Should You Learn to Read Music: Bite-Size Guitar Podcast Episode 24

Episode 24 of the Bite-Size Guitar Podcast looks at the different ways you can learn to play music and whether you should learn to read music.

Whether you should learn to read music isn’t an easy decision and there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there about this topic. This episode will try to give you a clear overview of your options.

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Useful Resources

Check out the below guides to learn more about the different forms of written music:

Once you read the above guides, you’ll have a clear idea of which method suits you best and how to get started using it.

Podcast Episode 24 Transcript

Hi, I’m Aaron from and this is episode 24 of the Bite-Size Guitar podcast.

In this episode, I’ll talk about whether you might want to learn how to read music and what your options are.

I’ll explain the different forms of written music you can choose to learn, the pros and cons for each form of written music, and I’ll help you decide which is right for you.

This is a question all guitarists will think about at some point and there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there.

If you ask ten guitarists whether you should learn to read music, you’ll get a few completely different answers.

Different Ways to Learn Music

Let’s start by looking at the different ways you can learn to play music on guitar and how written music fits in.

The first way you can learn a song is by ear. You listen to the song and figure out how to play it on guitar. For some guitarists, this is the only way they learn music. For other guitarists, this might seem impossible.

The advantage of learning this method is that you don’t need to rely on finding any written music for a song. You just listen to the song and figure out how to play it. Now some songs are far easier to learn by ear than others, so the drawback of this method is that it can be extremely difficult for some songs.

If the song you want to learn has fast or complicated parts, it could take a very long time to figure it out by ear. But if you were to learn to read music, you would be able to immediately start learning the song.

Learning songs by ear is a difficult but not impossible skill to learn. It will take you time to build up the skill, so the range of songs you can play by ear starts off small and grows over time.

I’ve talked about learning songs by ear back in episode 13 if you want to give it a try.

The next way you can learn a song is by looking up the chords used. A lot of websites and books will list the chord names used in the song along with chord diagrams and the song’s lyrics.

If the song you want to learn strums basic chord progressions, then this is a quick and easy way to learn how to play the song. You look up the chords used in the song, look at the chord diagrams to learn any chords you haven’t played before, you figure out the strumming pattern, then you can start playing the song.

The problem is this only works for a certain type of music. If the song does anything other than strumming chords or playing basic arpeggios, you’ll get stuck using this method.

The third way you can learn a song is by watching a tutorial on YouTube. There are countless lessons and tutorials that will take a song and break it down one note at a time. The teacher will explain where to place your fingers and how to play everything from start to finish.

If you’re a beginner, you’ve probably already looked up lessons like these. They’re a great way to get started in learning songs because everything is explained in detail.

The problem with this method is that you’re limited to the songs covered in the videos. If you want to learn a song and can’t find a video on how to play it, you’re out of luck. The other issue with this method is that it’s extremely slow compared to other methods. A YouTube video might take 10 to 20 minutes to teach you the first few parts of a song. You could learn the same parts by reading half a page of written music.

As I mentioned, videos like these are a great way for beginners to get started, but you should quickly move on to another method as soon as possible.

The fourth way you can learn a song is by learning to read Guitar TAB. If you haven’t looked up any TAB or tablature before, it’s a very simple system to learn. There are six lines running horizontally across the page to represent the six strings on guitar. Then numbers are placed on those lines to represent the fret numbers you play.

If you see a number on a line, it means you need to play that fret number on that string.

Guitar TAB is easy to learn and you can pretty much find any song in Guitar TAB format online. If you don’t already know how to read Guitar TAB, you could learn how to read it in under 30 minutes and immediately start learning how to play songs using it.

The reason Guitar TAB has become so popular is that it’s easy to learn and easy to share with other guitarists.
Guitar TAB gets a lot of hate from some guitarists, which I’ll talk about later when I talk about which method you should learn.

The last way you can learn a song is by learning to read Standard Notation. Standard Notation is the name of formal sheet music with the black dots on a staff.

When many guitarists talk about reading music, they’re talking about Standard Notation. If somebody asks you whether you can read music, they’re not asking if you know Guitar TAB, they’re asking if you can read the black dots on a staff.

A big advantage with learning how to read Standard Notation is that it’s a widely used format. It’s used on pretty much every musical instrument. So if you learn how to read it for piano, if you pick up a guitar, a violin, or a saxophone, you’ll already know how to read the music for those instruments.

