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Do you need to know how to read music to sing?

Johnman33Johnman33 Member Posts: 6
Hey guys, sorry to bother any of you but I have a burning question. Do you need to know how to read music and know music theory in order to be a good singer/learn to sing? I read a lot of things and everyone has a different answer, some say “no you do not need to know you can learn by ear etc.” But some will say “yes you need to know how to read it because then you can know what notes to sing off of the sheet”. What do you guys say? I appreciate any one taking the time to answer, this forum looks like it is really supportive of one another and everyone seems very kind. Thanks again.


  • DiegoDiego Moderator, 2.0 PRO, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 1,154
    It really depends what you are planning to do with your singing. If you want to do classical it helps a lot. Other than that absolutely not needed to be a decent singer. The more time you spend learning about singing the better you will get. As simple as that.

    TLDR: Absolutely not, with dedication it will come naturally.
  • Klaus_TKlaus_T Moderator, 2.0 PRO Posts: 2,405
    Hi Johnman33, @Diego is a really good singer, so if he says so, you can take his word for it. I am not such a great singer, but I can still answer your question, according to my opinion: you can definitely learn singing without being able to read music. Ken's course is set up so you don't need it at all (you just follow the exercises, by ear). For me, because of the course, I started to look into how to read music (I've been playing guitar for years, and never bothered learning how to read music). Not because I needed it, but because the course actually made me interested in knowing how to do this. Because it does help with learning and memorizing new songs if you can read them. You simply won't have to remember as much stuff if you can read it off a piece of paper. I also started to do ear training to help identify pitches. for me, the course is a bit of a vortex, sucking me into stuff I was too lazy to do before. but it is your choice how far you want to go.

    Are you planning to get the course? I can recommend it 100%
  • WigsWigs Moderator, 2.0 PRO, 3.0 Streaming Posts: 5,042
    I haven't bothered learning how to read music, and I feel I'm a much better singer just off the course. You can look at it this way, you learn to drive a car without understanding how all the components work, and you can still be a very good driver. Knowing how the car works gives a deeper understanding, I think the same would be true for almost anything. Differing of opinions is just that, it's what people think works best for them. I say go ahead and sing regardless of whether you want to learn to read it😁
  • Johnman33Johnman33 Member Posts: 6
    Thank you very much for all of your answers, I now understand this better. And Klaus_T regarding your question about the course I am on the verge of getting the course but I still have doubts because I’m not sure if I am going to be able to do it as when it comes to pitch I am terrible and learning how to identify pitch from a melody and string it together is extremely daunting to me personally, but I will see. Thank you once again I appreciate all of you :)
  • Chris82Chris82 2.0 PRO Posts: 594
    Naw you don't need it but it doesn't hurt and can be helpful when you just cant figure out a song by ear, such as all the notes in a very fast run. I can read music now but even still I wouldn't learn a song by sheet music, I'd just listen to the song and learn by ear.
  • samw2019samw2019 2.0 PRO Posts: 285
    In my opinion you don't need to read music to sing, or even play guitar and piano. As to learning songs and other music that's 50-50 I think. Guy on here posted his song with no theory or notation and I think it's great, most great rock music is jammed that I like. Now I get a kick out of writing music and concocting chords and harmonies I enjoy it.
  • BBeckBBeck 2.0 PRO Posts: 30
    edited November 2019
    So, first notation. And to cut to the chase: no you don't need to know anything about written music to sing although there are some advantages to written music. Notation is just a form of communication and in many ways it's a poor ineffective way to communicate. If you study notation, you will very quickly find out that it's a terrible broken system, but it's the best we have for what it is.

    Our notation system tends to just be pitch and rhythm, and you have to resort to all kinds of craziness to express articulations like ghost notes and imprecise instructions like "sing this section more softly" (more soft than what or how many decibels?) Some might say this lack of precision allows you to take the piece and make it your own. But it's not that great at telling you what the composer had in mind.

    I don't read pitch very well, but when I studied drums for a year or so my teacher was a jazz professor and made me do everything from notation. I love that he did that to me. Now I can speak rhythms, and read them. And pretty much any rhythm I can perform I can write on paper. Probably the primary advantage is the ability to speak the notation. Because I'm not just making the rhythm but seeing how it's written at the same time. They are one and the same for me at this point, much the same way that when you learn to read and write English you can speak it and imagine it being written at the same time. It's kind of like seeing the notes when you sing it (rhythmic wise). This is mostly just good for composition and randomly generating ideas, because I almost never write things down in notation unless maybe I get a really cool rhythm in my head and I want to grab a pen and paper and write it down before I forget it. But I've only done that a hand full of times.

