Robert Estrin - piano expert

Can You Compose Music Without Being Able to Read Music?

An interesting answer for all music-lovers

In this video, Robert answers this question with common sense and an unexpected suggestion.

Released on March 18, 2020

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi. This is Robert Estrin at, your online piano store, with a great question, which is can you compose music if you can't read music? The simple answer to this is absolutely, yes. In fact, there are many styles of music that people do not read music at all and are still quite successful. Think of folk music and even rock music, a lot of this is just basically music that is figured out and worked out together.

Now, there are technologies that come to play that also offer richly rewarding experience for composers who don't necessarily write things down. Film music, for example, oftentimes is improvised at a keyboard. Now, keyboards today hooked to computers can produce a sound of any instruments of the orchestra and beyond, and there are many actually great film composers and composers for music, for television and other resources that use sound design. In other words, adding elements of sound into the score that aren't actually musical instruments, but add tremendous value to the experience.

Now, how this works is typically with sequencing programs. If you are playing a keyboard, even with a piano sound hooked to a computer with a sequencing program, it's essentially recording everything you're playing. The beauty is you can go back and take what you like, discard what you don't like, rearrange the music. You can even edit it to change notes that maybe you want different, and all of this not necessarily being particularly fluent with reading music.

Now, I will say that reading music can come in extremely handy in many situations because you might want to utilize the staff for doing your editing, although there are panel-roll type editing screens that just have the little dots above the keys and you can figure out which notes they are and nuance them that way. So it's possible to do some very rich, complex composing without ever being able to read music.

Now, if you want to add parts of acoustic instruments with your score, let's say you've fleshed out a score and you want a flute part, well, you could I guess play the flute part and have somebody listen to it and transcribe it or you could hire somebody to do that for you, but it certainly could be extremely valuable having the skill of being able to read and write music if you're doing serious composing. It opens up certain vistas that aren't available to you if you don't read music.

But for certain styles of music, reading is not essential. Oftentimes, composers of different styles of music, other than classical or jazz, will use shortcut notations. Even in jazz, lead sheets are common, but jazz musicians generally can at least read the solo line and the chord symbols, and that is an important aspect for that style of music and for other styles of music.

But having a comprehensive ability to read scores and to write music in this day and age with technology, if you have the vision and you understand what you are after musically, it's possible to achieve it without ever being able to read music. Isn't that amazing? Of course, different styles of music, it's certainly a help.

I'd love to hear from all of you out there, your experiences. If you have any questions about how to approach writing music without being able to read, email me, I will offer you resources. Thanks so much for joining me, I'll see you next time.
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