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Musical Space

Musical Space: Reading Music

Marcin Wichary

For a thousand years, there has been a division between musicians who could read music and those who played by ear. Both skills are essential, and so the music industry has become a strange world in which the literate and illiterate coexist.

Music reading is useful because it is so efficient. When the music is written down, composers don’t have to take the time teach their music to the musicians, and musicians don’t have to rely on memory to play their parts.

The studio players of Hollywood are in high demand because of their legendary sight-reading skills--important because studio time is very expensive. A lot of the music one hears in film scores was recorded at the first read in one take. Almost all of the recorded music in popular media was done with a maximum of one rehearsal.

Musicians who play by ear, on the other hand, have an entirely different skill-set. They have the ability to play something that they’ve heard. They learned music the same way they learned language, by imitating others. Most of the really popular and successful musicians haven’t bothered to learn to read music. These include Irving Berlin, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and even Luciano Pavarotti.

There are a lot of advantages to playing by ear. It is an organic, natural process that involves listening very deeply. When a musician’s brain isn’t occupied with written symbols, it can devote its focus to how things sound and to interacting with other musicians and the audience. And, let’s face it, playing on stage without a music stand looks cooler. Musicians who play by ear tend to be more spontaneous and creative; they are more likely to be able to improvise and compose.

Amazingly, a good number of great Hollywood composers like Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer learned their craft through pop music and cannot read music. They are known in the business as “hummers,” they hum their music to hired scribes who write the notes onto the score.

I think its great that someone can start on MTV and end up writing music for a full orchestra.