Three basic levels of playing and how being able to read notation affects one’s ability to become a better guitarist. Level 1: Able to...
- Level 1: Able to play music that others have written.
- Level 2: Able to improvise rhythm or lead parts along to music others have written
- Level 3: Able to write original music
Level 1 can easily be attained with virtually no real comprehension of music theory whatsoever. By the use of grid diagrams for chords, rhythm charts for changes, and tab for lead parts. It is possible to learn song after song, solo after solo with little danger of running out of new material (don’t know if anyone has made a serious attempt to count how many songs there exist guitar tabs and rhythm charts for, but it must be in the tens of thousands at least!).
It should be noted that there are plenty of guitar players who steer round the need even for chord charts and tabs, These guys pick up how to play other people’s songs just by a combination of careful listening and trial and error. This can also be achieved with no great depth of understanding music theory. Although, as an interesting aside, this method of learning does, in my experience, help develop quite a strong intuitive understanding of music theory – you may not know the names given to various musical relationships, but you are aware of the patterns behind these relationships.
Even at this first level of guitar playing ability, it can be observed that any understanding a player happens to have of music theory, will greatly speed up the learning process, and make it a lot easier to learn accurately.
Level 2 – improvising ability - is much harder to achieve without at least some knowledge of how scales and chords work together, but I have met plenty of guitarists who can jam along happily to most tunes without any knowledge of music theory to speak of.
However, I often find that these players have a sense of being up against an invisible barrier in their development as musicians. They sense there is more to the subject and are often frustrated because they don’t exactly know what’s missing. What’s missing is simply understanding music theory as it relates to guitar playing. Given a dozen intensive lessons on theory and these guys really take off.
Level 3 – writing original music – again, can be achieved by trial and error and developing a good ear, but songwriters who try and develop their craft with no understanding of theory are inevitably going to find their style very closely defined by this factor. That is to say, they will tend to use a relatively narrow range of musical options when writing their songs, simply because they are unaware of the alternatives.
What knowledge of theory brings to the songwriter, is much broader choice. One could argue that this enriches their style of songwriting.
So to summarise: each level of guitar playing ability can be attained more easily, with less effort or frustration, and with a more accurate outcome, given at least some education in the basics of guitar music theory. It’s not essential – but it does ultimately make the process a whole lot easier.
Now back to the main topic. How does reading music relate to understanding guitar music theory?
Again, I have to say that it is quite possible to make good progress learning theory without actually dealing with standard notation. But, beyond a certain level, I have found as a teacher, it becomes increasingly more of a struggle to avoid using standard notation than it does to bite the bullet and teach my students to learn to read it – at least in its most basic form.
Quite specifically, I find that standard notation is best taught before trying to cover the whole subject of keys and key signatures.