Ask Eddie: Reading Music vs. Playing by Ear

Eddie Van Halen is back with a new edition of Ask Eddie.

This month, the question comes from Al Costante of Corpus Christi, Texas.  Costante is wondering if the legendary guitarist reads music or plays by ear.  We’ll let Constante take it from here…

Costante:  Hi Ed. My question is do you read and write music or do you play by ear? How do you write a piece of music? Do you actually write the notes down, or just the placement on the fretboard, or …? Your music seems very complicated, just wondering how you actually write the music. Thanks.

Van Halen:  Hi Al,

Do I read and write music or play by ear? I was lucky to have been born with a pretty good set of ears. I took piano lessons for years, starting at the age of 6 in Holland, and I realized at a very early age that I couldn’t look up at sheet music and see what my fingers were doing at the same time, so I opted to look down at what my fingers were doing. The teacher would play a piece of music for me, and I would watch his fingers and – of course – listen to what he was playing. Because of having a good memory and musical ears, I got very good at emulating or copying exactly (or close enough) what the teacher was showing me, to the point of years going by, and no one ever even suspected that I couldn’t read, at all!

So when I started playing guitar, it was pretty much the same thing. I would listen to a record and just copy it. For some reason it was very easy for me. After about three years or so, I thought to myself, “Hey, I’m getting pretty good at this. I can play along with just about anything I hear on the radio or records that I purchase.” When I started coming up with my own music, riffs etc., I simply recorded them to cassette tape.
Sometimes I wonder if Beethoven or Mozart would have bothered writing their ideas down on paper if they had access to recording equipment. It would have saved a lot of time.

Also when you’re reading music, it’s very open to interpretation. For example, if it says “vivace,” which I believe means up-tempo, lively, fast. Well, you never really know how fast, up-tempo and lively the composer meant. But if he had a recording of it, you would know exactly what he meant. The downside of not being able to read is obviously that I can’t sit around a campfire and open a guitar songbook and play songs in the book. Sometimes I wish I could read, but it’s more for learning other people’s songs. So you don’t have to know how to read and write music to create it. I hope this long-winded explanation answers your question, Al.

All the best, Eddie

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