Imagine that you are sending your child off to a foreign land to live, work, and interact with the locals for an extended period. For the sake of your child’s well-being, wouldn’t you want him or her to learn the native language, written, spoken or otherwise? Could the child possibly get away with learning only how to speak and listen to the language and still be successful? Certainly! But how much more capable would this child be if he or she also knew how to read and write the language?

Why, then, wouldn’t a musician stepping into the world of music want to learn its complete language? It sounds a little bit silly, doesn’t it? But that’s exactly what music is: a language in its own right, where playing becomes the “speaking.”

As a beginning drummer, I was fortunate enough to study under a terrific teacher who, in addition to the basic rock beat, taught me music theory, like concepts such as how to read music, the value of notes/rests, etc. What I discovered is that a new world opened up to me when I became well-versed in this language, and I was able to put my knowledge into practice. It’s a powerful and encouraging feeling! As a student, I can now pick up any music book and learn something new on my own. As an educator, I have an invaluable skill at my disposal when needed.

With my students, I teach them that reading, counting and working your brain into the playing process is just as important as listening, and the execution of rhythms through your limbs. Many times, drummers will hear something and play it through mimicry – in some way, this bypasses the brain and minimizes the actual thought-process regarding what is being played. While beautiful music can still be created this way, I’m simply advocating going deeper into the art and involving the whole body, including the brain. The experience becomes much more enriching when this happens.

But what about those who don’t have dreams of playing or teaching professionally? Most of us who have taken a required foreign language class probably still benefited from it. My point is that if you are going to learn an instrument, a rudimentary knowledge of music theory will only benefit you.

For those who currently play something or are thinking about picking up an instrument, my advice to learn how to read music comes with a warning and a promise. It may not be exciting or easily grasped, but it absolutely will make you a better student, teacher and musician.