Training Sound Engineers to read music

by mjkmercer

I have been campaigning (unsuccessfully) for many years about improving the training that sound engineers get. I have argued that to spend three years at University  in a studio learning all about rock guitars and drums and so on is fine but why not learn  a lot more about  music? It seems a terrible disappointment to me that after three years the graduates seek work with no knowledge of music at all in some cases. As a bare minimum they should be able to play one instrument to a reasonably credible level.

I have good reasons for saying this…

1   Its not that hard to learn enough about music to be able to follow score and know what is going on. You don’t have to be a sight reader – you are not the artist  – but if the player (who can read music) says lets go back to the  – (what ever musical term you like here .  the rit,  the Bm chord, the piano entry and so on) the engineer with little understanding of music will be lost. Why would you not want to be able to speak that same language as the musicians? I have often given a single 90 page book to young people wanting to get a career in music and told then just to get familiar with its content and practice following score (a Beethoven sonata will do)

2    You need the work.  You need to stand above the other applicant and a flexibly skilled person is far more likely to get the job. Studios are not full of rock bands day in day out – unless you are lucky enough to work  at a major specialist studio (and most of those jobs are very over-filled with long term staff who will only move on by dying or going deaf – and some still hang on after that!) The real world of studio work is a mixture of rock, folk, pop, classical, jazz,  schools music, Karaoke and so on.

3     You will never be a great engineer if you don’t understand the thing you are working with. How could you?

4     If you don’t play an instrument how will you know when somebody is playing well or not – or even – will you notice if it is in tune and in time? Some engineers, I grant, can do this without being able to play but they still lack any empathy with their guests.

Let me nail the point for you. When I interview staff to work in my studio it is a pre-requisite that they can read music and play – and that is just  for the non-classical side. It was my frustration at finding too many people training on a production line basis  with  theory diagrams and no real listening experience, or with only one string to their bow (‘I do drum and bass’)  that led me to wonder what on earth they were doing for three years. Really – the technical knowledge of how to the use the equipment can be taught  in a single term.  Reading music can also be taught in a single term. Love of music in general –  a lifetime.

Other things that are not taught well everywhere:

Understanding and appreciation of  all musics

Understanding an appreciation of all instruments

Listening truing on somewhere in the region of 1000 critical tracks across a wide spectrum

Attending a wide range of live concerts to see what the real thing is like

Learning to manage projects

Learning to get the best out of people and encourage musicians


There are some Universities that understand what it takes but  too many institutions are keen to claim successful graduations rather than  training them for the real world. I could go on….