It’s no secret that music can create widespread positive effects in your life and that learning to play an instrument can boost cognitive performance and mental capabilities. But, is how you learn to play the instrument important? Are instrumentalists who cannot read music, but are capable nonetheless, any better or worse than those who are more “classically trained”?

For anyone making an effort to learn music, practice and time are two of the most important progress factors, and understanding how to read music can only accelerate this progress. Music notation and theory – though they may seem intimidating and easier to avoid in the modern era – are basic musical building blocks that remain relevant to both positive progress and eventual success in learning an instrument.

The Limits of Convenience

As technology becomes a larger part of our lives, the opportunities to learn an instrument have expanded. Take YouTube for example. You can grab a guitar, browse “beginning guitar lessons” videos, and copy what you see from various people online without ever having to leave your house for a lesson and without interacting with an instructor. This type of easy-access learning can help make picking up an instrument seem less intimidating and more convenient, but it can also be limiting for the learner.

After getting to a basic level of familiarity and skill with the instrument, without technical training, there’s nothing pushing a learner to keep expanding their knowledge so they can reach their true potential.

At any age, when learning an instrument, starting off with physical exploration and sound association is essential in developing an emotional foundation and basic understanding. And for some, depending on intentions and skill, this is enough. However, with time, the inability to read music can create a major roadblock to progress. There is only so much you can learn from replication, and so much more you can gain from even a basic understanding of music’s foundations like traditional notation.

The Paradox of “Talent”

Unfortunately, “talent” is often misinterpreted in the arts world as something “you’ve either got or you don’t.” For people who decide that “talent” is what matter, it’s easy to shy away from the work of learning things like music theory or traditional notation and so miss out on their rewards. For those who decide that they don’t have it, this idea of talent can stop them from following their creative dreams. If we consider talent to be a requirement for reaching our musical goals, we’re not accepting responsibility for what really lies behind “talent” – hours of dedicated practice.

Being in control of your musical journey can seem overwhelming, but it’s also empowering. With the freedom and ability to take your practice in any direction – without relying on assumptions about talent – you have all the tools you need for mastery. Luckily, musicians don’t have to worry about trying to figure things out completely on their own. By choosing to learn how to read music, new learners can have a solid based to leap from as they begin to redefine talent and explore their potential.

Exponential Learning

Julia Child famously said, “You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.” This certainly applies to music. Learning an instrument shouldn’t stop at the end of a video tutorial because there is always so much more to discover. A classical training of music, starting with reading notation and moving into music theory, can help unlock many more of the potential paths that are available.

Although all forms of music education can have profound impacts on a person’s life, especially during childhood, having the ability to access the limitless directions of learning is a powerful motivator to stay on track and stay hungry for more. Regardless of how much “natural talent” you may feel you have (or lack), knowing the traditional systems and understanding their purpose can open up a whole new world of musical possibilities just waiting to be explored.