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I had a weird dream last night (see Dreams of Finn thread on All I Ask) where Neil and I were collaborating on a musical project, and he kept getting impatient with me because I can't read or write music without the aid of a computer. In the dream, he could, and perfectly. real life, is this true? Anyone know? Now I'm really, really curious. He obviously knows chords and notes and all that circle-of-fifths kind of stuff, but I wonder whether he writes things down in actual notation or just chords or some code only he can understand (like I do when I write)?

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lol, I've been playing keyboards since I was 3, 14 years of doing so professionally, and can't read/write music...I have NEVER "picked it up." I can read chord sheets, that's it.

I have a mental block, because to me it's like trying to put mathematical limitations on something that to me isn't mathematical. I'd compare it to trying to put a concept like "beauty" or "courage" in a box...impossible.

One of the reasons I'm curious about Neil is, during the webcast I heard him tell the other musicians what key "Fall At Your Feet" was in. Now, he didn't say "the song is in the key of E-flat," which it is. He said, "it's in C-minor," which was not the KEY it was in but the STARTING CHORD. Something as subtle as that makes me think he plays by ear. And if so, that makes him even more extraordinary in my book!
i would venture to guess that neil probably does know how to read music. however, as for whether he actually writes it down in perfect technical form for stuff he writes, i don't know. i'd say he probably might write something skeleton down, and go by ear from there. neil likes to improv a ton, no two live versions of songs are the same. so for "playing by ear," yeah, i'd say so, to an extent.

i dunno, neil (and tim for that matter) just strikes me as the type that could definitely hold his own if given a sheet of music and told to play it.

as someone who plays guitar and doesn't know how to read music, neil's ability on the guitar really impresses me. no, he's not the best guitar player in the world - far from it, but he really knows his way around the instrument. transferring songs like fall at your feet and ddio to capo 3rd fret and having it sound killer...well that's pretty impressive to me.

or maybe i'm just easy to impress Smiler
There's no question Neil can play by ear. We've all heard him do it in concert over and over. In Vancouver last July he played "Something" by George Harrison at the drop of a hat. He botched a couple of chords but noodled around until he found them. He was certainly playing by ear. Elephant ears!

As for whether he writes and reads notation . . . my guess is that he doesn't write out all of the parts. If memory serves some third party scores the string parts on Crowded House albums. You'd think if Neil could do it, he would.

My two cents.

i notice that everyone responded with their own musical expertise.
i used to play viola, mostly by ear. i had a strange relationship with my sheet music in that once i had photographically memorized a piece, i could just as easily play it by ear and not need the sheet music. i don't know a thing about writing music and wouldn't know how to begin. i suppose i could ask my brother (he's been a musician since about age 8). i come from a musical family of sorts.

i remember reading in chris bourke's "something so strong" that while tim was receiving piano lessons and learning a lot of songs, neil would try to learn them as well, by ear.

it doesn't answer much, but there ya go.


Heidi, you certainly appear to have a mental block that's preventing you from learning to read music. Don't look at it as making music mathematical. The fundamentals of music are just the foundation -- a group of simple rules that leave a lot of room to create. For example, the rules of football don't stymie the various styles and gameplans of each coach/team. If you already know chords, the only other (basic) thing you need to learn is the time (the length of the notes). The true value of reading/writing music is that it gives you the ability to communicate in a common language -- an extremely useful ability.
lavar78, like your answer.
i'd add this - hope it's not redundant...

music is a language, being able to read and write it brings new possibilities for expression and communication. like literacy in any spoken language.

i understand heidi's feelings regarding notation and limitations, but i think it's actually much more freeing to have the capacity to read as well as play by ear - kind of like having a greater grasp of syntax, a more nuanced vocabulary....
different tools for expressing "beauty" through music

when i took music theory in college, having studied classical piano since i was 7, i found i was having a lot of "aha!" moments - like i was learning a new dialect or something in a language i'd known for years.
i read that Neil got as far as grade 8 with piano lessons. i believe that makes him pretty accomplished. i'm sure he can read music quite well.

i'm with you heidi - can only read chord charts (actually, i can read from middle C to the E above the next C - as long as it's only one or two notes at a time!). And I don't even know about the "circle of fifths" thingy. Though I do understand that a lot of songs resolve on the fifth chord (e.g. progression in C will often end in G). Is it any more than that?

i suspect he just fluffed that thing with Fall At Your Feet.

