15 Of The Most Famous Musicians Who Can’t Read Music

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

It’s an age-old question: Do you need to know how to read music in order to be a musician? It turns out that you definitely don’t.

While it can definitely help to know some music theory, as you’ll see from the list of famous musicians who can’t read music, it hasn’t stopped them from achieving astounding success and virtuosity at their instrument.

In this post, we are going to introduce you to 15 of the most famous musicians who can’t read music but have still managed to make their mark in the world of music. So let’s start this exciting journey.

1. Prince

Despite his incredible feat of playing 27 instruments, Prince could not read sheet music. His guitar and piano skills were self-taught, and most fans seem to believe he could only identify chords, scales, and intervals by ear.

His inability to read music, however, didn’t hold him back from making some of the most popular songs of all time. Some of these include “When Doves Cry,” “Purple Rain,” and “Batdance.”

From Raspberry Beret to Kiss, Prince is also credited as a writer of the Bangle’s hit “Manic Monday,” “Stand Back” by Stevie Nicks, and “Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor.

2. Eric Clapton

If there’s any artist that proves you don’t have to understand sheet music to be famous, it’s Eric Clapton. He mentions in his autobiography that he was nervous performing with Aretha Franklin because everyone had sheet music, and he couldn’t read any of it.

He learned guitar by listening to blues music repeatedly until he could match his playing to what he heard. With this, he went on to make some of music’s greatest hits, like “I Shot the Sheriff” and “Tears in Heaven.”

Clapton’s amazing works have won him an Outstanding Contribution Brit Award and a CBE from Buckingham Palace for services to the industry, among many other accolades.

3. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

Next on the list of musicians who don’t read is the King himself, Elvis, who reportedly learned everything by ear. His peers said he could pick up an instrument and intuitively play it and could play back a song after just one listen.

Elvis never had any formal musical training — he just had a natural musical inclination. He also didn’t write his songs down because he didn’t understand how, but that didn’t stop him from creating some of the most memorable songs in history.

Over his career, which spanned over two decades, he received 3 Grammy Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement, to name a few. Several Halls of Fame also added the singer to their membership.

4. Eddie Van Halen

Known by his last name, Eddie Van Halen is a glam-rock legend. Surprisingly, however, he could not read music notation. Despite this, he was able to create a unique style that revolutionized guitar playing.

Van Halen started his music career as a child, where he learned classical piano. Eddie has said that he used to fool his piano teacher into thinking he could read notes, but he actually learned by ear.

Later on, he was enthralled with rock and roll when he first heard Eric Clapton. He learned guitar by playing Clapton’s music note-by-note, not unlike Clapton’s method of listening to blues.

5. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson by Zoran Veselinovic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Possibly the most famous musician of all time, Michael Jackson is a genre-crossing virtuoso who, from his days in the Jackson 5 to his solo career, never shied away from the stage.

But despite his clearly musical talents, never learned music theory and also never learned how to play any instruments above an introductory level. Instead, he would orchestrate every note, chord, and lyric of a song in his head before bringing it to guitar players, and they would write down his ideas.

Some of his most famous songs include “Billie Jean,” “Thriller,” and “Beat It,” which are still celebrated today for their innovative sound and iconic dance routines.

6. Paul McCartney

A prolific songwriter, Paul McCartney is yet another legendary musician who does not read sheet music. He gained fame as a member of The Beatles.

Describing sheet music like “dots on a page,” he said the other band members couldn’t read it either. They came up with the sounds together and didn’t feel the need to write them down.

McCartney has said he’s embarrassed that he doesn’t understand music theory, but since he’s one of the most decorated musicians of all time, his audience doesn’t seem to mind.

His songwriting partnership with John Lennon is one of the most celebrated in music, producing hits like “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” and “Eleanor Rigby.”

7. Bob Dylan

The legendary musician Bob Dylan has inspired thousands of music artists with his folk-inspired gritty and poetic songs, but it turns out he could not read sheet music either.

Reading sheet music isn’t necessary for writing lyrics, so that explains his process. His gift for writing powerful lyrics took precedence over traditional musical notation, leading to songs that have deeply touched people worldwide.

This talent didn’t go unnoticed. In 2016, Dylan made history by becoming the first musician to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. For Bob Dylan, reading sheet music is not as necessary as constructing poignant lyrics — his words speak for themselves.

8. Taylor Swift

The youngest artist on this list, Taylor Swift rose to immense fame in the 2000s with her country-pop style. Early on in her career, the singer mentioned that the technical aspects of songwriting aren’t what she enjoys.

