What is sheet music?
The words of death for a guitarist – “sheet music”. Although there’s no doubt that many of us have at least heard the term, many may still not fully understand what this is.
Sheet music is the traditional method for notating musical compositions, through the use of placing notes on the five lined musical stave, which will include a clef (usually written in treble clef for guitar), a time signature which will tell us how many beats we have per bar, and a key signature which will tell us which notes for the key of the piece will need to be altered with a sharp or flat. This method is used for not only guitar but for all instruments such as piano, violins, trumpets, bassoons – you name it!
There is a certain stigma with sheet music for guitarists, since the use of guitar tablature or ‘TAB’ has become increasingly popular due to it’s straightforward system and low barrier to entry to use it, many of us never learn to read sheet music since we don’t really see the point.
Many of us think of learning to read sheet music as a daunting and perhaps dull task, learning where each position on the musical stave corresponds to on the guitar neck in open position, often having to play nursery rhyme type tunes such as ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to become familiar with the system.
Although the barrier to entry to reading sheet music will take longer and more dedication, there are several reasons why this method may be more beneficial to you.
Now I’m not going to lie to you – learning how to read sheet music is going to be harder than learning to read TAB, although obtaining this skill will leave you with many more options and benefits than TAB will.
For one, learning how to read sheet music will make you a much more versatile and well-rounded musician.
This will allow you to understand how music is formed, as well as the music theory elements that go into any composition. TAB will simply give you the bare minimum information that you need to learn a song, which is just what fret on what string in the correct order that you will need to play.
Music notation will show you the rhythm of the notes, what key the piece is in, and what the time signature is which will be important to understand how to count along to each bar. All of this information will be important to understanding what is happening in the song on a deeper level.
As we have already discussed, music notation is a universal system for all instruments, so this will be a useful skill if you are needing to communicate with musicians who are playing other instruments that you may be rehearsing with. For example, you can ask the keyboard player what note they are starting on, and if they say “a C note” this will make immediate sense to you as they are most likely not going to say “first fret on the B string”.
This will also open up the opportunity for you to play sheet music that you may want to play, that wasn’t originally played on a guitar. For example, you may want to play a piece of music that was originally notated for piano, but could be adapted for guitar! This of course could not be done with TAB.
The main advantage that I find with sheet music over TAB is that music notation is designed to give you all of the information that you will need to play the piece without needing to hear it. It will show you what notes to play, what rhythm to play them in, all dynamic markings, where to repeat sections, and any specific techniques that will be appropriate for certain parts (such as right hand fingerings, hammer-on/pull-off techniques, where to pluck the strings – tasto/ponticello).
This is a major advantage over the TAB system as TAB is really designed to go along with the aural aid of hearing the music while reading along on the page, as it more often does not have the rhythm of the notes displayed or any other dynamic markings.
Ok so there are many advantages to learning to read sheet music, however there are a few disadvantages that music notation will have in comparison to TAB. The first and most obvious con is the learning curve when learning how to read sheet music. Unlike TAB which has almost no learning curve and is a very straightforward system to follow, learning to read music will take time to learn not only where each note on the stave corresponds to on the guitar, but also how to interpret the different rhythmic values.
A popular way to learn how to read music on the guitar is often out of a classical guitar-style book that takes you through one string at time in the open position of each string, showing where the open string and the first few frets of that string is notated on the stave.
I personally use this system with my students that learn this method, as I think these books do a great job of slowly taking you through each string and giving you a few simple tunes that utilise these notes to get used to reading and playing them in actual musical examples, rather than just showing you a bunch of notes with no real context.
The drawback to this however is that it will take commitment and patience to work through this successfully.
The next hurdle after learning to read the notes in the open position of the guitar will be to convert these to other positions on the neck. Due to the unique layout of the guitar neck, we will be able to find the same notes in multiple different positions on the guitar.
Although this can be an advantage in many situations, it does create a greater learning curve in the beginning to learn where all of these different notes are found when it will be more appropriate to play a piece in the middle of the neck rather than in open position for example.
This will be quite important for guitarists, since playing parts on different strings or in different positions can drastically change the sound and the feel of a piece, so we will often have to figure out the most appropriate position and stringing using our own common sense if this is not noted on the sheet music.
Another con of sheet music is that it is typically used for the more classical-styled guitar pieces, but not as much for the more contemporary rock/pops songs that many of us love learning and playing.
In fact quite often TAB can make more sense for these pieces, as these styles will often require us to strum chords which can be easier to read simple chord symbols for, or riffs and solos that will often be in higher positions on the neck that TAB can show us in a more straightforward manner.
Many songs in these genres will heavily rely on the positions on the neck for the guitar parts, which as we have discussed can be harder to notate in the sheet music system.
Well, should I learn to read sheet music?
Sure there’s a lot of disadvantages to learning how to read sheet music, mostly on the commitment side of learning this system, but does that necessarily mean that you shouldn’t do it?
The one question I would ask you is “why not”?
And don’t say “because it’s too hard”!
Learning to read music will only provide you with more advantages and skills as a musician – it will not takeaway from anything that you already know.
So with that in mind, why not start learning how to read sheet music today?