View Poll Results: Do you read sheet music for mandolin?

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  • Yes I do, it's great for learning/playing mandlin!

    74 67.89%
  • No, I rely on tablature.

    7 6.42%
  • I learned to read music but really, I just play by ear.

    18 16.51%
  • Never learned it, I play by ear.

    10 9.17%
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Thread: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

  1. #26
    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Gray View Post
    I once asked Mike Compton that same question and he replied "Bill never knew how to read notation"...
    I like that Mike said "read notation" rather than "read music". He communicates the idea that music does not exist on paper. There is no music until the vibrations come out of one's instrument or mouth. I'm always taken aback when someone says that they can't play because "I don't have my music with me." I think, But music is something that comes out of your mandolin or fiddle, and I'm offering you one to play. How can your music be absent? Mike made an important distinction, though I'm not negating that some complex pieces (e.g., a great deal of classical music) are difficult to play without notation.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

  2. #27
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Mandocello8, wait, what...Based on a "Cro-magnon skinning chant"?

  3. #28

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I learned to read notation 50 years ago. I use chord theory 10 times as much today. To chart out songs/tunes with Nashville numbers is very handy.

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  5. #29
    not a donut Kevin Winn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    +1 on the above comment. Understanding the fundamentals of theory (chord structure, scales, etc.) is way more useful to me than "reading" notes on a staff or "applying" tablature. And translating that to your ears is the basis for really freeing up your brain for making music (and having fun with your girl!).

    The one indispensable skill to get down first is being able to play using a chord chart (both standard and Nashville). That will allow you to at least strum along with anyone playing nearly any tune.
    "Keep your hat on, we may end up miles from here..." - Kurt Vonnegut

  6. #30
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Kevin Winn View Post
    The one indispensable skill to get down first is being able to play using a chord chart (both standard and Nashville). That will allow you to at least strum along with anyone playing nearly any tune.
    Indispensable? This is where genre differences come in. This is absolutely not the way to find your way into a local Irish/Scottish pub session, where mandolin is typically a melody instrument, and chordal backup is at best an accessory and not the bedrock of the music as it is with most Americana styles.

    If you're playing Americana styles of music -- Bluegrass, Blues, Jazz, Rock, then I would agree chord knowledge might be a good starting point.
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  8. #31
    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I'd say measure what you want to accomplish.

    If you're playing music with your daughter and she is reading music to do so, you would do best to also read music. On the other hand, if she cannot already, she might also do well to work on learning to play things by ear and improvisation.

    Also consider the genre you want to play in. Bluegrass has very little written music, so reading won't help you much there; knowing how to read tab, chord charts and Nashville notation is very helpful. Jazz for regular jazz instruments is primarily based on written music, but very little of that is targeted toward mandolin. Classical is of course completely based on written music; there is some, but compared to the world of other classical music, not much music that is targeted toward mandolin. Roots/folk/Americana is probably about 50/50 written music depending on who you are playing with; some of it is targeted to mandolin.

    There is a big difference between reading music, and sight reading music. I can sit down and figure out music if my life depends on it, but I'm nowhere near being able to sight read. For the music I play, it wouldn't help much because there is almost no written music.

    Knowing music theory is very helpful for arranging songs, for improvisation and for communicating with other musicians who also understand music theory.
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  10. #32
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Doc Watson couldn’t read music. SRV couldn’t read. I play with many fabulous musicians who don’t know how to read. Just learn to play. It will keep you interested in learning. Developing an ear is more helpful than developing reading abilities.
    It doesn't matter . . . I'm going to WINFIELD!!!!!

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  12. #33
    Registered User Simon DS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Sounds like a lot of fun! Will the two of you be learning using the Suzuki method?

    Learning mandolin it's quite different from guitar. And you will also have quite different Learning skills from your daughter.
    If your daughter is reading notation then it's probably a good idea to learn as well.
    As a complete beginner I might suggest tab (at the same time) for the first couple of tunes, just to find your way around the fretboard.

