10 Musical Geniuses Who Couldn't Read a Note of Music

Beatles, Stockholm, Sweden, 1963 and Prince Live, 2008
MediaFeed / ingen uppgift/Wikimedia Commons / penner/Wikimedia Commons

Not a Note

You don’t need to be able to read sheet music to be a musical genius. It can’t hurt, but if the long list of influential musicians who couldn’t read a note of music is anything to go by, it’s not mandatory.

The following list contains our picks for great musicians who wouldn’t know a key signature, an eighth note or a staff if their lives depended on it. We think you’ll agree that they got by just fine, even without mastering music theory and composition.

Jimi Hendrix Live at The Royal Albert Hall, 1969
David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images

1. Jimi Hendrix

Known for his superhuman guitar skills, Jimi Hendrix couldn’t read music and taught himself to play by ear. His legendary riffs and solos all came courtesy of his incredible ability to reach deep within himself to find new ways of making his Stratocaster talk, and no school of music can teach that. In 1969, he was asked whether or not he was able to read music, to which he said, “No, not at all.” To that, we say, “No problem.”

Eddie Van Halen Performing Live in New Haven, Connecticut, 1978
Eddie Van Halen Performing Live in New Haven, Connecticut, 1978

2. Eddie Van Halen

The guitar virtuoso of Van Halen fame couldn’t read music, which is kind of crazy considering all the classical runs and flourishes that turn up regularly in his playing. He said he learned to play by listening to his favorite records and figuring things out independently. Although he did go to Pasadena City College to study music, he never learned how to read notation, and he never opened up his scoring and arranging textbook either. It is our considered opinion that he did just fine anyway.

Prince Live in Ireland, 1990
Prince Live in Ireland, 1990

3. Prince

Like many people on this list, Prince made up for not being able to read sheet music by having an unusually good ear for melody and an intuitive sense of what chord should go where. He also knew how to play dozens of instruments, and rather than be satisfied with being able to bang out “Three Blind Mice” on all of them, he had a command of each instrument that suggested he had studied at a conservatory.

Eric Clapton, 1976
Eric Clapton, 1976

4. Eric Clapton

When Eric Clapton was just starting out as a musician, graffiti appeared on walls all over London proclaiming, “Clapton Is God.” If that’s true, then God couldn’t read music and developed his skills through listening and practice instead. In his autobiography, he recalled working with Aretha Franklin and becoming nervous because all the musicians at the session were reading off of sheet music, which he was unable to do. As it turned out, he didn’t need to worry because the Queen of Soul couldn’t read music either.

Michael Jackson Performing Live in Vienna, 1998
Michael Jackson Performing Live in Vienna, 1998

5. Michael Jackson

Even if you don’t like his music, you have to admit that Michael Jackson knew a thing or two about songwriting. According to Guinness World Records, his “Thriller” album has sold 67 million copies, making it the highest-selling album in the world. It was made without Jackson being able to read so much as a single dot on a piece of sheet music. According to GQ, he would sing his melodic ideas into a cassette recorder, and his production team would then transcribe them. Considering that almost every home on earth has a copy of “Thriller” on some form of media, we’re going to say that being unable to read music didn’t affect his career much.

The Beatles, 1960s
meunierd/depositphotos

6. John Lennon

John Lennon of the Beatles could not read music. In fact, none of the Beatles could read music, and the classical motifs that sometimes appear in their songs came without the benefit of notation. They just played the music, and it came out sounding great. In a 1980 interview, Lennon said, “None of us could read music… 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.” But what about George?

Publicity Photo of Irving Berlin, 1906
Publicity Photo of Irving Berlin, 1906

7. Irving Berlin

If you thought that being a beloved composer of timeless music required knowing how to put a lot of dots on sheet music, you are wrong. Irving Berlin, the man who composed such eternal classics as “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” never learned how to read music. Instead, he used a special piano, that he had learned to play in just one key, to make melodies. Transcribing it was left to others.

Dave Brubeck, 1954
Dave Brubeck, 1954

8. Dave Brubeck

Dave Brubeck was a jazz legend whose most famous composition, “Take Five,” is in such an unusual time signature that it suggests he had spent at least one semester learning about such things in a classroom. Nope. He couldn’t read sheet music, but his playing was so good that many people never noticed. Eventually, someone did notice. He was almost expelled from college when one of his professors discovered his secret. However, the college let him graduate with the stipulation that he promise never to teach piano.

Freddie Mercury Performing Live, 1977
Freddie Mercury Performing Live, 1977

9. Freddie Mercury

In a 1981 interview with Melody Maker, legendary Queen singer Freddie Mercury was asked if he knew how to read music. Rather than formulate some tortuous excuse, he simply said, “Very little. I don't need it. I leave that to the others.” Considering that he wrote the very classically-influenced “Bohemian Rhapsody” all by himself, a song that comes complete with an opera in the middle, one would think he had received comprehensive training in musical composition. Instead, that was just him messing around on a piano.

Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page Performing Live, 1977
Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page Performing Live, 1977

10. Jimmy Page

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is considered one of the all-time rock and roll greats, and he’s regularly mentioned in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and pretty much every other hard rock guitarist of note. Before his Zeppelin days, he earned money as a session musician. He said, in a 1977 interview, that he knew enough about reading music to write ideas down, and described his grasp of reading music as rudimentary. “I still don’t really read music, to be honest with you,” he said. “I read it like a six-year-old reads a book.”

Prince Performing at Sziget Festival, Budapest, 2011
Northfoto/depositphotos

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