Strangely I was thinking this about Tim the other day. In an interview for Escapade, he said that he was playing Through The Years and that he was impressed by the chords to the bridge. He said, "not being a musician, I don't know what the chords were but they sounded pretty good." I don't know if he was being disingenuous but it always struck me as an amazing thing to say - I mean, didn't he write it!!?
I have a mental block, because to me it's like trying to put mathematical limitations on something that to me isn't mathematical. I'd compare it to trying to put a concept like "beauty" or "courage" in a box...impossible.
But music is purely mathematical. It's just another form. Being able to read musical notation allows you to be able to play a piece without having heard it before. There are millions of pieces and more being written all the time that have never been recorded or performed, so the skill of reading music is of the utmost importance.

neil's ability on the guitar really impresses me. no, he's not the best guitar player in the world - far from it, but he really knows his way around the instrument. transferring songs like fall at your feet and ddio to capo 3rd fret and having it sound killer...well that's pretty impressive to me.

I'd disagree with this. Smiler I've said it a few times, but I don't think Neil does know his way around the guitar that well. Yes he's a very good rhythm player, but when he improvises a solo, it seems woefully obvious he doesn't have a clue where he is on the fretboard. I've alos noticed that he rarely crosses strings when soloing, preferring to run up and down the neck on one string. This makes me think that he taught himself how to play guitar, coming from a fairly accomplished piano background. Whacking a capo on and playing the exact same shapes doesn't really impress me I'm afraid Smiler

Any accomplished musician and every professional should have excellent aural skills. This is partly the ability to recognise chords and intervals by ear alone. Having played in bands for son long and being a songwriter it doesn't surprise me that Neil has good aural skills.

John wrote:
I don't even know about the "circle of fifths" thingy. Though I do understand that a lot of songs resolve on the fifth chord (e.g. progression in C will often end in G). Is it any more than that?

No they don't resolve on the fifth chord (dominant). In a progression in c major, the second last chord is usually G (7) which resolves to the tonic (1st chord) which is C. A circle of fifths is a series of unresolved dominant seventh chords: G7 C7 F7 Bb7 Eb7 Ab7 Db7 Gb7(F#7) Cb7(B7) E7, A7, D7, G7 etc.. so G resolves to C, which resolves to F etc..

FALL AT YOUR FEET: The verse is indeed in the key of C minor, before modulating to the relative major, Eb for the chorus. So Neil was in fact right to say that FAYF is in Cm.

Back to the topic: I think Peter Green mentioned once that Neil was stuck on a plane without an instrument and was forced to write his idea down on paper. Apparantly the first time he had done it since he was a kid. Neil does indeed have grade eight piano, so he must have been pretty good.
I suspect Neil probably knows the basics of reading music but I doubt very much whether he uses it these days.
From a lot of the things he says it seems to me he's too impatient for a start and also too caught up in the mystery of music to pay much attention to notation. I remember him saying he felt computers in the studio could be a distraction cos looking at a screen starts getting you into the science of music rather than simply using your ears.
Also, he pretty much taught himself to play guitar but never learned 'properly' as he didn't have the patience, preferring to write songs instead.
Finally, in the Something So Strong book it says Mark Hart scored the brass parts for 'Together Alone' and that Neil was impressed by his ability to read/write music.

It all depends on how you define it I guess.
From a piece of notation I can tell what key a song is in and I know which notes are which but I can't sight-read nor have I been able to grasp converting the timing properly, preferring to rely on ear. I certainly can't write music yet I don't feel its held me back, not in songwriting anyway. I have a basic knowledge of which notes & chords can be used in a certain key and through that I get by. I only feel limited when it comes to lead guitar playing as I've never really learned scales etc so I have to find my way around by ear generally.
sevenworlds wrote:
It all depends on how you define it I guess.
From a piece of notation I can tell what key a song is in and I know which notes are which but I can't sight-read nor have I been able to grasp converting the timing properly, preferring to rely on ear.
Of course. But if I worte a song and gave you a lead sheet, you wouldn't be able to play it, unless I played it to you, or I gave you a recording. If you can read music you wouldn't have to hear the song first. It's exactly the same as language. If you can't read, you have to rely on someone telling you. And do people always tell the truth? Not always Smiler I'm getting a bit off topic I know, but I can't stress enough about how important it is to be able to read music and be able to write. If you have a song and you want a string orchestra, a sax section, three trumpets and three trombones to play your song as well as the'band', it's far easier to arrange the song as a score for all instruments then make parts and distribute them to the musicians. They can then read them and play the song immediately. Otherwise you basically have to teach each part to each musician, a time consuming effort and one with potential mistakes. Ok, I'll stop my rant now. It's just very important to me and what I do Smiler

