Should All Good Composers Read Sheet Music?


For beginning musicians, the five lines and four spaces of sheet music are public enemy No. 1. If you don’t hate sheet music at first, you surely will after reading it at a turtle’s pace for hours on end.

I remember my childhood like it was yesterday. My garlic-polish-reeking and stogie-breathing piano teacher sat very close and pointed out every mistake I made with my sight-reading.

After many mistakes, I learned that every good boy does not do fine always (musicians understand this). I went through this for years and later studied music in college and became more familiar with chord structures and notation writing. But that’s enough about Munchman. I want to talk about you.

The main question is as follows:

Do you need to be an expert sight-reader to produce video game music? 

The simple answer is no. The complex answer is, it would help. Many famous musicians could not read music, or at least not on a professional level. A couple of musicians come to mind, such as Danny Elfman. That man has not written in the standard notation a day in his life. He made up his own music notation system that is only understood by his orchestrators. Well, Danny has always been an unconventional composer, even to the point of using trash can lids as cymbals to accentuate the crescendos in his compositions. On a side note, Elfman’s Batman score will always be a favorite of mine. He composed it on a plane, by the way; look it up and read his book about writing his Batman score.

Another artist is Nobuo Uematsu, mostly known for his Final Fantasy series compositions. In an interview, he said that he did not read or write music very well, but this is probably just modesty as he has produced some of the most memorable orchestral scores in-game music history. Uematsu is self-taught, but I think we can safely say he has done well for himself despite not being the best music reader.

Game composer Koji Kando, on the other hand, is a classically trained musician, and his classical influence is evident in compositions from Mario to Zelda. He is just as well-known as those who cannot read sheet music at an expert level.

I guess what I am trying to say is there are some advantages to learning music in a university and becoming proficient in all areas of your craft. But there are some who have less of a penchant for composition, and with enough hard work, they will be able to write scores that are as contextually appropriate and moving as any college-educated musician.

The most important question is not whether you can expertly read sheet music, but whether you can do the job. Talent comes from all walks of life, and experiences and opportunities are presented to many regardless of what areas of their skill sets are wanting. However, if you have been studying triangle music for twenty years, you should probably move on to something else.

Michael Sweet also gave his opinion on this subject in our interview with him here:

I am not advocating the love of ignorance and sloth; I am promoting the idea that excellence does not always require perfection.

I will end this missive with the following saying: It’s not what you have, but what you do with it.

Don’t mix garlic polish and stogies, keep learning, and always B#. 

I am Munchman with Game Music Jobs!



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