of saxophone called the "C Melody" that does not transpose the music. Maybe you can learn why the horns were strategized this way.) In order to not have to straddle the treble and bass clefs, guitar music is pushed up an entire octave, and thus fits reasonably well on just the treble clef. You might never notice this unless you are a piano player or a good sight-singer. Middle C sounds at the first fret of the 2nd string of the guitar, but reads as the 3rd fret of the 5th string. It's not a game-changer of a problem, but it's worth noting here since we are kicking the tires of guitar sight-reading.

9) When you read music you are not really participating in it the same way you would if you played from memory or were improvising.

When I go to church, essentially everyone is reading everything, and it feels like it could be called the Reading Church of Christ. To me the compelling, emotional and really critical parts of music or spoken word are generally left out unless it is being done from memory or created in the moment. I'm sorry, but I really prefer that music have emotional content, and leaving it out doesn't work well for me. The church musicians are reading, the choir is reading, our pastor is mostly reading the sermon, there are readings from the Bible, and we all read the program, the hymnbooks and the day’s prayers. Only the Lord's Prayer, the Doxology and the Threefold Amen song are done from memory, and they are always by far the most spirited moments in the service.

It's a credit to sight-reading and to the readers that they do as well as they do in conveying music when they are reading, but personally, I generally find myself tending to be bored when listening to music that is being sight-read, and my brain accepts and analyzes it on an unemotional level. It's not enough to just listen to the composer or arranger and the instrument- the performer really matters in music if you hadn't noticed by now. This is probably because the performer is probably not being hugely emotional if they are truly reading it and not delivering it from memory. Many performers keep the sheet music handy to glancing at, and this is not quite the same as reading it "cold," though it seems to stifle emotional content and interrupts the flow.

I'm not saying everyone should memorize everything, but examples abound. Every blind musician who has ever lived was not sight-reading. Is the music of Ray Charles, Blind Blake or Stevie Wonder somehow deficient? Hardly. Garrison Keillor's epic monologues that he enthralled us with for 30 years were not read, but conjured up in the moment. (My friend Pat Donohue was the guitarist in the PHC band for many years and answered that question for me with some insider info. Garrison had a few key words and phrases scribbled on a sheet of paper.)

I am saying that reading a sentence to someone is different than speaking directly to them, and that performing music when reading is not the same as performing when not reading. A lot of processor power is being used up with the reading, and the essence of musical sight-reading appears to be the ability to look ahead (they called it "buffered memory") which prevents you from being perfectly "in the moment."

I may seem to be belaboring this point, but it is vital to underline the fact that sight-reading of music, which is unfortunately a part of the ingrained public conception of what musicians do and how people learn, essentially does not exist in the world of troubadours. This does not mean that all who cannot or will not sight-read guitar music are flawed or deficient.

10) Troubabours sometimes read TAB and they often read chord charts. It's the "standard notation" that doesn't work well for guitar.

If you are hot to play music with a music stand in front of you, then learn all about chord charts. Real musicians do it all the time, and we put the pieces of paper on the floor or tape it to our mike stands. I'll do another blog post on the subject soon. This is what studio players do, and it's something you would do well to learn.

Another type of musical notation known as tablature has been around longer than the guitar itself (they had lute and theorbo tablature in the middle ages) that sometimes looked like this:


Commonly known as TAB, it has a staff of 6 lines that represent the 6 strings, and numbers on the staff indicate what fret is being played on that string. Guitar tablature might do a better job than standard notation of showing us how the music lands on our fingerboards. But TAB does not show the rhythmic elements of the music, and is commonly shown together with standard notation like this, so you can see the "shape" of the melody and rhythm from the standard notation, and the guitar fingerings from the TAB. I'm not aware that there are any music jobs anywhere where guitarists are expected to read TAB. It's just something to help us learn how to map the music onto the fingerboard.

star island jig TAB

TAB has taken on a new life on the internet, since it can be represented by simple typewriter characters that work in text files and simple web pages , though it can be hard to keep things aligned in time, since the characters like to stretch horizontally. Changing the type font can throw off the timing of the TAB:

Dsus4 D C G

TAB can get fancier, like this, with chord names, bar lines and fingering symbols:

|------- |-------------------------------------------|---------------------
|------- |-----------7h10p7--------------------------|----------5----------
1 |------- 4 |------------------7-------------7--\-------|----------5--5-5-5---
- |------- - |-------7/9--------9---7-----7--(7)-\-------|----------5--5-7-5---
4 |------- 4 |-----5------------------10-----(10)\-p(0)--|--------3---------(7)
|-3--3-- |-5/7---------------------------------------|-2/3h5---------------

Learning to sight-sing melodies also makes more sense than reading notes on the guitar, though there are not a whole lot of melodies you are going to find that only exist in old books that you have to be able to sight-sing to explore. Go get a phone app called Sheet Music Scanner for $3.99. It can sight-read and play music from books and save them as audio files if you like. Saves you all the hassle of learning to sight read, and you can actually listen to the tunes, which solves a big problem in sight-reading. And guess what? When the phone reads the music it sounds stiff, a lot like the church piano player.

I'm hoping mostly that this posting can make guitar players and students (or their families) accept their failures better if they are trying to read guitar music, or possibly feel better about their learning experience if they are not learning to read music. Or if you are a guitar teacher and one of the few who can work with written notation who wonders why students aren't reading better, maybe this discussion has made you think, and be more accepting of your situation or that of your students. When something is not working for a large number of people, maybe it isn't that good an idea and should be changed.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,