Do You Have To Be A Great Sight Reader To Become A Great Musician?

“When we think of becoming great musicians, we might envision a journey that seemingly rests in near absurdity. Years and even decades devoted to tireless practicing and the constant honing of our craft seems to a be just the beginning of foundational understanding. Often, the highest echelons of musical stardom are reserved for the very few who were also blessed with enormous natural skill and talent. And yet, how many of us would associate great musicians with being a great sight reader? Indeed, there may also lie a bifurcation of value placed on the world of sight reading when it comes to true musicianship. For example, if your goal were to join the city orchestra, we would certainly lay a high premium on the ability to sight read music with all the accuracy, precision, and efficiency of a seasoned professional. On the other hand, if your dream was to be the next Jimmy Hendrix on the guitar, or Billy Joel on the piano keys, you might picture a path of passion, predicated on a desire to use non-traditional means of learning to reach your goals.”

~ Graeme Winder (President of Keys & Kingdoms)

What are some other ways to learn music?

“And yet, there is an entirely other side with some of the best musicians in the world whom you would never see read sight music. This is not to say that they ‘couldn’t’ read, but rather, chose not to. So, if they are not reading music, how did they become such great musicians? The answer is that they used an alternative modality of learning to acquire the musical information they needed in order to grow and develop as aspiring musicians. This modality, aural (ear), means that all the information they needed could be find in the audio waves of music instead of the written notation of notes on a page.”  

Graeme Winder (President of Keys & Kingdoms)

What are the advantages to reading music?

“Like all things, there are pros and cons to any particular way of learning. With sight music, one key advantage is the ability to contain very complex music in a static form on a page. Every drop of information is instantly available to you as quickly as your eyes can read it. Another key advantage is that with sight reading, you can align many musicians at one time to the same song in a very efficient manner. We referenced the symphonic orchestra earlier, but this could also include school band, orchestra, and choir.” 

Graeme Winder (President of Keys & Kingdoms)

What are the disadvantages to reading music?

“There is, however, some glaring disadvantages to only being a sight-reading musician. For one, the simple truth is that reading music inadvertently stifles creative. If you have a set of musical instructions laid out perfectly before you, there is no need for you the contribute additional information to the page. Every detail of the song has already been expressed in written form. True artists demand the need for a creative arena in which to express and explore in without fear of penalty or error.”
“Another key disadvantage of reading music is the lack of improvisational opportunities that typically become such a stable development of artistic musicians. The ability to take a musical idea, or motif, and create something new and original without losing the essence of the original idea, is truly a conduit that links directly into the expressive nature of the musician.”  

Graeme Winder (President of Keys & Kingdoms)

What are the advantages to learning by ear?

“Where sight reading fails, ear learning succeeds. Learning by ear is much more than just being able to hear something and play it back. Ear learning, combined with principled music theory, leads to what we call ‘true fluency’. Fluent musicians don’t hear notes, but rather they hear the ‘relationship’ between notes. This allows them to deconstruct what they are hearing in real time. Upon reconstructing the song they just heard, the fluent musician can effortlessly contribute creatively to the song, ultimately giving themselves more expressive ownership of the song.” 

Graeme Winder (President of Keys & Kingdoms)

What makes the optimal musician?

“To say the optimal musician has a weakness, would not make that musician optimal. It is true that sight reading plays an important role in the developing musician. Likewise, fluency ear training and creativity also form foundation pillars in which artistry and style can be built upon. We are all uniquely different, and we must experience all paths in order to find through self-assessment what are strengths and weaknesses are and how can we best address them moving forward. Thankfully, there is no finish line. We are all on a learning journey together even if we are at different points along the path. Perhaps the true ‘optimal musician’ is the one who continues to progress through hard work, seeks understanding through questioning everything, and refuses to ever give up.”  

Graeme Winder (President of Keys & Kingdoms)
Subscribe for news, updates and more!

Start your piano learning adventure now.