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BLOG: Can you be a musician without being able to read music?

Paul McCartney can't read music, but he hasn't done too badly for himself...
Paul McCartney can't read music, but he hasn't done too badly for himself...

With the revelation that it's now possible to achieve an A grade in GCSE music without being able to read standard notation, people are once again debating the importance of notes and staves in the modern musical world.

Blur frontman Damon Albarn has told BBC Music magazine that "The idea of [staff notation] being completely absent from the most important exams of your childhood is disgraceful," while cellist Julian Lloyd Webber believes that it's like trying to "Study a language without studying the alphabet".

Speaking as someone who was taught to read music as a child, I have mixed views on this issue. On the one hand, I believe that the ability to read music is a valuable skill to have - it enables you to learn parts faster and more accurately than when you have to rely exclusively on your ear - but I don't think it's fair that non-reading musicians should be any less respected.

A changing world

Modern technology - the computer in particular - has levelled the creative playing field, making it possible for just about anyone to start making music. It really doesn't matter if you can't notate - or, in fact, if you can't play an instrument.

In the end, what's important is the quality of the music you produce - your methods shouldn't be an issue. If a 16-year old can create a great dance record without knowing the difference between a crotchet and a quaver, what's the problem? A lack of classical training shouldn't prohibit people from being recognised for their talents.

Of course, if you want to become a concert pianist or an orchestral arranger, music notation remains vital, but I certainly don't think children should be forced to learn it if it won't be of any practical benefit. Ultimately, the greatest music is made when people are allowed to express themselves in the way the suits them best.