Sight Reading Improves Creativity

Why Learning to Sight-Read Can Make You More Creative

By Ryan Rhodes - Guitarist At Large

February 2, 2011

You might be wondering if learning to Sight-read can make you more creative, musically. Or maybe you’re worried that it might make you less creative. This is a very common superstition in the guitar world. I’ve come across many musicians who believed that if they learned the HOW and WHY of making music, that it would destroy their sense of wonder and turn their playing into a dry, clinical, mechanical process, devoid of emotion or feeling. For many guitarists, the romantic fantasy of Jimi Hendrix stringing his guitar backwards and learning to play without a single lesson serves as their model. So when you mention sight-reading to them, it conjures up images of their 7th grade music teacher, who passionlessly played children’s tunes from a book while verbally beating the excitement out of any helpless victim within earshot of the music room.

While it is true that Jimi never learned to read music, the idea that Jimi Hendrix mastered the guitar alone in his dimly lit bedroom is a ludicrous fairy tale. Jimi learned the way many professionals do, by surrounding himself with skilled musicians, being observant, and then practicing for hours upon hours. Before you shun the books and choose this path for your musical career, consider the following counter points:

  1. A good musician will tell you, when they are in the groove, it is as if their hands are those of another person. They’ve mastered the mechanics of their instrument to the point where it requires minimal brain preoccupation, leaving the majority of their conscious mind free to explore and create. Talented musicians can do this regardless of whether they read music or not. But the Talented musician who has mastered sight-reading can take any one of hundreds of thousands of songs, across any genera of music, and use it as their starting point or inspiration piece. They can understand the theory of what they are doing, and effortlessly mix and match styles and rhythms. They can take a new song they hear on the radio, get the sheet music, and play it almost instantly. They can look at a piece of sheet-music and play it with minimal effort, and apply their conscious mind towards feeling the piece, or improvising within a piece.
  2. Boredom is the enemy of musicians. Almost all passionate musicians hit a “plateau” at some point in their musical journey. Pushing through the plateau and getting to the next level is achieved by exposure to new music. Sight-reading gives musicians maximum potential exposure to playing and learning new music, and absorbing new ideas.
  3. New brain research shows that learning a new skill boosts intelligence and creativity. Even if sight-reading wasn’t a skill that you could apply to your music, the intellectual endeavor, alone, is worth the effort for what it can do for your mind.
  4. There is only one way to become a session musician; become fluent at sight-reading music. Session musicians get to meet and play with the biggest and best stars. They get to spend time watching and learning from the legends of the industry. Not only is this a tremendous learning opportunity, but it would be difficult, if not impossible to NOT be inspired.
  5. Never be caught off guard! I had a friend that once heard me play, and afterwards plopped down their favorite song in front of me and begged me to play it. When I told them that I couldn’t read sheet music, and didn’t know the song well enough to play the tab, they continually insisted that I was good enough to play it. Indeed, I probably was. But without any efficient way of getting the music into my head, I could only fumble with the first couple notes before my friend shrieked, “oooh, you’re right”, and walked away disappointed.
  6. As computer software like Sibelius, Finale, and others get better and better, the ability to read and write music yields more and more possibilities. Even the Beatles got bored of their guitars, incorporating pianos, ukuleles, sitars, and ultimately full orchestras into their music. As a result, their music only gained in creative and artistic depth.
  7. Inspiration can hit you at any time. Inspiration doesn’t wait for you to have a tape recorder available to you. A musician that can read music can write the notes they hear in their head, even in math class, the board room, or wherever else they find themselves.

Thanks for reading. I hope this convinces you. I'm sure there are many other reasons to learn to sight-read. Until next time, remember to keep learing, stay inspired, and make music that is true to your heart.