This is just my opinion, there is nothing directed personally at anyone one person on this forum Smiler Just in case Smiler
I've been playing for a very long time now, i started when i was about 4ish, and i can read music, however, i hardly ever do, it's to much of a hassle, i prefer to use TABs if anything, i mainly go by ear, reading music isn't all that important unless you want to be a cover player for the rest of your life. I know my band always work songs out in jams, i , or one of the others come in with an idea and we build on it, i don't hand out sheet music and say "play this!" thats not what a band is meant to be.

And those who say you can't be a good musician without knowing how to read sheet music, take a look at an aussie guitar player named Tommy emmanuel, never read a note of music in his life and yet he is one of the best guitarist in the world, even chet atkins thinks so and you can't get better the chet! And does BB king read music? he's a mainly improv kinda guy.

I agree that it can be extremely helpful, but i don't think it's crucial (spellin)


p.s i doubt stevey wonder reads music Wink
Well, I'm on Camus's side of this friendly debate. Yes, it's possible to be a good/great musician w/o being able to read/write music. However, I'd argue that you could be an even better musician (or at least a more versatile one) with that skill.

i don't hand out sheet music and say "play this!" thats not what a band is meant to be.
OK, that's purely subjective. In particular, a band with one chief songwriter (like CH) would benefit greatly from being able to read/write music. For example, if Nick or Paul had to miss a concert, a replacement player could almost surely get up to speed much faster if he could read music.

The thing that really blows my mind (again, no offense) is that learning to read music is relatively easy. Well, I don't mean it's simple for everyone, but it's like riding a bike -- once you learn it, you''ll probably know how to do it forever. I just think the reward/effort ratio is so high (for most people) that just about everyone should be trying to learn.

Full disclosure: I can't play any instruments (although I am teaching myself guitar). However, I am a singer, and I can't stress enough how useful skills like reading, writing, and sight-reading are. Like Camus said, there are many times when it's not possible to listen to a song before you have to play/sing it -- particularly if you need to hear it more than once.

BTW, for some reason, I think I heard Stevie Wonder uses some kind of Braille system to read music. Don't ask me how (or where I heard it). I could be wrong.
I think reading/writing music has its place in any musical situation and can be extremely beneficial in many cases. But in terms of pop/rock music its importance isn't that great. My views on the matter are probably stronger because almost all the musicians I admire don't read/write music. None of The Beatles could read music and it hardly held them back. Crowded House, Travis, U2, etc - as far as I know don't read/write music. Sometimes something beautiful can happen when you don't really know what you're doing. You don't get caught up in seeing music as notes on a piece of paper. Its like John Lennon playing the opening chord of "Hard Day's Night" - George Martin has said to this day he still doesn't know the exact notes John played in that chord.
Originally posted by SevenWorlds:
[qb]I suspect Neil probably knows the basics of reading music but I doubt very much whether he USES it these days.
Neil did USE it to write music with an orchestra in the 2001 Australian Parrables, Secret & Lullabies colloboration with cartoonist Michael Lenuig and Richard Tognetti.

So I do suspect he knows HOW to read / write music very well, otherwise why would you be working with opera, choirs & orchestras if you didn't know it COMPETENTLY. That project was an expensive one - only highly trained musicians would be logically hired for it ala Neil Finn.

Also he did AMAZING renditions of Sexual Healing and Billie Jean. That means he had to study the orginal notes of it to do his wondefull acoustic version.

Neil does many piano versions of his guitar songs and vice versa. That would need utmost skill and knowledge in transcribing the musical notes. For example he does different rock versions of I Got You, piano of Faster Than Light (originally guitar on TWT record), grunge/acoustic version of Private Universe etc etc.
Believe it or not you don't actually need to be able to read/write music to work with an orchestra, etc. I don't know whether Neil did or didn't use musical notation for this project but there are many ways he could have done it without having an extensive knowledge of music notation.

You definitely don't need to be able to read music to cover a song. All he had to do in the case of "Sexual Healing" and "Billie Jean" is figure out the chords from the originals by ear.

As for doing different versions of songs...that really doesn't have anything to do with transcribing musical notes. I think many of the songs he plays on piano live were probably originally written that way (even if they are guitar-based on the record) and again all he needs to know to transcribe them to guitar are the chords.

