10 legendary musicians who never learned to read music


8 October 2021, 17:41 | Updated: October 8, 2021, 5:43 PM

Taylor Swift, Hans Zimmer, Aretha Franklin.

Image: Getty

You don’t have to be able to read music to be a great musician. From Hendrix to Zimmer, these famous faces will have you wondering how much music education is needed to achieve greatness.

You would think you were a famous musician … you would need to know how to read music?

Well, you would be wrong to think so, as the following musicians have proven for decades.

More and more musicians are learning to play via the Internet and by ear, as evidenced by the rise of apps and online courses for children, which do not necessarily involve learning to read sheet music.

Read on to find out which of your favorite musicians have created successful careers, without it once considered a mandatory skill.

  1. Jimi Hendrix (1942 – 1970)

    Singer-songwriter Jimi Hendrix is ​​said to have learned to play the electric guitar by ear and use words and colors to express how he wanted the music to sound.

    Jimi Hendrix performs in New York

    Jimi Hendrix performs in New York.


  2. Stevie Wonder (1950-)

    Stevie Wonder has been blind shortly after birth. He played several instruments from an early age including piano, harmonica and drums and was signed to Motown at the age of 11.

    Stevie Wonder performs live at Q85

    Stevie Wonder performs live at Q85.


  3. Hans Zimmer (1957-)

    One of the most famous film composers in the history of music, Hans Zimmer cannot read conventional musical notation. He began playing the piano for groups before becoming a jingle writer, which is where he credits the development of his composition skills.

    Hans Zimmer performs on stage at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix

    Hans Zimmer performs on stage at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix.


  4. Danny Elfman (1953-)

    Another film composer, Danny Elfman, known for his sheet music including Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Charlie and the chocolate factory, has spent much of his career unable to write or read music.

    Read more: Danny Elfman Tells Us How To Make Scary Music

    Danny Elfman speaks at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival

    Danny Elfman speaks at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.


  5. Taylor Swift (1989-)

    Taylor Swift became a star with her debut album at the age of 17. While she was a talented multi-instrumentalist, Swift revealed in a Rolling stone maintenance that she does not read music. She says, “I wouldn’t have majored in music because when music gets technical for me, I don’t like that part.”

    Read more: Is Taylor Swift really a good singer?

    Taylor Swift on stage in Westfield

    Taylor Swift on stage in Westfield.


  6. Bob Dylan (1941-)

    American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan is considered by some to be one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Notably, Dylan was inducted into the Hall of Fame without knowing how to read music.

    Bob Dylan Records "Bring it all home"

    Bob Dylan records “Bring It All Home”.


  7. Aretha Franklin (1942 – 2018)

    The queen of soul herself, Aretha Franklin could not read music. She plays music by ear, having honed this talent while spending her childhood singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan.

    Aretha Franklin at the top of the pops

    Aretha Franklin at the top of the pops.


  8. The Beatles

    “None of us could read music … None of us can write it.” John Lennon admitted this about the band in a 1980 Playboy interview, “but as pure musicians, as humans inspired to make noise, they [Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr] are as good as anyone.

    The Beatles at a press conference

    The Beatles at a press conference.


  9. Eric Clapton (1945-)

    English rock and blues guitarist, singer and songwriter Eric Clapton placed second in the Rolling stone ‘list of the “100 greatest guitarists of all time” despite not being able to read music.

    Eric Clapton at Prince's Trust Rock Gala

    Eric Clapton at the Prince’s Trust Rock Gala.


  10. Elvis Presley (1935 – 1977)

    King of rock and roll Elvis Presley played guitar, bass and piano by ear. He could not read or write music and had no formal lessons, but could hear a song and would play it after just one listening.

    Elvis Presley on television 1968

    Elvis Presley on television 1968.



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