Is Reading Notation Worth the Effort?

Story Time! I’ll share how I learned to read notation in only 2 weeks - and all the reasons why you shouldn’t!

Got to agree and I wish someone had told me this 45 years ago. Wasted so much time learning for grades 1-8 ABRSM for it all to be forgotten or the Mel bay method 1-7, like flushing it all down the toilet. I can play a few scales though;-))((( Sadly if you take the music away I’m a bit lost and wish I could have played at parties as all my friends did. Even better would have been to experience being in a band back then, that would have been fun. Unfortunately, I’m that guy who can’t play along at parties or hear simple tunes and I’ve had a guitar since 1987. So listen to Justin, please! Don’t be that guy; ME.

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As you say it all depends on the direction you want to go on your musical journey. I tried to learn to read for the trumpet(inthe school orchestra when I was 14) reading the notes was easy…it’s the timings that’s hard…especially when you have tied notes…/dotted notes etc.I always found that my ears overruled my I took the easy path.
I’m now 80 years old and as well as the guitar I play organ and keyboard to a reasonable standard just guided by my ears…I’ve played lead guitar with a pro band in the 60s ( they were called groups then!!) and had a successful solo semi pro career on the club/cabaret circuit in the North of England singing and playing guitar.So for me the ability to read the dots just wasn’t important.That said however I really did appreciate the music reading abilities of many of the backing musicians on the club circuit…

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I’m not sure I agree with this one. It’s not a cut-and-dried thing, though. First, I think that learning and playing by ear is absolutely something you should do. And I don’t think you need to learn to read to be a successful guitarist. I also think that TAB is valuable, and I agree with Justin that you should learn tab, the notes on the fretboard, and be able to read rhythms. However, I also think that learning to read (and write) standard notation is valuable, and it has opened doors for me, musically, that would otherwise have remained shut.

Another thing to consider: if you’re already learning to read rhythms and learning the notes on the fretboard, you’re about 2/3s of the way to learning to read standard notation on guitar anyway. It’s not that much of stretch, especially if you only need treble clef. And I’m not that impressed with the argument that learning to read for guitar is difficult because the same note appears in multiple places on the fretboard. Sure, it’s difficult. Many things about learning guitar (and music in general) can be difficult. But that “same note in multiple places” obstacle is not unique to guitar. It’s present on the violin, the viola, the cello, the double bass, and so on. How many cellists out there don’t know how to read? It’s an obstacle, but hardly a showstopper.

Lastly, I agree with Justin that guitar methods that are built around learning to read can be boring and frustrating. However, if you want to learn to read you’re not forced to follow that one path. You can learn to read while still doing all the other stuff and doing much (or even most) of your playing and practice by ear. So I come down on it as: “Necessary? No. Valuable and worthwhile? Yes, I think so.”

So here’s my anecdotal story about learning to read.

My first instrument was piano, and I was classically trained, so obviously I learned to read. I also had a year or so of violin when I was in school. When I picked up guitar (as a teenager) I could read standard notation in treble and bass clefs, but I didn’t know how to translate the notes on the page to the notes on the guitar fretboard. And I didn’t bother with it. I just started learning guitar by ear (with tab, chord charts, and so on).

That changed when I started playing guitar with guys in the U.S. Army Jazz Combo. (I wasn’t in the band, I was just friends with some of those guys.) Not being able to read a head from a fake book felt like it was holding me back, and motivated me to start learning the notes on the fretboard, dusting off my reading knowledge, and applying it to the guitar. One of the senior NCOs gave me some books and materials focused on reading to help me out. And it made a huge difference. I could contribute and participate in a way that I could not, before.

Years later, as an older player, I had children that became involved in school orchestra. That led to me becoming more involved in the classical music community. I ended up meeting other adult musicians who were involved with the school programs, and playing with some of them on the side. Almost all of them were classically trained, all of them could read. Being able to communicate with other musicians in the “standard” written way made it possible for me to fit into that community of musicians. Now, certainly you can play by ear with classically trained musicians. But if a group says “hey, let’s learn and play such-and-such piece” they might not all just whip out sheet music and start playing. It’s often more like: here’s the sheet music, let’s all learn on our parts and try it next time we get together. And I could do that because I could read. There were even some pieces that didn’t have guitar sheet music, but I could take scores for other instruments and come up with a guitar contribution. This became even more fun when I started suggesting some folk music, like Red Haired Boy and The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Ashokan Farewell and stuff like that. Often there wasn’t guitar music for those kinds of pieces, but there was almost always violin/fiddle music, so we’d make arrangements for those songs.

If I wasn’t able to read I’m not sure that I’d have had that experience. Knowing how to read opened that door for me. Maybe I could’ve opened the door without knowing how to read, but with the knowledge, the door was already open. (Sadly, that group of musicians no longer exists as a thing. Our children all moved on through school and we kind of drifted out of touch. And of course, now there’s COVID throwing up roadblocks.)

(A complete tangent: one thing playing with classical musicians drove home was how loud some of those instruments are compared to an acoustic guitar. Also, how often the guitar would fit into a more rhythmic or harmonic supporting role. Not really that surprising if you think about it, but it made an impression on me.)