    The main advice I would give while learning in tandem is to be very careful not to compete, especially in a family situation. The two of you, who have quite different qualities and experience, should be working and sharing together as a team.

    Remember that many older people (physical ailments aside) have forgotten that if they want to learn to play a mandolin then all they have to do is go to school… and work.

    Advantages of Old People:

    Experience
    Wisdom
    Patience
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    Maturity
    Gratitude
    Contentment
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    Self-awareness


    Advantages of Young People:

    Energy
    Creativity
    Adaptability
    Enthusiasm
    Ambition
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    Learning agility
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    (I’m working on the last ten qualities )
    Last edited by Simon DS; Mar-07-2023 at 4:23am.

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  14. #34
    Registered User DavidKOS's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ranald View Post
    I'm always taken aback when someone says that they can't play because "I don't have my music with me."
    That has happened to me a few times. In my case it's because I can't remember the tune enough to play it by ear...until I see the sheet music OR hear someone else play it.

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  16. #35
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by goose 2 View Post
    Doc Watson couldnít read music. SRV couldnít read. I play with many fabulous musicians who donít know how to read. Just learn to play. It will keep you interested in learning. Developing an ear is more helpful than developing reading abilities.
    Those fine musicians you mentioned worked in genres that did not use nor have written charts.

    I haven't seen too many of those types playing classical music.

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  18. #36
    Registered User Mandobart's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by r0gue View Post
    Did you learn and do you use sheet music?
    Yes, I started out reading sheet music. I started on violin in school orchestra when I was 10. I added bass guitar in school jazz band when I was 13. Reading music was essential for those activities.

    When I started acoustic guitar what helped me the most was learning all the basic first position chords, then learning and recognizing basic recurring progressions and how to transpose keys. None of that required reading sheet music. I learned to play guitar mostly by ear.

    About 15 years ago I started mandolin. As it's tuned like violin I could sight read anything I wanted on it right away. "The Fiddler's Fakebook", "Parking Lot Pickers Songbook" and "Songs I May or May Not Have Learned at the Tractor Tavern" are packed with more tunes than I could ever sit down and pick out by ear, and they were great for learning melodies.

    Learning to read music has been great for me, but not absolutely essential to play bluegrass, newgrass, CW or Americana. IMO for those genres it's more important to develop a solid chord vocabulary, understand the Nashville system and be fluent in the I, ii, IV, V and VI in the keys of A, B, C, D and G.

    Start playing music with other people right away - this single activity will do more good than anything else.

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  20. #37
    Registered User Sue Rieter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    Victor Wooten talks a lot about how to learn music. He compares it to how we learn language. First we learn to hear, then we mimic the sounds trying to jam with people. Only later do you learn to read.
    As a kid playing clarinet in band, I developed passable skills reading notation, but no ear skills at all to speak of. And we didn't have to memorize anything, either - even in marching band we had those tiny little stands that attach to your instrument.

    Now that, 50 odd years later, I am learning to play by ear, it is a help to be able to peek at the written music, but a hindrance to not have any early ear training to dredge up from the catacombs of muscle memory. I'm almost positive I'd be progressing faster if I already had some of this in my background vs. learning it generally from scratch.

    I joined the NH Fiddle Ensemble this year. Ear learning is emphasized and all the music has to be memorized for the performances. Despite practicing much more than I did as I kid, I feel like I'll be doing good if I have the melody and/or chord progression down for half of the pieces. I was feeling pretty frustrated until I got to the mental place of "It's a learning process and it proceeds at the pace it proceeds." I still have to resist wanting one of those tiny little stands, but can't imagine where it would mount on a mandolin.

