Most music and especially piano lessons sooner or later come to the "barbed wire" of music education, i.e., reading sheet music. This tends to be the dividing line, of kids who somehow "get" music notation, and those who don't, who either drop out or disengage, or even learn to hate piano lessons and even hate all classical music. What is it about reading music that brings about such a watershed difference in people's attitudes and decisions to continue or not?

First of all, let's agree on one thing. Music notation is not "music", or "real music". It is a notation system invented incrementally over centuries by thousands of different composers to "represent" music they were performing or thinking of. It is not "primary" it is "secondary".


The music making came first, the writing and then reading came second. As a way to share music it became a very useful tool, but it is just that, a tool to share music. We don't still use many tools from the Middle Ages, but some are too embedded in our culture or language to discard, like the names of the days of the week.

Once you take sheet music off the pedestal, it becomes an interesting topic and challenge. Why use it at all? Well, for lots of reasons. Even though (Western) music notation is an illogical, medieval, confusing and arbitrary code, it is extremely widely used convention, and has centuries of use, theory, history and content.


It is kind of like the Chinese ideograms, still in use today, even though it is cumbersome, confusing, ancient and difficult to learn, it has too much buried treasure in history, meaning, nuance and culture to throw away at this point. In other words, the loss of that knowledge and literacy to read that knowledge would be a devastating historical and cultural loss.

Like it or not, music notation, as crazy as it is, is here to stay, and the key to understanding and building upon the buried musical treasures of the last thousand years. Even though in my early music studies I "deciphered" and memorized sheet music rather than read it, I still remember the profound amazement of invocative chordal progressions and hidden melodic conversations that unfolded for me as I waded through a Chopin Prelude, a Back fugue, or an amazing piece by Debussy.

These revelations were tiny and incremental and surprising. Having heard all of these pieces before I learned to play them, I still never understood their deeper genius until I played them and made them my own. These ideas then became part of my musical DNA, and I suddenly recognized them in other music I heard, and incorporated the ideas and language into my own improvisations and compositions.


This changed my musical life from one of passive listening to active creation and a much deeper appreciation of what there still was to learn and explore. It gave me a lifelong hobby and spiritual quest, to deepen my musical understanding of the world, and a tool with which to do it.

So, music literacy is a treasure we should absolutely give our children, and ourselves, the question is, how do we do it without having to pay a therapist years later to get them over the musical trauma that is the norm to learn to read music?

How do we make it joyful, not traumatic?...share your comments below!

Chris Salter

Discover powerful secrets behind music literacy

Discover powerful secrets behind music literacy

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