What Music Theory You Need to Know to Play

Playing in a Rock Band was always an interesting experience for me. I am a drummer, and I played in a wide variety of different bands – from hard Rock through to soft pop, blues and even Jazz (well I was pretty bad at that, but if needed I could fill in).

I came from a classical music background – my mother made me play piano as a young child, and I went on to study classical percussion at University, so I never really had one of the issues that most drummers face: Problems reading music.

It was always interesting playing in Rock Bands with other musicians who often couldn’t read any music. They had a great way of communicating with each other – they could start playing a song and the other musicians would just “pick it up” by ear. This was something I always struggled with.

Admittedly I’m a pretty average guitar or bass player, but if I was taught the chords or a riff I can certainly play it. With it written down on paper I’d have no trouble learning it, however I just couldn’t pick up a song and play it without first learning it. However this is not the case for most Rock musicians. For most Rock musicians its the other way around – they can pick stuff up, but give them some dots on a piece of paper and they are lost!

So what do Rock musicians really need to know about music theory? and how can we best help people who really want to be able to read and are prepared to make the effort, but still struggle.

Here are some tips:

Only learn what you need for your instrument

There is very little point in Bass guitar players learning to read treble clef notes, or drum notation. Concentrate on the Clef that is used by your instrument, and the aspects that are most important to it. For Guitar it really is rhythm. Most guitarists can work out the tablature ok, but I’ve found that they struggle when reading rhythm. For bass players it is reading the bass clef notes.

Focus on rhythm and pitch as separate things

Each musical event has both a pitch (what note it is) and a duration (how long it is played for). Make sure that you are taking note of both things, and practice drills and games to develop your skills in both areas, not just one.

Practice score reading while listening to recordings

A great thing to do is listen along to recordings and follow along with the printed music, naming the notes as you go, and finding them on your instrument

Analyse real sheet music as much as possible

There used to be loads of Ascii Tabs around on the internet for guitar, bass and drums, but there is nothing like real sheet music for learning to read music. Go to the music store and buy some. Support the artists that created it and do your music reading a favour at the same time!

Hopefully this has given a couple of ideas for Rock Musicians who want to improve in this area. With a little bit of the right training and a good attitude it really isn’t that difficult to learn to read music.