    So, another way I could communicate the music to you is to just perform it for you. Or the next best way would be to hand you a recording. In fact, I've been through numerous lessons where that's exactly what they did.

    Probably the biggest exception to this is an environment where written music is heavily used such as in a choir. Many times all you will be given is the written music and maybe no opportunity to get a recording of it being performed. In that environment you may be expected to work off the sheet music. I've also heard of old school jazz musicians who used to work off written sheet music. But a lot of that may just be charts where you're given chord progressions and the general rhythm.

    One of the primary advantages of reading music is to explore music theory. Almost every music theory book I've ever had was in written notation, which is not necessary most of the time. They just write them that way because they are academics and music teachers and they already know it. The best theory lessons I had in the early days didn't use notation at all. Real music theory is completely separate from notation. But that doesn't stop them from writing most theory books using notation instead of explaining what's really going on.

    It's also some times nice to be able to read a piece of music if I'm having trouble with the part or the rhythm. And when I went to try and teach myself piano it was mandatory and it was nice that I could already read the rhythm. It's not necessary to read music to play any instrument, but the teach yourself piano book was entirely written notation.

    So, reading music is a big plus. It's very helpful to learn music theory. It may be expected of you under certain circumstances, especially in a choir. But reading and writing notation is 100% separate from performing any instrument including singing.
  • BBeckBBeck 2.0 PRO Posts: 30
    edited November 2019
    Second, theory. Theory is for composition and improvisation. It's for writing music, or a better way to say it is "creating", or composing, since I don't mean putting it on paper when I say "writing". It can also be helpful in understanding what is expected of you. For example, if I say this piece is in a minor key, you should know that the intervals (difference between the pitches) will be different and more "dark" than if I say this song is in a major key.

    And really, what you are doing when you are singing is performing intervals. There is this myth that if you can sing perfect pitch you will be a vocal god. You'd be an MP3 player, but not a musician. Music really has almost nothing to do with hitting a specific pitch, but rather is all about whether you can hit a pitch that is a specific distance away from the root pitch of the song. That's called an "interval". And absolute pitches don't really exist in the first place. When we talk about middle C or E flat 3, that's not a thing. That doesn't exist in reality.

    Let me explain that because it's going to sound wrong from what you're likely taught. All pitches are just vibration speeds. And there is no such thing as a universal truth about which vibration speeds are which notes. We just arbitrarily assign them. So what vibration speed is middle C then? The true answer is that it's whatever pitch/vibration speed you would like it to be. There is no true definition. Now we have to get past that and make it be something. So, in most music you will hear, we define the A note (I forget exactly which one - Edit:It's A4) to be 440 vibrations per second. Then everything is tuned relative to that. Everything after that is how many times faster or slower the note vibrates from that reference tone. But it doesn't have to be A = 440Hz. It could be anything we want it to be and other tuning can be found such as A = 430Hz. Middle C is a vibration speed relative to how fast you decided A would be, not an absolute thing. It's an absolute thing if we agree A = 440 Hz, but it can be anything depending on how the reference note, in this case A, is defined. If you want to be clever, it's a true statement to say that all notes are middle C because according to how you define your tuning reference that's actually a true statement. But most people think of middle C as a specific thing because we do usually tune to A = 440 hz which means that middle C vibrates exactly 261.6257 times per second. There's a test on Friday and I'll be expecting all the perfect pitch guys to sing a middle C that vibrates exactly 261.6257 times per second and not 261.6258 times per second. And if I switch the tuning to A = 430Hz and shift all the notes on the keyboard because of it, you'll be expected to know exactly how many times per second each note vibrates in this new tuning as well. :)

    So, unless I can give you a vibration speed of 732.6 times per second and you can sing that, you don't have perfect pitch. And quite frankly it would be nearly useless skill if you could pull it off because all the other notes I'm going to ask you to sing in the scale are relative to the root note. So, being able to hear the distances between the notes (in terms of pitch, not time) is what's important, not being able to sing an exact number of vibrations per second on command or hear a tone and tell me exactly how many times it's vibrating per second. (Which is what perfect pitch actually would be). Check out the vibration speeds (frequency) of the notes on the piano and see how difficult it would be to remember the numbers for each note, let alone to sing exactly thousands of vibrations per second down to the forth decimal place. (What we actually do is use our ears to tune the note we sing so that it "locks in" to the sound of the root of the key or the root of the chord that is being played in the background music, which is thousands of times easier than knowing all this math that would be involved in perfect pitch.)


