I’ve got rhythm. (And you can, too.)


My daughter – let’s call her “Private Digital” – is studying the violin. She played with her symphony orchestra this past Saturday. Way cool. I wish I’d been able to play with a symphonic orchestra when I was in grade school. (I got to play with a lot of jazz combos and rock groups, but that’s another story.)

What I find interesting is that in many ways, she’s much like most of my better students, back when I taught music lessons for a living. I found that the ones that were pretty sharp had more trouble with the mechanics of music, because they relied on their ears instead of their eyes. That may sound odd, since music is an aural media, but using your eyes (to read music) is essential. It’s what makes the difference between someone who plays violin and a violinist.

To really play music, you’ve got to learn how to read. Of course, I can name a thousand or so musicians who can’t read music – and play very well. For instance, Paul McCartney can’t read a lick. But every non-reader I’ve ever known WISHES they could read music, because it makes life so much easier. 

What interests me is the corolary between the gifted and their tendency to try to play things by ear instead of reading the music in front of them. 

I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s human nature to try and take the easy way out. If you’ve got an ear, it’s easier to fake it, than to read it. Reading music requires that the players understand math (note values) and be able to translate the lines and spaces into notes on their instruments. 

The reality though is that, while it may at first feel artificial and constrictive to play what you read (and far less comfortable than playing by ear), once you master reading, it’s absolutely liberating. The better you get at it, the more rewarding it becomes. 

The thing for musicians to guard against, is a weird hybrid of a need to “hear it before you can play it.” That turns the ear into a crutch, where you’re using the manuscript as a mnemonic guide, reminding you of the way you heard it. Problems arise, when you “disremember” what you heard, since your ear will win over your eye every time. You’ll end up playing what you thought you heard, instead of playing what you see. 

The cool thing for students about reading music is that it actually helps you in areas far removed from music. A number of scientific studies have found that the disciplines required to read and play written music help create synaptic pathways in the brain that enable students to excel at other subjects – particularly math, reading and science. Essentially, learning to read music rewires your brain, making easier for you to learn. That’s a whale of a dividend. One of the most persistent corollaries in recent times is that between those that can read sheet music and those that can program a computer. Surprisingly, the skills you acquire reading music translate exceeding well to those needed to write code. And vice-versa. That’s why so many computer programmers are also musicians, and why so many musicians find it easy to learn to use a computer. 

There are a bunch of take-aways here. Reading music = good. Faking it = not so much. Learing to read music will make learning any subject easier. Reading music frees you and will improve your playing. And if you really wanna master computer programming – study music first. Who could ask for anything more?

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