It’s hard to imagine that some of your favourite recording artists, and indeed, some of the world’s most famous musicians, can’t read or write a single note of music. But the fact of the matter is that this small deficiency could be much more common among musicians than you might think.
But why is that so? For most of us, some of the very first things we learn when starting out with music is how to read it. But many musicians, including a large percentage of those who have made it big, are self-taught. Their inspiration doesn’t necessarily come from a detailed education in music, but rather from an internal pull based on being able to play almost anything by ear.
And there aren’t just a few of these musicians who can’t read music. Some of the most prolific and popular musicians of all time, people who’ve created beautiful works that has stood the test of time, can’t read or write a lick of music.
Some people criticize musicians who can’t read music as people who don’t truly honor their craft (Gene Simmons, of KISS, once famously said that any musicians who can’t read music isn’t really an artist), but many would argue that sheet music stifles creativity.
Let’s take a look at 7 surprising musicians who didn’t let their inability to read or write music stop them from achieving fame.
Let’s start off this list with a bang, and the “King of Rock and Roll” himself, Elvis Presley. Though he had an undeniably exceptional voice, he was never formally trained. Even his guitar technique was completely based on his own sense of music. He developed his own style by listening to the music of Hank Snow and Jake Hess, and trying to play it by ear.
Once, during an interview in 1957, he was asked how he writes songs if he can’t read or write music. His reply? “It’s all a big hoax. I never wrote a song in my life. I get one-third of the credit for recording it. It makes me look smarter than I am. I’ve never had an idea for a song. Just once, maybe.”
So how did he become the “King?” As John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in a profile of Jackson for GQ, “He starts with tape recorders. He sings and beatboxes the little things he hears, the parts… Some of the things Michael hears in his head he exports to another instrument, to the piano (which he plays not well but passably) or the bass. The melody and a few percussive elements remain with his vocals. The rest he assembles around it. He has his brothers and sisters with him. He conducts.”
That’s right! The three time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and world famous guitarist, can’t read music at all. In his autobiography he speaks of a particular instance when his inability to read sheet music was especially nerve wracking for him, while at a guest session with none other than Aretha Franklin. “I was so nervous, because I couldn’t read music, and they were all playing from music sheets on stands.”
Well, he clearly got through it, and not being able to read music certainly hasn’t slowed him down!
Without question, The Beatles are one of the most influential, popular, and easily recognizable musical groups in modern history. And not one of them could read or write music. As incredible as it may seem, “The Fab Four” managed to mesmerize the entire world without this simple ability.
In a 1980 interview with Playboy magazine, John Lennon said, “None of us could read music… None of us can write it. But as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, they [Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr] are as good as anybody.”
James Marshall, better known as Jimi, became one of he most influential musicians in modern history in a very short time. And like everyone else on this list the American singer, guitarist, and songwriter never learned to read or write music. He started playing music with a one-stringed ukulele he had found in the garbage, and he began following the music of Elvis, learning each song by ear. A biography explains that he thought his inability to read or write music made him focus better on the music that he heard.
Eddie Van Halen
Born Edward Lodewijk, in the Netherlands, Eddie Van Halen is easily one of the most popular and talented guitarists around. Music was an important aspect of the Van Halen home life, and his father played the clarinet, saxophone, and piano. Eddie even learned how to play the piano along with his brother. But though he grew up with music all around him, he never learned to read it, learning instead by watching and listening. When asked by Guitar World if his piano training transferred to the guitar, he replied that it had, “but in a very subliminal way. Because I never learned how to read, really; I used to fool the teacher. I did it all by ear.”
You may never have heard of Robert Johnson, and that’s not terribly surprising. Born in 1911, he grew up on the cotton fields with his mother, and never had the opportunity for formal musical training. During his school years he taught himself to play the harmonica and jaw harp rather well, and the style of singing and guitar that he developed has gone on to influence many artists. Rumors persist even to this day that his uncanny guitar ability came to him through a deal with the devil at the crossroads.
He toiled in relative obscurity, until some of his recording from 1936 and ’37 were reissued in 1961. Today, he’s often considered the master of Mississippi Delta Blues, and Eric Clapton called him “the most important blues singer that ever lived.”