Learning To Read Music Notation

Do Guitarists And Bassists Really Need To Be Able To Do It?

In the modern age of guitar tab, transcription software, easy instrument guides and music notation software, many have started to as whether or not it is important for young musicians to be able to read standard notation in music. To an extent I can see their point. After all, it is perfectly possible to be able to execute a performance of a certain song that you have learnt by ear or from a friend. However, I have often thought that this truth (outlined in the previous sentence) has, all to often, obscured some of the other reasons that we need notated music in the first place. This article will discuss some of the pros and cons of notation but, specifically, in relation to some of its main competitors. Let the sparing begin!

Guitar Tab

Guitar Tablature

This is a system used by guitarists and bass players alike (although in theory it could also be, and most probably is, used by any fret based instrument such as a mandolin) which uses fret numbers on a stave rather than dots in order to signify which notes should be played. There are many similarities between the two systems. Both work from left to right to signify timing and both work up and down to signify pitch. However, there is one crucial difference. There is one thing that tablature fails to show us and that is duration. When you look at a sheet of notation you will see dots of different colours (white and black) as well as stems attached to those dots (some with added tails on the end of the stem) and all these things help to signify how long a note should be sustained for. This is one of the downfalls of tablature. It can tell us what note to play but not for how long to play it. So far then, we have one advantage for notation over tab. Learning notation would help us know how long we should play for notes for rather than just telling us which ones we should play. Ok, time for round two.

Music Rests

When Not To Play

When looking at a page of sheet music, you may have also seen some of the symbols in the picture above. These are not here to show pitch, but they do all have something in common with the dots and that, again, is duration. This time, however, these symbols are here to tell us about silence and they are known as rests. At some point during a piece of music, most instruments will have a passage of rest which is a short part within the music when they are not required to play. In the notational system, we count rests in the same way that we count note values which is by using a system known as "beats" or "beat values". It's important to have a keen understanding of rests and their values because if we were to misread them, then we run the risk of playing the music incorrectly. Again, if you look at the tablature example above (or any other example for that matter) you will notice that there are no rests on the score. Instead there are a series of gaps with nothing in them. Granted, this does show that we shouldn't be playing any notes, but, for how long should we sustain the silence? Again, tab doesn't tell us that with any great degree of accuracy like notation does. I make that notation 2, tab 0. Round three! 


Communicating Between Different Instruments

The final point I would like to make is again fighting the corner of music notation. The biggest advantage it has is that it is common between all instruments in Western music. If I compose a melody on the bass and I want it to be played by a piano, trombone or an oboe then I just have to write down the required notes and rests and it can be played by other instruments. If I wrote down a series of fret numbers, which signify the same melody, and then handed that to the same oboe player then they wouldn't know how to reproduce my idea because the oboe doesn't have frets like a bass guitar does. The problem is a system like tab for guitarists is only useful to guitarists. Notation, on the other hand, is something that is used by all kinds of instruments and this makes communicating to others who play different instruments, or even a group of people, like an orchestra, that is made up of several different instruments much easier because the information which is written down is accessible to everyone. Not just a select few.

For me, that is a resounding 3-0 victory for notation, however, if you feel there is anything that I've missed then by all means leave me a comment below and I'll get back to you with a response!