This article comes from voice teacher, Matt Ramsey! Using his knowledge and experience in the music industry, he’s put together a list of ten reasons why it’s important for singers to learn how to read sheet music.
As a voice teacher, students ask me one question above all others, so it’s time to set the record straight.
And that question is …
Do singers REALLY need to learn to read sheet music?
The short answer is that reading sheet music will give you a huge leg up in the music business!
And there are TONS of great benefits to learning to read sheet music.
Some are obvious, while others may surprise you!
But make no mistake: all of them will give you a major competitive edge as a singer.
And let’s be real here, in a tight industry like singing, you need every advantage you can get!
By the way, if you’re looking for a more detailed explanation of all these points, please check out this video:
Reason #1: It’s WAY Easier to Memorize Music
Do you consider yourself a visual learner?
If so, you may have noticed that vocal music doesn’t exactly have much of a visual component to it.
We make the music in our larynx, it comes out of our head, we hear it in our ears or on a recording, but we never actually SEE anything.
This is one area where instrumental musicians really have a leg up over singers like us!
Each piano key, or each position on the guitar fretboard, makes a different musical note.
But when you’re singing? Nah, sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
So, if you’re a visual learner who needs a way to lock a new piece of music into your memory, sheet music can be incredibly helpful.
You won’t have to just imagine the sound of notes; you’ll be able to picture them on the page!
Sheet music adds that crucial visual component that makes memorizing music so much easier!
If you want to memorize new music and teach yourself to sing more effectively, I can’t stress enough how important this kind of visual representation of music is.
Reason #2: You’ll Know What to Expect!
Did you know that music has a shape?
By learning to read musical notation, you’ll be able to see the shape of music: how notes in a piece relate to one another.
You’ll see the lowest note and the highest note.
Even cooler, you’ll see the shape of the melody. Where it rises and falls. Where it drops down real low.
You’ll know at a glance whether the piece is in your vocal range or whether it needs to be raised or lowered a bit.
If you’ve been struggling with how to hit high notes in a particular piece, being able to see them on the page and plan accordingly can be a huge help!
For example, a lot of men’s voices tend to break around the note E4. Female singers tend to break around A4.
Reason #3: You Can Better Express Yourself Musically!
I don’t know about you, but I feel like singers don’t always get a lot of respect in the musical community.
Why do I say this?
Well, have you ever been at band practice and heard someone say “oh, he’s just a singer; he won’t know about that!”
There’s a belief out there that singers don’t know a lot about music theory.
And, I suppose, there’s some truth to this.
Instrumentalists usually learn at least some music theory.
Pianists, for example, learn all about the different scales, keys, and modes in order to master the layout of the keyboard.
Guitarists have to learn chords and chord progressions, etc.
In contrast, learning to sing doesn’t always require a detailed understanding of music theory.
So, if you learn to read music, you’ll also learn to express yourself musically.
You’ll be able to talk about the key and scale, where the half-steps and whole-steps are, the chord changes, etc.
If you want to sing in your falsetto voice, you can tell your bandmates exactly what range of notes you’ll be in!
Remember, as a singer, you are a musician! A little bit of music theory will help you express your musical ideas and communicate with other musicians.
Reason #4: You’ll Understand Music Theory Way Better!
This is related to the previous point, but I really want to emphasize how reading music will enhance your understanding of music theory.
As you may know, music theory is filled with all kinds of rules and patterns.
There are rules for how scales are constructed. How notes fit together in chords, and how chords fit together in chord progressions.
Most of these rules are way easier to understand visually than purely by memory!
After all, it’s one thing to memorize a scale and sing it out loud.
It’s another thing to see the scale on the page, mark the half-steps and whole-steps, and analyze the chords built on each note.
Music theory is super cool and well worth your time to learn.
This is why reading sheet music is so important. If you really want to learn music theory, you’ve got to be able to read the language.
Reason #5: You’ll Expand Your Musical Tastes!
As you probably already know, most pop and rock singers don’t read a ton of sheet music while they’re singing.
But the cool thing about learning to read music is that it’ll vastly expand your musical tastes and interests!
Classical music, for instance, is grounded in sheet music in a way that other styles just aren’t.
So, by understanding what’s going on in the sheet music, you’ll better understand what’s going on in the classical piece!
You’ll see how the melody and harmony are put together, how the instrumental and vocal parts complement one another, and so on.
Not that you couldn’t do that by ear with a recording, but it’s WAY easier if you can read the sheet music!
And hey, by expanding your musical tastes and interests, you may also begin to expand your vocal range!
All the more reason to learn to read music.
Reason #6: It May Be Required!
Do you want to audition for a part in a local play or musical?
Do you want to go to music school someday?
Well, if so, you’ll want to learn to read sheet music!
Any kind of audition process, whether for Juilliard or for your local high school’s production of The Lion King, will likely require some ability to read music.
If the conductor calls out, “okay everyone, let’s take it from measure 16!” you’ll need to know what that means!