Another reading-related thing that happened when I became more involved with classical was that I started taking music written for other instruments and arranging it for guitar, or arranging guitar accompaniment for pieces my children were learning. Again, maybe I could’ve done that without knowing how to read, but knowing standard notation made it far, far easier. It’s called “standard notation” for a reason. It’s like a common written language among musicians. While you don’t always need written musical language, when you do want to use written music it sure is nice to have a common language.

That pretty much brings us up to today. Now, I can read, arrange, and compose for treble, bass, and alto clef (because one of my daughters has viola as her primary instrument). I’m still not that great of a guitar sight reader outside of first or second position (I don’t practice it much, lately), but reading is a skill that I value and that I wouldn’t want to be without.

Make of that what you will. I’m not exactly arguing against Justin’s opinion, here: I agree with a lot of what he’s saying. But I also think that learning standard notation is not that difficult, is not “either/or” in opposition to playing by ear, and can open doors and provide opportunities to a musician. I think my experience as a musician was broader and richer because I learned to read.


Thanks for taking the time to go through your thoughts, Jason. That is interesting and compelling.

Learning a new language is hard, but also rewarding in many ways. I am ok with hard, learning guitar is hard.

I guess one point is not to let learning the language get in the way of learning the instrument. I do hope to play more classical music in the future and I can see that it will probably be helpful and interesting to learn how to read music. Since I am in this for the fun and the learning, why not? But I have a lot on my plate to learn right now, so won’t rush it.

Need to learn some songs….

I agree with all that. That’s why I’d emphasize that learning to play by ear (and/or with TAB) and learning to read standard notation are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an “either/or” proposition. Honestly, I think Justin’s method is the best guitar method I’ve come across, and following it is a firm path to progress and success with the instrument. But I think supplementing that with reading can be a valuable thing. That’s especially true if you’re interested in classical (or jazz). And you’re correct about no need to rush: slow and steady wins the race.

Hi Justin,
Great lesson/discussion. I have been working my way through your book “Note Reading for Guitarists”. You did not mention the book in your talk, so could you please suggest whether I should continue only if
my guitar ambitions include those listed by you such as playing jazz or becoming a songwriter. Are there any general benefits of continuing? One benefit I have noticed is that the exercises are improving my ability to play without looking at the guitar, as I am reading the notes. Perhaps this ability could be achieved another way? Should I switch now to your “Rhythm Reading” book?

I’m working through William Leavitt’s Modern Method for Guitar 1. Very different then Mel Bay or any of those in that it introduces you to simple songs right away. And the tunes are original compositions so it forces you to read. You won’t get When the Saints Go Marching in where you can recognize the song and just ride along.

It’s been long and hard but it has improved my playing and deepened my interest not only in guitar, but in music in general. It makes communicating with teachers in singing lessons much easier. When I watched Broadway musicals recorded during the pandemic I found myself googling sheet music to see how the songs were arranged.

One area I think it really helped was playing with other guitarists/musicians. Lots of pieces in the book have two guitar parts. And seeing the two parts above and below each other really helps you understand everything. Like which notes are played over which chords. How one guitar will rest but the other will be playing.

I’m a fan of learning to read but wouldn’t recommend it to guitarists unless there was a real interest. Progress can be slow.


The Leavitt Modern Method books are one of the resources that the jazz combo guys gave me when I was learning to read for guitar. Those books were really, really helpful. Not only are the pieces originals, but they’re designed to get you reading step by step in a purposeful way, and most of them are legit pieces of music, not just etudes/exercises. They’re what I always recommend to guitarists who want to learn standard notation. Highly recommended.

I agree. I already talked about how it helped me communicate and play with other musicians, so I won’t repeat that, but reading has broadened my musical horizons in general: interest in other instruments, interest in arranging pieces written for other instruments and styles outside the mainstream, and so on.

That’s a fair point. If you don’t really want it you probably shouldn’t go down that road. You’d just be spinning your wheels and probably get frustrated. But if you do want it, for whatever reason, even if you don’t technically need it, then I’d say go for it.


Great thoughts there Jason, your experiences highlight the areas and times when being able to sight read is not only useful but at times necessary. That is exactly what Justin is inferring so to say you are not sure you agree is maybe a bit strong.

Your story is not that of a typical guitar student these days (if there is such a thing as a typical student as we are all different). I personally doubt that reading is a valuable and worthwhile skill for most players. I myself had a few attempts at it years ago but realised I was doing it more out of interest than actually being of practical use in my life.

Justin is quite clear on listing the paths students may want to follow where reading is both useful and necessary, so nothing to disagree about.

You have had a varied and successful experience and I’m really pleased for you. At times though you come accross almost shaming readers into learning to read because you don’t get the obstacles. I’m sure that wasn’t your intention, just pointing out how I felt.

Anyway, thanks for your story, very interesting and gives encouragement if and when I might find reading useful.

