Music Theory And Music Notation Are Very Different Things

Learning to read music is like learning a new language. It's a challenging and rewarding process that takes years to do an an effortless level. However, beginning that process can be an extremely daunting task to some, and can even put them off of learning music and theory all together. So, is it possible to get by as a musician without learning to read music?

I've heard of many people (my beginner-self included) who stray away from learning music theory because they are too intimidated by the thought of learning how to read music notation. While its important to know that learning music notation is actually not as complicated as it seems, its also good to realize that you don't actually need to know how its done to learn theory.

Music theory and music notation are in fact two completely different practices, and that's what I will explain in this article.

Notation Isn't Everything

Let me be clear that it is extremely useful and sometimes even completely necessary for some musicians to learn to read notation. This is especially the case for the ones that have jobs that require them to sight read. This includes session musicians, jazz players, orchestra pit musicians, classical players, and more.

However, there are many great musicians out there who have a less than great ability to sight read. There are lots of rock, punk, pop, blues, and metal players who get by without knowing how to read a single note.

While this is true, it's important to realize that learning the basics of reading music is not as difficult as it seems. Even having a basic understanding of notation can take you a long way as a musician, especially when it comes to learning rhythms. If you are curious, I have an eBook on music notations that goes over just these things.

Ask yourself if learning to read music is truly going to be the best use of your time at this point. The answer will depend on where you are at and where you plan on going as a musician, so keep reading to find out what you should do.

Notation Does Not Mean Theory

Music notation and theory do not always go hand in hand. Notation is merely one way we choose to explain a lot of theory concepts. However, there are other ways some of these concepts can be described without the knowledge of note reading.

Now, if you are hoping to orchestrate a musical, or perhaps analyze a Bach tune, an advanced understanding of music notation would be required. Though it is possible learn about scales, chords, and/or modes without reading a single note. Keep reading to find out how this can be done.

Learning Chords Without Notation

It is possible to learn an entire chord progression without knowing how to read a single note. How is this done? Well, think about what makes up a G major chord. We have a G, B, and a D. You should be more than able to find those notes on your instrument without knowing what they look like written on a staff.

Similarly, its easy to explain the concept of a I vi IV V chord progression in any key without having to whip out a piece of staff paper. And the same goes for learning inversions. Theres a lot to learn when it comes to chords that don't require any knowledge of notation. I give more examples of this in my course on chords and progressions.

Knowing Scales and Modes Without Knowing Notation

Fully explaining the concept of scales and modes require nothing more than your instrument and a decent teacher. This is often achieved by teaching scales directly using the fret board. However, it isn't the only way.

Its more helpful to think of modes and how they relate to each other in terms of scale degrees, such as which modes have major 7ths, and which have minor 7ths. And the same can be said for comparing which harmonies you can find within the various modes.

Learning about scales and modes without referring to standard notation does not mean you are getting a subpar education. In fact, the use of notation can sometimes be less helpful and complicate things more than you need to.

I use system like these, as well as others in my Master of the Modes course to teach modes without the use of notation. Though, if you aren't actively avoiding notation, you will find a bit on that as well.

Why Does This Matter?

Im sure you've heard tales of many musicians who claim to have gotten to where they are without knowing anything about theory. What is often meant by this is that they don't know how to read music. In actuality, they probably know much more theory than they realize if they are able to the write songs that they do.

This is why it is important to understand the difference between music theory and notation. Don't let the world of sight reading hold you back from exploring more about theory. There is much to learn and much fun to be had when it comes to learning theory, so dive right in! If you are unsure of where to begin, take a look at my article on how to get started with music theory. Enjoy!

Tommaso Zillio is a professional prog rock/metal guitarist and composer based in Edmonton, AB, Canada.

Tommaso is currently working on an instrumental CD, and an instructional series on fretboard visualization and exotic scales. He is your go-to guy for any and all music theory-related questions.

Tommaso Zillio