Listen, I really don't know how extensive Neil's knowledge of theory is and how good he is at reading/writing music, if at all, but going by a lot of the things he says in interviews and that I've read, I don't believe he relies on it a great deal. To me, that takes nothing away from him as a musician. In fact, it probably makes me respect him even more.
I only feel limited when it comes to lead guitar playing as I've never really learned scales etc so I have to find my way around by ear generally.
By your own admission, this is an area where the ability to read/write music would improve your craft.

IMO, the speculation that Neil knows how to read/write but doesn't use it is something that could work for you as well. I guess I just don't see the downside of learning to read/write music. Obviously, you can get by without it, but it's not like it's painful to learn (again, for most people). I just don't understand why some musicians don't want to learn to read music -- particularly young ones. I can see how, as you get older, you feel you don't need it or you're set in your ways.
I can see where you're coming from.
When I first got interested in playing music I did actually spend time trying to learn some theory and like I said I picked up the basics of notation but I started to feel it was getting in the way. I'd much rather sit with a guitar and tape recorder and just play without having to stop and work out which notes I'm playing etc.

In terms of my guitar-playing, its not really about whether or not I can read/write music thats the problem - its not knowing enough about scales and their positioning on the fretboard, which is really just laziness on my part.

I guess its all about priorities.
You rarely find a musician who is a great songwriter, singer, and technically excellent on an instrument let alone one who reads and writes music too. Most musicians focus on one strength and simply don't have time to learn it all and it seems to me songwriting has always been Neil's forte.
Why do I feel as though in places, this is not as much a friendly debate anymore? I thought the question was basic enough (can Neil Finn, or can't he, read music and why you think what you think about it....), but I find myself sorry I bothered to come back to this thread and read the answers...

Several of you know how to read music, and hey, good for you. But you know what, I don't consider myself any less a musician because I can't. I feel however that some of these posts have suggested as much, and I've found the tone of some to be a bit condescending. I can't speak for those whose intention was to make this about who can do what, or who can do it better, but my post was intended to base MY opinion of whether Neil can read music on MY experience and perceptions, period.

To those who responded with the information about Neil reaching grade 8 in piano, that's something I didn't know, and thank you, that's what I was trying to figure out. To those who groove on implying that I or others like me are lesser musicians or groove on your own presumed superiority by publicly correcting others, I will simply point out that I've made more money in my life playing music I can't read than my classically-trained, concert pianist mother ever made, and will ask that we go back to making the focus here NEIL FINN and HIS abilities, and not the superior versus inferior abilities of listees.

(By the way, this is not a mood thing. I am having a pretty good day for a change. I just get incredibly offended when people steeped in musical theory imply that their musicianship is superior while people who can't read or taught themselves how to play aren't valid or gifted musicians. I've known people who sight read wonderfully, but are incapable of playing with any degree of soul...and in my book, it's ALL about soul. It's a position I've held, gotten mad about and defended, all my life.)

A fellah I worked with played trumpet for the CSO. Yeah, you know, big gig, playing with the world reknown... Anyway, he can read music, etc., but when it comes to playing something that he doesn't already know, CACK! On the other hand, my friends ex-boyfriend taught himself to play guitar from a young age. Took his dads guitar, and just did it by ear. After a few years his dad took him to a teacher who was blown away by how good he was. He was in his early teens. It took him years to learn to read music. But he can play anything by ear after hearing it once. So you're right, the abilty to read music only gives you an edge as a session musician. The rest is up to your soul.

ETA- After seeing Neil a few times interact with other musicians, I think he can read OK, but is so proficient that it just comes to him "by ear" (if that makes sense).
Heidi - you've touched a raw nerve I think. The answer to your question is probably "nobody but Neil and those who've worked with him really know for sure". As for whatever is better - to read/write music or not - thats all personal and subjective.

Like some of the others here I can read and write music but I never do when I write songs. I agree with Heidi, at least in my case I feel the more mathematical it gets the more magic gets taken away. John Lennon and Paul McCartney could never read or write music and they didn't do too bad, did they?
Originally posted by Heidi in Pittsburgh:
[qb]Why do I feel as though in places, this is not as much a friendly debate anymore[/qb]
that seems to happen a lot around here. it's the charm of the frenz forum! Big Grin

there needs to be a distinction between an understanding of the mathematics/theory of music and being able to sight-read and write manuscript.
I think Neil probably knows his music theory fairly well, but he seems like the kind of guy who can't do the little black dots that well, but i wouldn't be surprised if i was completely wrong.