Like Dylan, she prefers the lyrical side of writing. She doesn’t focus much on music theory, but the emotional side of writing works for her.

With 80.6 million streams in a single day on Spotify and being the first artist to have seven albums sell more than 500,000 copies in its first week, it shows that not reading or writing music notation doesn’t hold Swift back from producing some of the most beloved records of the 21st century.

9. Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix

It might be somewhat of a shock to find out the greatest guitar player in the history of rock doesn’t understand music theory, but it’s true as Jimi Hendrix was self-taught and learned guitar by ear.

He also had synesthesia — a condition where you see music as colors — for example, he said jealousy was purple. Hendrix relied strictly on his imagination and his ability to hear colors to write his material and improvised much of what he performed.

Some of his famous works include “All Along the Watchtower,” “Hey Joe,” and “Purple Haze.” Hendrix was also well-known for his showmanship while playing the guitar.

10. Slash

The former lead guitarist of Guns ‘N Roses, Slash, is world-renowned for his guitar riffs, but he can’t read a single musical note on paper. He learns by ear and prefers to let the sounds he creates in his mind come out of his hands without sheet music.

He relies on chords instead of individual notes, and it works for him. He is one of the 100 best guitarists of all time, despite his musical illiteracy.

Slash says one of his weaknesses is rhythm, a concept that’s innate for some but easier to see on paper for most.

11. Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck by Jac. de Nijs (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The only jazz musician on this list, Dave Brubeck is among the greatest pianists of all time, but he couldn’t read a bit of music notation. He was a music student in college, and to hide his inability, he didn’t take piano courses until his senior year.

He got by on cello and clarinet by ear but found that method impossible on piano. The dean did not want Brubeck to graduate but later changed his mind, saying Brubeck could move forward as long as he never attempted to teach music theory.

Brubeck’s inability to read music did not stop him from becoming one of the most influential jazz musicians in history. His unique approach to playing jazz on the piano earned him international recognition and admiration.

12. Noel Gallagher

The famed Oasis singer Noel Gallagher has admitted to not reading sheet music, stating that he’s not a great guitarist or vocalist. He describes his musicianship as not technically proficient. He wishes he could write songs like other famous musicians, but he can’t.

Gallagher lets whatever comes out of his mind emerge through his playing, but he doesn’t claim to be a musical genius. He has dyslexia, so reading, in general, is not his strong suit.

Nevertheless, he’s created some of the most iconic songs in British history. From “Wonderwall” to “Champagne Supernova,” his lyrics and melodies have become anthems for generations.

13. Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

Yes, Stevie Wonder is blind, so he can’t read written sheet music, but apparently, he doesn’t read braille music either. However, he’s still a composer and plays piano better than most.

With his emphasis on creating sounds, he does not follow notes someone else writes, so reading isn’t necessary in his case — even if he had 20/20 vision. Wonder often improvises off his accompanying musicians to build melodies, or sometimes creates them himself.

Wonder has released several iconic songs that have become staples in popular music. Some of his most popular songs include “Superstition,” “Isn’t She Lovely,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Sir Duke,” and “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”

14. Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie

Originally a pianist, Lionel Richie learned by watching his grandmother play classical piano and soon learned notes by ear. There’s not much about why he didn’t learn, but he prefers to create songs in his head rather than write anything down.

Richie told one newspaper that he does not read or write formal music notes, and without musical success, he would have become an interior designer.

Thankfully, he became one of the world’s greatest musicians and songwriters, responsible for some of the most iconic and beloved songs of all time. Noteworthy pieces are “Hello,” “All Night Long (All Night),” and “Endless Love.”

15. Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin

Next, we have the famous musical theater composer Irving Berlin. He is the only artist on this list who can barely play an instrument for the beginning years of his career. He could only play piano in the key of F sharp and could not read sheet music at all.

Berlin’s lack of formal musical training didn’t hinder his success, rather it set him apart from his contemporaries. He became a renowned composer, writing some of the world’s most well-known songs ever.

From the patriotic “God Bless America” to the holiday favorite “White Christmas,” his music has remained timeless and universally beloved.

Summing Up Our List Of Musicians Who Don’t Read Music

Despite their lack of education in music theory, all these musicians have found success despite not learning to read music in the traditional sense. They’ve been able to do this because they were naturally talented at playing instruments or singing without any formal training.

Some of them may not be aware that they can’t read music, but it doesn’t seem to stop them from continuing with what they’re doing. Maybe there’s some truth behind the old saying “You don’t need talent when you got passion.”

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.