I’m sorry that I came across that way. As you say, shaming anyone is certainly not my intent. I don’t think learning to read is strictly necessary, and I don’t look down on guitarists who don’t read (many such guitarists are far better players than I am, after all). However, I know how valuable it has been for me. Because of that I guess I “defend” learning to read with some passion. My intent is not to shame, but to offer an admittedly anecdotal example of why learning to read can be very valuable to a guitarist. Basically, I want others to share the same kind of value and benefits that I’ve seen from it.

As I mentioned, I’m not exactly disagreeing with Justin. I’m also aware that Justin, as a teacher, has direct interaction with far more beginning and advancing guitarists than I have. I think Justin and I are pretty much on the same page, but I’d emphasize the benefits and opportunities that reading offers as an “extra,” rather than emphasizing “you probably don’t need it.” I guess I just don’t want guitarists to bypass the opportunities and value that I think reading offers just because they don’t strictly need it? Something like that.


Hey Jason, thanks for the reply.

Your story, much like Justins was the perfect example of why and when someone should learn to read notation. The point is that it will be a minority of students to whom the effort will be beneficial, hence the “probably won’t need it” statement, but to be fair he goes to great lengths to give the benefits for those on a certain path.

The way I see it, Justin has tackled the subject in exactly the right way. He’s had many students who have started to learn with books that use notation and failed, and was just putting things into perspective for (in his experience) most people.

I will say again, your experiences were very uplifting and encouraging to anyone who feels the need to read. It should never be seen as a can’t do or can’t be bothered subject, and as you say it’s out there if you want it.

Take care

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Hi there Ken, and welcome to the community :slightly_smiling_face:
We don’t get that many multi-instrumentalist octogenarians who used to play lead guitar professionally, join our ragged band (sorry, group :wink:). Especially not ones who can claim to have played in the same band as the legendary Lemmy (although I am sure that’s an old chestnut by now).
If you find yourself with some spare time on your hands, you might want to give us a bit more of a backstory on your guitar journey. It sounds fascinating. (There’s an introduce yourself topic in the community hub category)
Enjoy the site. I look forward to hearing more from you :smiley:

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Interestingly not overly expensive from what |I have just found

Leavitt Modern Method Books 1 2 3

Does any one mention Solfège system (1234567 Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti)? I’m not sure whether this can be called a type of music notation. I love it, and the number system actually represents the interval, so it is very helpful for me to learn scale and soloing. Actually every time when I am playing scale or improvising, I am humming the DoReMi in my mind. For me, this is enough so far. Maybe one day in future I’ll try to learn standard notation (which I already gave back to my school teacher).

Thanks for all the information and advice; it was also nice to listen about your journey. I’m a very slow learner, my ear is no good and I’m not able to think of a sound and tell my fingers where to find it on the fretboard, but by naming that sound my fingers know where to go and I can get a clearer mental picture of the piece I want to play, I can slowly analyse it and even decide which notes could be softer or louder…then practising it on the real guitar becomes easier and I can concentrate more in putting together the different aspects of playing. That said I get your point and working on my ear Is a priority. Thank you.

That’s used here in Hungary in primary schools (maybe kindergartens as well), with the hand signs and all that. However, if the teacher doesn’t take the effort to actually check the singing (intervals, pitch, etc), it’s not worth very much.


Honestly, if I could go back in time I would tell my younger self to learn from the Leavitt book. Get started that way. But younger me wouldn’t have listened :joy:

I remember when I had my first private lesson with Justin. He told me to have a goal. Not having a goal is like asking a stranger for directions and saying, “I want to go somewhere” Weird thing to say.

But if you have a clear place, you can take clear steps to get there. But, once you get there you might realize you don’t want to stay there. That’s okay. Time for new steps and a new path.


I think the question should be
Is Reading Notation Worth the Effort for You.
Every one has a story and every one has a different goal.

My story is totally different than Jason’s (J.W.C.) and I have
never needed to read music notation. Even though I started
accordion lessons at age 6 where I was supposed to learn
to read music. Made it though 2 years of lessons before the
Teacher realized I couldn’t sight read. I can figure out what the
Dots on the sheat music are but can’t read them just by looking
at them.

I’ve never been handed sheet music or tabs as a guitar player
and I’ve played with professional musician most of my life.
I have been handed tapes/CD and been asked to learn this.
So I guess it’s what kind of player you want to be whether it is
worth the effort.

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I purchased the Leavitt book (vols 1-3) not too long ago. I’m not hell-bent on becoming proficient at sight-reading from meters away, but I’m interested in standard notation as such (as @J.W.C said, it’s like a writing system for a language) as it could give me another aspect of appreciating music. I like a fair bit of jazz as well and I’d like to get into playing jazzy things, too.

I tend to dip into the Leavitt book from time to time rather than study it as a textbook. What I found was that recognizing the written notes in themselves is not that difficult, but coordinating my hands in relation to each other and to what I read on the page can be challenging. The first task is the C major scale in first position which comes up early in Justin’s course as well. It’s pretty easy, but when I tried to read and play it from the book at a consistent tempo (tapping my foot), I fumbled so much I was almost ashamed of myself :sweat_smile: But I won’t give up. My livelihood doesn’t depend on it, but it can be so much fun, too.