It’s hard to imagine that some of the world’s most iconic musicians and artists can’t read or write music, but as Lionel Richie confirmed to Us Weekly on Sunday (April 17), this major slight is actually more common among artists than one might think.
Many musicians are self-taught. The inspiration to create new sounds and beats comes from an internal pull based on being able to learn by music by ear, and then having the talent to find that specific musical sound on their instrument.
There aren’t just a few musicians that work this way, we’re talking about the most decorated artists that have ever lived. People who’ve created beautiful music, songs that have stood the test of time, have come from people who are not just unable to write sheet music, they can’t read it either. While this can be criticized as someone who doesn’t honor their craft enough to be knowledgeable about it in all respects, most claim that reading and writing sheet music can actually rob them of their creativity.
It’s a hard statement to argue with when the following list of 12 outstanding musicians all openly admit to not being able to read or write sheet music.
1. Lionel Richie
2. The King of Pop: Michael Jackson
John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in a profile of Jackson in 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 to the bass. The melody and a few percussive elements remain with his vocal. The rest he assembles around it. He has his brothers and sisters with him. He conducts."
3. Dave Grohl
"I was never taught how to play the guitar," Growl told Rolling Stone. I don't know the chords to 'Everlong' [From 1997's The Color and the Shape"]. I only know what happens when I put my fingers there. But that riff is a good example of how I look at the guitar."
4-7. The Beatles
"The Fab Four"- John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and and Ringo Starr. Lennon told Playboy in 1960, "None of us can write it. But as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, [Paul and Ringo] are as good as anybody."
Lead guitarist of Guns N' Roses said in an interview during Snakepit, "No, I can't read music. I play by ear. I try to make what I want to hear, sometimes in my head, come out of my hands and into my guitar. When I write music, I usually write on my own at least to start."
9. Eric Clapton
Perhaps he's laughing during this concert because it reminds him of the guest session he once had with Aretha Franklin, for which Clapton wrote about in his autobiography. "I felt so nervous because I couldn't read music, and they were all playing from music sheets and stands."
10. Elvis Presley
When asked during an interview in 1957 how he writes music if he can't read it or play the guitar, Presely said, "It's all a big hoax, honey. 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 even had an idea for a song. Just once, maybe."
11. Eddie Van Halen
Founder of the band Van Halen, he told Guitar World that his piano training transferred to the guitar, "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."
12. Jimi Hendrix
Hendrix is praised by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as "arguably the greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music." In his biography, the singer, guitarist and songwriter, claims his inability to read or write music allowed him to focus better on the music he heard.