Paul Tso Paul Tso
Posted May 17th
In my drumming career of almost 20 years, I've come across a number of discussions regarding whether or not it’s necessary to learn how to read music. Perhaps this comes up so often with me because so many drummers opt to learn the instrument without making a legitimate effort to tackle the often-dry subject of music theory. I’m not saying you need to read music to learn the drums – in fact, there are many exceptional drummers out there who can’t read a note, but have advanced to where they are because they have other qualities and skills that make up for what they lack. I’ll also add that while I am talking about drummers, this subject applies to virtually any musician or vocalist for that matter. Let me illustrate.
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.