I also think that we should keep the soul thing out of this topic, because arguing about whether music is mathematical vs it's all about soul, is like arguing about whether you should study science or believe in God. That goes in All I Ask, i think.
Ouch. Heidi, I can't speak for anyone else, but nothing I wrote was ever intended to be condescending. I'm sorry you misinterpreted it to mean something I didn't. I honestly apologize for offending you (if that rant was directed at me).

Moving along to the topic, I'd say the answer is yes. But it could be no. I sincerely hope it's yes, because I'm supposed to be arranging "Convent Girls" so he can play it in DC. Yes, I'm serious.

Edited to stop overreacting
I didn't think you overreacted at all, lavar78. I quite enjoyed this discussion until that post. I had no idea that whether a muso could or couldn't read music was such a hypersensitive issue for some.

I agree with stepinmyshoes, and think music is both art and science, and while I can read music, there have been guys I've played with who can't read music, or sometimes even charts, and yet are a million times better musicians than I am.

True, it got off the topic of whether NF could or couldn't read music, but reading back over the thread, I couldn't find a sentence anywhere implying "superior vs inferior abilities of listees", and I would like to know where this attitude was visible, and required that sort of rejoinder.

i too have found this an interesting thread, although admittedly off the topic from the original neil-related question.

it got people thinking about an important musical question, and sort of morphed into analysis of what qualities/skills make someone a "musician" -

and just talking about our relative strengths and weaknesses in reading music/playing by ear; i've found people's experiences and ideas on the topic pretty darned fascinatin'.
I've been really interested in this thread, too, and I just wanted to add my perspective...

I've been playing/reading music since 2nd grade, and while I'm a very good sight-reader and I suspect I have a fairly good ear (once I really learn to use it), I've never done anything with improvisation. Being able to read music well allows me to enjoy playing what I can read, but I've never written anything of my own. I have all the respect in the world for those of you who can improvise and play by ear, whether or not you read music. I can only hope that I'll be able to "learn" that myself (I picked up the guitar a month ago and I think I'm already getting better at listening and picking stuff up). Maybe I'll even be able to express myself using my own music instead of just playing the stuff that I love that others (NEIL!) write. Maybe.

So, whether or not you read/write music... play it, play it loud and share it (with me!).

Peace, y'all... Smiler
Gee Heidi, I have to concur with larva78, I never meant to offend anyone, nor be condescending or anything that you mention in your post. BUT, I do think we are entitled to our opinion, as long as it's a friendly informed debate. That's all it was from my end. It never ceases to amaze me how the craft of music, and especially the theory of music can never seem to be discussed in a non emotive way. I have seen on this forum time and time again that as soon as the mechanics of music are discussed, this idea of superiority seems to rear its ugly head. I suspect some people on this forum are classicaly trained musicians, some are not, some are highly talented untrained musicians, some have tertiary degrees and postgraduate degrees in music, some don't, others have no idea and are simply appreciative of an artform. I fail to see why ALL of the above can't participate in a friendly discussion where every viewpoint is expressed fairly and without reproach. That's what I was hoping for with this topic, as it was one I found to be exceedingly interesting, far more than what Neil Finn was wearing at his last concert (and we had those threads for a long time). I have to admit that some of your own posts seems to express your view that the ability to read music and understand music theory is unimportant, and I got the impression from you that it was a waste of time. I still disagree, but never meant to 'put you down' or be condescending or anything else. I am disheartened to see that because your own views were disagreed with by some of us that ours are dismissed as a personal attack. They aren't, well mine certainly weren't anyway. For the record I think there are many non trained musicians out there creating wonderful music, and they are all very talented. I love the Beatles and many of the others mentioned there. But music is my job (or mistress as Ellington said), so I like to understand it. I don't expect everyone else to want to understand it.

John said he didn't understand a circle of fifths. I thought it'd be friendly to explain to him what one was. I wasn't 'correcting' him.

Apologies if none of this was directed at me.


Just looking at old forums and noticed this one. Neil would definitely know how to read, write, and transpose music. I am doing the same graded system in NZ that he would have learned. I can play Grades 5-7, depending on how much I practice!

If he made it to Grade 8, that is advanced. He would have received theory training and also learned how to write down music as well. My teacher also has us compose and write music.

The grades stop at Grade 8, with the following being certifications that can allow one to teach and study music at university.

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