All four Beatles. Elvis Presley. Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Page. Eric Clapton. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Bee Gees. Eddie Van Halen. Robert Johnson. Slash. Angus Young of AC/DC. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Adam Jones of Tool. James Hetfield of Metallica. Danny Elfman. Stevie Wonder. Dave Brubeck. Andrea Bocelli. Wes Montgomery. Jimmy Smith. Charles Mingus. Erroll Garner. Irving Berlin. Chet Baker. Pete Townsend. Tori Amos. Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain. Taylor Swift. Bob Marley.
Aside from being famous and legendary musicians, what do these people have in common? They did not read sheet music (notation), nor did they need to in order to create and perform some of the most indelible music of their time. While notation has its place, it is not in any way necessary in order to fulfill your highest dreams, goals and aspirations as a musician. In some circles, that equates to heresy but the truth is that in the 21st century, reading notation has never been less essential to making music. Sure, before the advent of electricity, sheet music had a lock on the music market. Even in the early 20th century, a popular song would sell a million copies of sheet music to eager readers everywhere.
But things changed. With jazz and blues came new styles but most importantly, freedom from the script. With rock and roll came three chords and the truth, hallelujah! Anyone in their garage could bang out a few power chords and claim punk status. And now with modern digital instruments, people don’t even have to understand a thing about music theory or play a traditional instrument in order to create beats and songs. It’s uncharted territory and a lot of new music is erupting from this new paradigm; some good, some not. But who’s to say that this music is not valid, especially in the eyes of its creators? If it has a chord structure and a melody, it’s a song, even if you made it out of loops on a computer and regardless of whether you have any real understanding of music or can decipher notation. And whether it hits on the charts or at the very least fulfills your own desire to create music, isn’t that all the validity needed nowadays?
“Never hate a song that’s sold a half million copies.” – Irving Berlin
But a notation-free paradigm has so far proved unattractive to traditional music education, which relies on notation for its claim of musical legitimacy (and relies on Federal accreditation dollars tied to notation-based teaching standards). That list of musicians at the top shows in very certain terms that notation is not an actual gateway to musical knowledge, learning, performance or writing. In fact, it acts as a firewall to the majority of beginning students who attempt to navigate it. I would imagine someone like Bob Marley wouldn’t have made the cut at Berklee or Julliard but that has literally no bearing on his musical contributions, abilities or worth. So why do we still insist that our schools and teachers must use notation to teach? And why aren’t we more receptive to notation-free teachings and teachers? And more importantly, musicians?
“I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to.” – Elvis Presley
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