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I don’t read notes! Can I learn to play the ukulele?

I’ve been asked this question quite a few times. Truth is, it was a question I myself had as a youngster navigating my way along my musical journey. Though it didn’t start with learning the ukulele but the piano… my most dreadful enemy! Those black and white keys were like fangs coming out of a bloated round monster.

If you’ve ever learned to play the piano you know what it means to read notes. That’s piano 101! Thumping on keys as you read the notes on the page. And from a young age you get it drilled in you the importance of reading notes. To even dare play a piece memorized would be a cardinal sin, a deed so dastardly no amount of begging could appease. Or was that just my teacher Ms. Tamura? Haha!

Well let me take the sting out the question by reassuring you that you can learn the ukulele without reading notes. Whew! Can we all take a quick second to let that truth sink in. In fact, playing without sheet music is called ‘playing by ear’. And it’s completely normal! For millennia musicians played their ‘music by ear’ before a written system was ever created. In fact, the written music system was developed during the Middle Ages.

And this may surprise you that there are many famous musicians who didn’t read music. Here are three: Paul McCartney of The Beatles, rock legend and guitar face melter Eddie Van Halen, and pop icon Taylor Swift!

While these artists didn’t read notes, they were all successful in a variety of musical styles. So don’t worry, you’re in good company!

So now you may be wondering why anyone would go trough all the trouble to learn to read music. Now let me play devils’ advocate here and tell you why learning to read music is useful.

Being able to read music is as useful as reading words in your daily life. Forget about reading a best selling book or intriguing news article. Imagine not being able to read a simple to-do list or text message from a friend. That’s what its like to not be able to read music. Staring at sheet music would be like reading instructions in a foreign language. Things would get so frustrating!

A huge plus to being able to read music is that you can learn a song without having heard it before. I’ve heard of symphonies playing complex pieces without any rehearsals. They get the sheet music a few hours before curtain, and they can play the piece perfectly!

Another use would be the ability to jot down your musical ideas. Since they are written down, you can share them with others who can read notes. You can also save your composition. If you play by ear, you wouldn’t able to do these things. Your great idea would become a fleeting memory!


So there you have it! Do you need to read music to learn the ukulele?


But will it help you?

Yeah, it will!

So here’s where to start if you want to learn to read music. Start by playing songs using chord stamps and lyrics. A chord stamp is an image that looks like lines with dots on it. They are always accompanied with a chord letter (ie G,C,E,A). Chord stamps are used as a diagram of how to play a specific chord.

After learning the chords using chord stamps, the designated ‘chords’ will display over the lyrics. This will help you with chord changes as you play through the song. For some, this may be the end of learning to read notes.

If you want to go to the next level, learn to play a song using Tabs/Tablature. This will introduce you to musical notation. You will often see notation over the tablature.

If this is too confusing, no worries! I will go in-depth on these approaches in my next post!

In the meantime, keep jamming and aloha!

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