    So I'm in the camp of either learn both together or, better yet, start with learning by ear.
    "To be obsessed with the destination is to remove the focus from where you are." Philip Toshio Sudo, Zen Guitar

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  22. #38
    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by DavidKOS View Post
    That has happened to me a few times. In my case it's because I can't remember the tune enough to play it by ear...until I see the sheet music OR hear someone else play it.
    I understand that. If I forget a tune, if I learned it from notation or have it in a book, I refer to the notation, sheet music, or whatever to bring it back to the surface or even help me re-learn it. Besides that, I'm not a professional musician required to have hundreds of, say, complex jazz tunes, available to perform at short notice. My point is that when someone says they don't have their music with them, it implies that what is on the paper is "music," and not a code that we read to produce music from our instruments and bodies.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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  24. #39

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    You absolutely should work on playing with a relaxed technique and good ergonomics for you. You absolutely should get a nice set of gentle daily hand/wrist stretches. Other than that, there isn't a whole lot of should.

    Make sure to engage things that make you want to play more music. Follow your heart. Monroe? O'Carolan? Classical? Nordic? Folk rock? During that journey, what you need to do (scales, modes, chord theory, note reading, etc) will present itself and you will have a context to work the new skills. Seriously. Music should be fun.

    Also, there's a false dichotomy between note reading and learning by ear. You won't need to either read sheet music or spin LPs puzzling over what people are doing. You will find most any tune and any concept online. You can listen, watch, slow it down, and most likely have it explained to you.

    Note reading is useful. So are lots of other things. Have fun. But play ergonomically. Pain sucks.
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  25. #40
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    A few random thoughts:
    I firmly believe that reading music greatly enhances your ability to progress as a musician. Imagine walking in to your local library and saying I can only look at the books with pictures. Or only access the books on audio. Your choices become greatly limited. The Fiddlers Fake Book was mentioned previously and I agree it is a great resource. Being able to read gives you access to EVERY tune in that book. And countless other resources.
    Is it absolutely necessary? No, as mentioned many great musicians never read notation. Can't fault their approach, and yes I started out learning by ear and tablature. Reading just allows you to explore many more options IMHO. (I learned from piano many years ago).
    Lastly, it is not difficult to learn to read. Don't be intimidated! In our little corner of the musical universe (mandolin) you are only really dealing with treble clef, about 25 -30 notes in the first two octaves (given sharps, flats, etc). Very doable. Take five minutes of practice time per session and start with the basics. You don't have to be able to play a tune sight unseen (I can't). But I can work my through things with a little time and patience. Certainly worth a try and it may open some musical doors for you!
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  27. #41
    Registered User Caberguy's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I think that at least knowing what a time signature is (and how to count it), what rhythmic notations are (whole, half, quarter, eighth, triplets, etc.), along with knowing the names of notes, scale steps (1,4,5, etc) and the intervals of scales, even just the major scale (WWHWWWH, etc) helps A LOT.

    That basic theory knowledge can go a long way towards making a better musician and a more enjoyable experience... even if you can't immediately look at a piece of sheet music and know what note it's asking for. I grew up a tuba player, and can't read treble clef worth a darn... but knowing what somebody means when they say the "the 5 chord" or "3/4" or trying to learn a new piece from tab and knowing an eighth note from a whole note are all very very helpful.

  28. #42
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    This has actually all been hashed around many times. Most notably here.

    The "complete mandolinner" can and does it all. There are a pile of skills the complete mandolinner has that provide great benefits to playing and enjoyment. More important the acquisition of any of these skills does not in any way impede the acquisition or exercise of the other skills.

    Learning to read does not in any way decrease one's ability to learn a tune by ear. Failure to practice playing by ear is what does that.

    The complete mandolinner can read music, play by ear, learn tunes by ear, improvise, write down a tune. All of it.

    The complete mandolinner can read notation, and tab, and the so called Nashville number system. Learning to read any of those gives the player some gigantic advantages. Learning any one of them does not in any way diminish one's ability to learn the others or do the others, or to improvise, or to play by ear.

    Of course none of us have the time to do everything. So we have to prioritize. I get it. 100% It may be that we are hip deep in a certain genre where one of these skills is less emphasized, so we work on perfecting the others. More immediate benefit. Whatever.

    I am not proud of it, but sometimes I prioritize things to learn based on procrastinating starting the difficult things. Easier stuff somehow becomes a higher priority for me. I think it is because struggling with something new makes me feel less adequate than working on something I have gotten some proficiency with. Nobody looks cool learning something new. Here is my own red warning light that I am cheating myself of good and useful growth in order to stay safe and comfortable: I start using phrases like "low hanging fruit" and "make some progress", "put some numbers on the board".

