10 legendary musicians who never learned to read music

8 October 2021, 17:41 | Updated: 9 October 2021, 11:50

Taylor Swift, Hans Zimmer, Aretha Franklin
Taylor Swift, Hans Zimmer, Aretha Franklin. Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

You don’t need to be able to read music in order to be a great musician. From Hendrix to Zimmer, these famous faces will make you question just how much musical education is needed to achieve greatness.

You’d think to be a famous musician... you’d need to be able to read music?

Well, you’d be wrong to think so, as these following musicians have been proving for decades.

More and more musicians are learning to play via the Internet and by ear, which can be evidenced by the rise of apps and online lessons for children, which don’t necessarily involved learning to read sheet music.

Read on to find out which of your favourite musicians have created successful careers, without this once thought to be mandatory skill.

  1. Jimi Hendrix (1942 - 1970)

    The singer-songwriter Jimi Hendrix reportedly taught himself to play by ear on the electric guitar, and would use words and colours to express how he wanted the music to sound.

    Jimi Hendrix Performs in New York
    Jimi Hendrix Performs in New York. Picture: Getty
  2. Stevie Wonder (1950-)

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

    Stevie Wonder performs on stage at Q85
    Stevie Wonder performs onstage at Q85. Picture: Getty
  3. Hans Zimmer (1957-)

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

    Hans Zimmer performs on stage at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix
    Hans Zimmer performs onstage at the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix. Picture: Getty
  4. Danny Elfman (1953-)

    Another film composer, Danny Elfman, who is known for scores including Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, spent a large part of his career being unable to write or read music.

    Read more: Danny Elfman tells us how to compose scary-sounding music

    Danny Elfman speaks at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival
    Danny Elfman speaks at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Picture: Getty
  5. Taylor Swift (1989-)

    Taylor Swift shot to stardom with her first album at the age of 17. While a talented multi-instrumentalist, Swift revealed in a Rolling Stone interview that she does not read music. She says, “I would not have majored in music because when music becomes technical for me I don’t like that part of it.”

    Read more: Is Taylor Swift actually a good singer?

    Taylor Swift on stage at Westfield
    Taylor Swift on stage at Westfield. Picture: Getty
  6. Bob Dylan (1941-)

    American singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan is regarded by some as 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 "Bringing It All Back Home"
    Bob Dylan Records "Bringing It All Back Home". Picture: Getty
  7. Aretha Franklin (1942 - 2018)

    The Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin could not read music. She music by ear, having perfected this talent by spending her childhood singing gospel at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan.

    Aretha Franklin on Top of the Pops
    Aretha Franklin on Top of the Pops. Picture: Getty
  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 inspired humans to make the noise, they [Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr] are as good as anybody.”

    The Beatles at a press conference
    The Beatles at a press conference. Picture: Getty
  9. Eric Clapton (1945-)

    English rock and blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Eric Clapton ranked second in the Rolling Stone’s 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 Prince's Trust Rock Gala. Picture: Getty
  10. Elvis Presley (1935 - 1977)

    The King of Rock and Roll Elvis Presley played guitar, bass and piano all by ear. He couldn’t read or write music and had no formal lessons, but could hear a song and reportedly play it after only one listen.

    Elvis Presley on television 1968
    Elvis Presley on television 1968. Picture: Getty