These questions arise many times every year. Sometimes they're posed by people calling DSM for lessons and sometimes they're e-mailed to MusickEd.com by people searching the internet for uh.... 'music education'.
'I want to learn music, but do I have to learn how to read music?' Or 'I just want to play for fun and not learn any of that theory stuff.'
There are a bunch of fantastic tales about guys who 'just pick up an instrument and play!' and countless other threads to be found regarding famous musicians who 'can't read music'. There's no doubt that it can be done and done well.
The following jazzers are all said to have limited music reading ability; trumpeter Chet Baker, guitarists Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass, and pianist Erroll Garner. They all played wonderfully yet each struggled with (music) reading during their lives and some admittedly sadly never mastered the skill. Some of these stories are exaggerated. Erroll Garner may not have been able to sight read Chopin Ballades, but he could certainly explain the theory behind the chords and melodies.
The pop world is littered with formidable players who do not read music. There is the somewhat dubious tale of Prince handing Beyonce a piece of sheet music at a recording session only to have her gasp in horror and then sheepishly admit she couldn't read music. The nameless symbol-one was so taken aback that he reportedly abruptly ended the date and told Miss Knowles to 'come back when you've learned'. (Note to readers; it's a great story... but repeated searches for verification of the myth have turned up nada. If anyone has more insight, by all means, do tell.)
The bottom line is that some folks are gifted with great ears, musical minds and the dogged determination to play their instrument at a very high level. Eventually they learn the 'language' and are able to 'converse' with fellow musicians to make great art. The people who are searching for 'shortcuts' online or calling a music school for help are most likely not in this camp.
Searching for a shortcut to learning music is like learning a language but never developing the skills to read or write, building a house using only a screwdriver, or being an artist using only a pencil. The more knowledge you gain and the more tools you acquire, the more you can do with your instrument. This makes learning more fun and far less frustrating.
With the correct approach however, there is no doubt that anyone and everyone can learn musical concepts and become musically 'literate' on their chosen instrument. With that in mind, the question 'Do I need to know how to read music?' might be answered in true Socratic fashion by any potential teacher like so; 'How do you propose I teach you music?'.
In putting the MusickEd.com Kore Series software together it was blatantly obvious that a step by step approach of introducing concepts using the actual language of music was the best idea for both potential students and educators who would be using the product. Note reading, ear training and theory components (such as articulations, dynamics, tempo markings, etc.) are all important pieces of a large puzzle that of course also includes 'hands on' and 'how to' for each instrument.
We have been using the software curriculum for about 2 years on campus at DSM. The program provides teachers with lots of options and it's a great way for students to gauge their progress. Almost every student (both young and old) are delighted to know that they are following a set course of study rather than meandering through a random set of tasks that often lead to frustration.
The 'market' (and in particular, the internet) is flooded with cheat-sheet short cuts that sound more like used car deals than actual curricula. This approach almost always causes frustration for both the learner and the instructor because what's missing is a clear and consistent flow of sequential information.
So if you are one of the chosen few who are truly musically gifted and highly determined, then you may not need to learn 'music' in order to play your instrument at a high level. If you are like the rest of us however, be certain to choose a solid curriculum and a teacher who will help you through it for the best results!