If they hand out sheet music with some singing warm ups, you’ll need to follow along with the group!
This is even more important when applying to music schools.
Fairly or unfairly, music schools won’t teach you how to read music. They really prefer students who are ALREADY musically literate.
And you really never know when you’ll suddenly be required to read music.
Learn to read music now, and you’ll be prepared for any situation that might come up!
Reason #7: You Can Write Your Own Music!
Okay, enough scary talk about auditions and other high-stress scenarios.
Let’s discuss something a bit more fun!
If you can read music, you can also write your own music!
Now, the basic building blocks of music include melody, harmony, and rhythm to name a few.
And reading music is crucial to understanding how all these things fit together.
Once you understand that, writing your own music is the next step!
Start by writing your own melodies.
Have you ever been singing in the shower and thought, “hey, that’s sweet, I gotta remember that!”
With the ability to read and write music, now you can!
Once you get good at writing melodies, you can try your hand at arranging your own harmonies!
Let’s say you’re singing in a group and suddenly have a FANTASTIC idea for a new vocal exercise you want everyone to try.
Well, with a bit of music theory under your belt, you can plot out the exercise visually and show everyone exactly the sound you’re hearing in your head!
No more plunking down notes on a keyboard for you!
By reading and writing music, you can jot your ideas and communicate them to other musicians clearly and effectively.
Reason #8: You Won’t Need Others to Arrange Your Music For You!
Here’s a mind-blowing factoid: did you know The Beatles (yes, THE Beatles) actually needed their producer to figure out most of their harmonies for them?
In their early days, Paul, John, George and Ringo relied on their producer, George Martin, to arrange the harmonies and vocals in their world-changing records.
But, once they struck out on their own, they quickly learned to read and write their own music.
As many a Beatlemaniac will tell you, this newfound freedom let them take all kinds of creative risks with their music that would never have been possible before.
The point is, learning to read and write music is about more than just jotting down your ideas on paper.
Reason #9: More Chances to Make Money!
It pays to learn to read music, in more ways than one.
If you can learn to read music, all kinds of opportunities will become available to you.
Think about it: many gigs singers typically land, from choirs to jazz ensembles to cover bands, often use sheet music during their rehearsals.
Even if you don’t plan on becoming a professional session singer and just want some gig work to earn some extra cash, the ability to read music will be incredibly helpful.
Trust me, you never know when someone will call you up and say “we need something for this soundtrack! Can you sight read it for us?”
Learn to read music, and you’ll always be ‘on the same page’ (ha) as your fellow performers!
If you can manage it, gigs like that REALLY pay.
Reason #10: Boost Your Confidence!
Learn to read, write, and speak the language of music, and you’ll be more confident in your abilities both as a singer and as a musician more generally.
While this might sound like an afterthought, I really cannot overstate how important this point is.
Even a small confidence boost makes a HUGE difference as a performing musician.
Has one of your bandmates ever told you “you’re in the wrong key!” and you yelled “no, you’re in the wrong key!” back at them?
Well, if you can read the sheet music, you’ll finally be able to know who’s right and who’s wrong.
An F# on the page IS an F#. No two ways about it!
By reading music, you’ll know exactly what you’re supposed to be singing.
You’ll walk into an audition or gig fully confident that you can read what’s in front of you and keep up with the rest of the group.
How great does that sound?
Conclusion: What’s the Best Way to Learn to Read Music?
By way of conclusion, let’s address another question many of you may be asking:
“How do I actually start learning to read music?”
There are many ways to learn to read music, but I usually recommend that my students begin with the Solfeggio system.
The solfeggio system, or solfa for short, ascribes a syllable to each note of whatever key you’re singing in.
Say we’re in the key of C major. The syllable-to-note assignment would go like this:
C = Do
D = Re
E = Mi
F = Fa
G = So
A = La
B = Ti
C = Do
I also generally recommend using the movable solfa system.
This means that Do always represents the tonic note of the key.
In this example, Do is used for C and all octaves of C. If we’re in the key of F, Do would be used for F and all octaves of F, and so on.
Practicing solfa will help you feel out the differences between each of the notes.
Once you have these syllables down, it’ll be much easier to identify notes on the page and understand how they relate to one another.
There are all kinds of fantastic exercises to help you get better at singing solfa. Check out this video (around the 11:22 mark) for a personal favorite of mine:
If you’re looking for even more practice, check out Musicnotes.com and download whatever sheet music strikes your fancy.
To be clear, you totally DON’T need to read each piece perfectly every time!
The point is that you practice, try and try again, and gradually improve your music-reading capabilities.
As you can hopefully see by now, the benefits of reading music are too many to count.
I promise it’ll be well worth your time to learn.
If you’re looking for more singing tips, tricks, and advice, please check out my full Master Your Voice course.
Get started on learning how to read sheet music with Musicnotes’ “How To Read Sheet Music” blog post!