A newspaper reporter once asked a black jazz musician if the members of his band read music. The musician replied, “A couple of the boys do but it doesn’t seem to have done them much harm.” There’s an ancient myth about natural talent. It says that someone who is naturally talented gets his inspiration to play from God or the muses or the music of the universe or the devil and doesn’t have to learn to read music.
Furthermore the legend suggests that learning to read might actually interfere with one’s ability to receive divine inspiration. People like the legend of the divinely (or diabolically) inspired musician. They like to be awed. They would like to believe that a musician just picked up his instrument one day and began to play like an angel (or a devil).
That idea is much more exciting than imagining hour after hour of practice and study. One reason audiences like the natural talent myth is that it lets them off the hook. People would like to play well but don’t can just assume they can’t because they don’t have “the gift”.
If they learned that the gift was actually paid for by learning the language of music and learning speak it fluently the story would be different. That might mean they could do it too if they were willing to put the effort into it. Many musicians have intentionally perpetuated the myth.
Even the iconic trumpet player Louis Armstrong played along with it. His standard answer to the question of whether he read music was, “Not enough to hurt my playing.” But in fact he did read. He originally learned to play as a child by listening and watching grown-up musicians. But he came under the influence of several teachers who taught him to read and band leaders who didn’t hire musicians who couldn’t.
Even musicians who are born with amazing natural talent learn to read if they want to become more than they were when they started. Musicians who play folk, blues or rock and roll and are satisfied with what they can play by ear are the exception. But anyone who wants a career playing on cruise ships or as a studio musician or a church musician or as a member of a band or orchestra will need to be able to read. “Hum a few bars and I’ll fake it,” will only take a musician so far.
More articles to help you learn to read music are available on the Articles page.