    And this doesn't even begin to get into the fact that the piano is tuned "incorrectly" with what they call stretch tuning, which is different than how a guitar is tuned for example to equal tempered tuning. And that again is different than Pythagorean tempered tuning. And that's different from tuning systems used in India and other non-European systems. Conclusion: If perfect pitch exists, it's either not much difference than good relative pitch or possibly the most useless skill imaginable.

    And don't get too hung up on all these different tuning systems. Just remember that all of this is relative and there is a lot of "wiggle room" as to what "correct" even is in the first place. Your goal should be to produce notes that sound nice with the other notes being played and learning the distances between notes like when you sing a scale and that first note is the one all the others are related to and remembering those relationships/distances. (Note: that the major scale that you start with is not the only scale. ie.Minor)

    Distance in time is also important; that would be rhythm which is maybe more important than pitch, but that's another discussion. The distances between the pitches are what it means to be "in tune" rather than flat. And it's all about vibrating at a speed that "locks in" to the root note.

    A good way to experience relative pitch is to go find a droning sound. Vacuum cleaners and microwaves often have a solid steady pitch that is continuous. Go find a loud drone like that and start singing scales. Notice how the pitches lock in. That is relative pitch and that is what you need to learn to do: make the other pitches "lock in" to that main note. If you listen carefully you will hear when the pitches sound their best against that drone. And whether the drone is actually present in the song or not, there is always a root note of the key which is that note you are measuring all the others from. The drone note can be anything, but the scale (good notes) are all relative to that drone or root note. If you can find a drone sound like this, have some fun singing songs over it. It will teach you what it means to be "in tune" rather than being flat. In most music, that note is "there" although it may be covered up by a lot of the other things going on or can even be implied. Most of the time you will be singing against the root of the chord instead of the root of the key. And singing against the root of the chord means you have a root that constantly moves around during the song.

    And it's actually fairly easy (with a lot of practice) to hear and sing a note that is a perfect 5th (La in the Do Re Mi So La Ti Do scale). That's what you need and it's not perfect pitch. And it's a million times easier and more useful then being able to tell me how many times per second each note is vibrating down to the 4th decimal place.

    I'm pretty big on theory as a singer/song writer. But it's mostly unnecessary in order to sing. I'm struggling to think of any music theory concept that will make a substantial difference in your singing and I'm coming up with nothing other than what I just explained.

    If you're working off of sheet music (written notation), then you have to know some theory to even read the sheet music. Notation and theory have a close relationship although they are really two different things. One is story telling and the other is putting the story on paper. A minor scale is a minor scale whether you can write it on paper or not. Still, it in some ways is easier to explain on paper. Knowing what a time signature is is imperative. Although 90% of all music (very roughly) is in 4/4 time. And the paper can just easily tell you the time signature. But you can know how to count it out without knowing how to write it.

    If you could learn everything you sing from listening to a recording, you probably would not need to know theory at all. However, you will find the best instrumentalists know a ton of theory even if they don't know notation. And the voice is an instrument. So, at some point, yes. It will be to your advantage as a singer to know theory, especially if you are a singer song writer, improvise, or just want to be the best.

    Although, at the end of the day, true music theory is just "how music works". And although some might disagree, I would say Ken's entire course is music theory that is specific to the vocalist although I'm not sure if he covers things like time signatures, modes, harmony, and so forth. But those things are more important for writing music than they are for singing something someone else wrote. And quite frankly, you don't even have to know a lot of that to pick up a guitar and start making some music. But the more you know of it, the stronger you will be as a musician over the long term.
  • BBeckBBeck 2.0 PRO Posts: 30
    edited November 2019
    Well, all that was quite long. But it also illustrates another point, which is the more theory you know, the more all this makes sense and you can see how things fit together and more easily see when you are doing something wrong and what it is that you are supposed to be doing in the first place.

    I think it's more important as a composer and teacher than it is a beginning student. But as an advanced student, we benefit from the additional knowledge of how it all works. And it's a really deep "well" that you may never get to the bottom of. Learning theory, like learning music, can be a life long journey.
  • HumanRobotHumanRobot Member Posts: 245

    I think reading music is a tool to help you sing the notes and get the timeing etc correct and in stay in time and know when to come in and stop etc etc weather to sing loud or quietly or whatever. Fast or slow etc I would reccomend you learn theory of music but I don't read music but thats because i know what the notes should be as I hear them. But ti's all a personal choice and what you feel comfortable doing.

    Human Robot
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