Do You Have to Read Music to Sing in a Choir?
Learning By Ear or Reading Music: What is better?
Many people interested in choral music wonder if they can join in even though they can’t sight read music. It’s easy to see why they think it could be possible. After all, people learn how to sing along to their favorite songs all the time without any musical training — albeit with varied results.
There are even extremely talented singers that would make a valuable asset to any choir, but they can’t read music. Just the sight of the staff and the dots running along it are enough to cause a panic attack.
Still, many directors insist that their choral singers learn to read music. For some, it is about the discipline and intricate understanding this practice gives you, something you might not need in every case but comes in handy during complex pieces. For others, it is about tradition, being able to join the long legacy of great choral music.
Let’s look at the benefits of learning to sing by ear versus reading music, and some tips for those veteran singers and budding choristers that want to learn about sheet music.
Learning By Ear: The Pros and Cons
The truth is, almost any song can be learned by ear. For this reason, many people never try to read music — it seems too complex for too little pay off. That makes learning by ear a favorite among many choral singers.
There are some benefits to this approach, including:
- Training the ear to pick up on subtleties
- Training the eye to keep close watch on direction
- Greater sense of community as you learn as a group
- Less things to bother with and carry around — and that means no crumpled up pieces of paper in your bag
- Maintaining your focus, rather than dividing it between the director, the sheet music, and your singing
But not reading music also comes with many drawbacks, including:
- Added time beginning practice, as you need to hear the piece first
- You can’t learn whenever and wherever just by picking up your sheet
- Intricate parts can remain unclear
- Singers aren’t all on the same “page”
- Lack of an intellectual understanding of the music that supports and reinforces the physical practice
- Singers lack crossover skills that go beyond choral music, limiting available experiences
Is Reading Music Better Than Learning By Ear?
In the end, while you might be able to learn by ear right now, knowing how to read music gives you more opportunities. If you ever run into a situation where you need to sight read, you can. That widens your horizons.
On top of that, you can enjoy many of the benefits of learning by ear while still having the music as a fallback in case you need it.
In short, there’s no situation where you are worse off if you can read music. So it’s worth learning.
How to Learn Reading Music
At this point, you might be convinced that you need to start reading music. But how do you do that?
It’s always a good idea to seek out lessons from someone who can. And in the age of the internet, there are obviously countless free lessons you can find to get started (for example, this video).
While you get acquainted with the elements of notation and how to turn it into beautiful singing, remember these key points:
- If you know how the song should sound, the lyrics can help guide where you are
- Focus first on the relative pitch of notes, e.g. if one note is higher on the staff than another, it will have a higher pitch
- Take notes when you learn what a new symbol or abbreviation mean
- Only focus on your part of the arrangement
- Stay calm, you don’t have to get this all at once and mistakes are part of the journey to mastery
- Practice, practice, practice — just like any other singing skill
What if You Can’t Read Music and Still Want to Sing?
Let’s say you have to sing but aren’t proficient at reading music just yet. What do you do?
Of course, you’ll want to keep practicing your reading skills, but until then, take heart. There are many ways you can still benefit from sheet music, and with the right attitude, you can do just fine. It can even provide a nice reinforcement for your new skill.
If you are choir singing and you can’t read music, remember:
- Trust your ear
- Use the lyrics to guide you
- Get help after practice for nailing down particularly hard parts
- Take plenty of notes
- Stay calm
As you’ll see, there is a lot of overlap with learning how to read sheet music.
In the end, there are great choral singers who can’t read music. But it is a skill that unlocks so many opportunities and abilities that it is well worth the time and effort. Who knows? Maybe one day it will help you get to the World Choir Games!