    I think that just starting out everything is hard. So so hard to do is not a reason to not do. There may be reasons not to do something, but it being hard isn't likely a good enough reason. IMO YMMV

    This whole mandolin thing is a great adventure. For me, part of pursuing this is picking up tools. I don't know how to fight with a battle axe, but I pick it up anyway when the game offers it, and start learning. I don't put down my long sword or spend less time practicing unarmed combat.
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  30. #43
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Everything you don't do, doesn't get done.
    Life is short, play hard. Life is really really short, play really really hard.

    The entire staff
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  31. #44

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    This clip concerns Jimmy Raney's professional effort to learn sight-reading and probably
    not really pertinent here, but fun anyway.

    'How he did it' starts about half-way in:


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  33. #45
    Registered User Tim N's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I only learned to read music to a useful extent when I started learning mandolin and was building up my knowledge of Irish music. The desire to learn tunes was the motivation, although the best way to really become familiar with a tune is by listening to it, whether at a session or on youtube, and then learning it by heart. I started with ABC, but soon realised that notation is far better for a quick and ready visual reference. For tune playing, notation is not frightening - you only really need a basic grasp, and it can become a handy tool. You don't have to be fast at it. It only needs to be a starting point. You'll be amazed how many tunes you can learn to play by heart. Also, if you ever want to try writing the odd tune, it is also a great way to note it down. I would recommend it , but don't be daunted or enslaved by it.
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  34. #46
    harvester of clams Bill McCall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Since I started on piano when very young, I learned to read fairly early. It has served me well over time, although I can't read the bass clef anymore. It is useful to have many tools at your disposal to access the music you would like to play. I would rank listening to the music you want to play as the most important element in learning, while accessing supplemental tools such as tab, charts, scores, etc, as necessary.

    I find accessing supplemental tools important, as I can read a chart a lot faster than I can learn a complicated line by ear. But you do need to know what it's supposed to sound like, imho.

    YMMV
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  35. #47

    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I'd say yes, particularly since the opportunity seems like it's right there. I think anything you can add to your toolbox is helpful. I did learn how to but I've very rarely done it bcs most of what I was learning wasn't written down so I also play mainly by ear. Nevertheless, there's nothing to regret about having learned to read & it does broaden your understanding of how music "works" by which I mean how it lays out on the page. That can help you conceive of how it lays out on the fretboard. It aslo helps with rhythm, subdividing beats and so on.

  36. #48
    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill McCall View Post
    Since I started on piano when very young, I learned to read fairly early. It has served me well over time, although I can't read the bass clef anymore.
    Inspired by this thread, yesterday I sat down at my much neglected piano and tried to read a relatively simple Clementi sonatina and was even able to read the bass clef though rather slowly. It is very helpful to have learned these skills when young. Same for language learning. Skills learned in our youth stick with us into old age.
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  38. #49
    Full Grown and Cussin' brunello97's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    The OP's question strikes me as a no-brainer, if not another trolling of the topic.

    Netfix has a great documentary on the great Bill Russell.

    Bob Cousy, believe it or not, shows up for some terrific interview set pieces.

    Cousy relates that if he knew a guy couldn't go to his left he had no problem shutting him down for the night.

    There's a lesson there. If you're a righty, learn to go to your left. Versa vice.

    If you have a great ear, learn to read music.

    If you can read musics well, learn to play by ear.

    Why would you ever think anything else?

    Take it from the Cous.

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  40. #50
    Gone Fishing Tiderider's Avatar
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    Default Re: Just starting out -- Should I really learn to "read music"?

    I learned to read and understand sheet music in grade school as I learned my first instruments. It sounds as if your daughters improvement is all the proof you need. There are highly talented people who can play just about anything by ear, alone and in group settings, for the rest of us we can use all the tools available. Enjoy your journey.
    Lee Hill

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