The downside of learning to read Standard Notation is that it takes longer to understand than Guitar TAB. With Guitar TAB, you look at the number to tell you what fret to play and the line to tell you what string to play. From that one sentence, almost anybody can look at a basic Guitar TAB and figure out how to play it. I definitely can’t explain how to read Standard Notation in one sentence.

With Standard Notation, you first need to learn what the dots on the staff mean. Once you memorize the note positions on the staff, you then need to learn where those notes match the notes on your fretboard. It’s a two-step process.

Somebody who plays piano and knows how to read music knows the first step and can read the notes on the page, but they won’t be able to play anything on guitar without knowing the notes on the fretboard.

So you need to learn both steps before you can use Standard Notation.

So to recap, there are five basic ways you can learn music on guitar. You can learn a song:

  • By ear
  • With chord diagrams
  • With a video lesson on YouTube
  • By reading Guitar TAB
  • By reading Standard Notation

I’ve given a basic overview of each one and there’s a lot more I could talk about for each method, but if you’re new to this, you should have a rough idea on how the five methods compare.

So which one should you learn?

Which Method Should You Learn

If you ask online in a guitar forum or a social media group, prepare to get bombarded with conflicting opinions.

Some guitarists strongly feel that everybody should learn how to read Standard Notation. Many of these guitarists feel that Guitar TAB is a joke and nobody should learn it.
Other guitarists who learned how to read Guitar TAB will tell you to learn that and that there’s no need to learn Standard Notation.
Then there will be a couple of people who learn music by ear and they might tell you to use your ears and that reading any music is a crutch.

As with almost any topic with guitar, there’s always some elitism or close-mindedness and it’s good to recognize it. Whenever somebody says the way they do it is the only way to do it, that’s probably not true. If somebody isn’t open-minded enough to at least consider the benefits of doing something a different way, be wary of their opinions.

The reason you’ll get so many conflicting opinions if you were to ask this question to a group of guitarists is that there isn’t one correct answer.

There are pros and cons to each method, which means each method will suit a different person.

As an obvious example, if you want to play guitar in an orchestra, you don’t have a choice, you need to learn to read Standard Notation. They won’t be handing you Guitar TAB or a link to a YouTube tutorial to learn the music you need to perform.

Likewise, if you’re a singer and you’re learning guitar to accompany your singing with basic strumming, you’ll probably be perfectly happy learning how to use chord diagrams. You may never have a need to look at Guitar TAB or Standard Notation at all. Learning to read music in that situation would be overkill.

We could go through countless examples like this, but the main point is that each method of learning how to play music will suit different people.

The right method for you depends on your own needs. To make the right choice, learn as much as you can about each method. That way you can make an informed decision.
You might already have a rough idea of which method may suit you best from this episode, but I suggest reading up a bit more about the different methods before you decide.

I have tutorials that explain the different methods in detail on my website and I recommend you read them before you commit to any method.

After you read the tutorials on Guitar TAB and Standard Notation, you’ll have a good understanding of what it will take to learn the method and whether either one might suit you. Or you may find from the tutorial on chord diagrams that you don’t need to worry about other methods.

The last thing I’ll say about learning to read music is that you can learn more than one method. Just because you learned one method in the past doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to learn other methods.

I learned Standard Notation when I was a kid because that’s what the books used. Then when Guitar TABs started to show up online, I learned to read that as well. For songs where I couldn’t find any sheet music or Guitar TAB, I learned to play them by ear.

The big advantage of learning multiple methods is that you have more choices. You won’t be limited by any one source.
If you don’t know any of the methods right now, start by learning the one that you feel might suit you best.
If you already know one method right now, pick another one to learn so you can have more flexibility in what you can learn in the future.

So the title for this episode was ‘Should you learn to read music’. Hopefully by now I’ve made it clear that this is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask yourself is, which way of learning to play music suits you best.

For some people, it’ll be using their ears or using chord diagrams. For others, learning to read either Guitar TAB or Standard Notation or both makes more sense.

Check out the tutorials for all of the methods I’ve talked about in this episode at
I go into much more detail into each method and explain how to use each one, so if you’re unsure which method is right for you, those tutorials will help make it clear.

If you have any questions about reading music or learning songs, ask me on the page for this episode and I’ll cover it in a future episode.

I hope you found this episode helpful and I’ll talk to you next time.


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