15 Famous Musicians Who Can’t Read Music

Last updated

It’s the 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.

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. 

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

2. Eric Clapton

Another legendary guitarist who couldn’t read music notation was Eric Clapton who 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. 

If there’s any artist that proves you don’t have to understand sheet music to be famous, it’s Clapton who’s won an Outstanding Contribution Brit Award and a CBE from Buckingham Palace for services to the industry and

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.

He never had any formal musical training – he just had a natural musical inclination and also didn’t write his songs down because he didn’t understand how

4. Eddie Van Halen

Known by his last name, Eddie Van Halen is a glam-rock legend, but, surprisingly, he could not read music notation. 

Van Halen started his music career as a child, where he learned classical piano and was enthralled with rock and roll when he first heard Eric Clapton. 

Eddie has said that he used to fool his piano teacher into thinking he could read notes, but he actually learned by ear. 

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 sing notes to guitar players, and they would write down his ideas orchestrating every note, chord, and lyric in his head before bringing in musicians.

6. Paul McCartney

The former Beatle and prolific songwriter, Paul McCartney is yet another legendary musician that does not read sheet music. 

Describing it like ‘dots on a page,’ he said the other Beatles 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. 

7. Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has inspired thousands of musicians with this folk-inspired style of 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. 

Dylan’s poetic writing was recognized when he became the first musician to win a Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 2016. 

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.

Swift said early on in her career that the technical aspects of songwriting aren’t what she enjoys.

Like Dylan, she prefers the lyrical side of writing and 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 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 Taylor 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.

10. Slash

Slash, the former lead guitarist of Guns ‘N Roses, 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. 

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

Gallagher describes his musicianship as not technically proficient and that he wishes he could write songs like other famous musicians, but he can’t.

He lets whatever comes out of his mind emerge through his playing but doesn’t claim to be a musical genius. 

Noel has dyslexia, so reading, in general, is not his strong suit. 

13. Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder

Yes, Stevie Wonder is blind, so he can’t read written sheet music but apparently doesn’t read braille music either.

But he’s still a composer and plays piano better than most with his emphasis is on creating sounds, not following notes someone else writes, so reading isn’t necessary in his case – even if he had 20/20 vision.

He often improvises off of his accompanying musicians to build melody or sometimes creates them himself. 

14. Lionel Richie

Lionel Richie

Originally a pianist, Lionel Richie learned by watching his grandmother play classical piano and soon learned notes by ear and can’t read or write music notation.

There’s not much about why he didn’t learn, but he prefers to create songs in his head rather than write anything down. 

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

15. Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin

And last, but by no means least, we have famous musical theatre composer Irving Berlin is the only artist on this list that could 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.

Still, though, he became a renowned composer, writing some of the world’s most well-known songs ever including God Bless America, Puttin on the Ritz, Blue Skies, and White Christmas.

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 on 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
Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping 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. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.