Sheet Music Learning Alternatives: HookTheory // Jess Baldwin

Sight-reading music has always been one of my #1 skills. I was a professional accompanist by age 12 because I could quickly read and learn music for churches, choirs, and soloists. Music was always a visual language for me just as much as it was an audible one. In the classical world, good readers were imbued with a sense of superiority over those who learn by ear, as if learning by ear is cheating. Once I started playing in popular music groups after college, I quickly regretted not cultivating my ear more after my ear-training classes. In rehearsals, there were lyric and chord sheets on our stands. Sometimes there was nothing. We didn’t talk in measures. We talked in sections: verse, chorus, bridge, etc. We tried to learn something by ear before we tried to learn it through notes and chord names. Transposing was generally no big deal for these guys and happened often when the vocalist needed it. Sheet music would have left little to no room for creating on the spot and making each song our own, which was a large part of many rehearsals. When stuff got complex, I sometimes had to write things down to figure everything out since my brain was used to organizing musical information through dots and sticks. The highly-skilled pop performers were usually memorizing as we went. It was humbling. That’s not to say I haven’t worked with people who write and use scores, but those same people usually learn, teach, and collaboratively write their music by ear even more, regardless of the complexity of the music.

I was also a newbie to the language and notation in the recording studio. In programs like LogicPro, ProTools, or GarageBand, notes are seen in a piano roll, not on a staff, although those programs do allow you to see the notes on a staff if you choose. Learning how to read notes on a piano roll was super-awkward at first, but I got used to it after a year or two of tilting my head 90 degrees to the left to see the piano as left to right instead of top to bottom.

In my teaching studio, I decided to wean myself off of using sheet music when working on popular and commercial songs with students, and to do a lot more learning by ear with students.

  • In addition to learning the root+quality names, we transcribe chords in roman numerals or Nashville numbers so we can easily transpose to the key that’s needed.
  • We sing melodies and any important instrumental lines in numbers and letters instead of solfege. Solfege hasn’t been a helpful system in the popular music bands I’m in, but scale degrees often are, along with letter names.
  • For rhythm, we count melodies with the traditional 1-e-&-a language, which is pretty universal. If they need a visual, I often draw out their rhythms in blocks similar to what they’d see in a piano roll. Sometimes we use combinations of twos and threes or something like tik-ka (2’s) and doo-buh-dee (3’s) to help odd meters make more sense. Whatever helps them get the feel.
  • I find a lot of the available sheet music isn’t all that great. Our ear versions often capture more of the song’s essence.
  • We transpose as an exercise, even if the student doesn’t need a different key.


I started looking for a system that would help both students and me visualize and learn music in a way that was more similar to chord sheets and the piano roll. That’s when I found HookTheory, which clearly and simply visualizes rhythm, pitch, and chords while still using common musical language.

In HookTheory, you can compose, transcribe a song or learn a song from someone else’s transcription, and you do dictation and ear-training practice.

The company has an electronic theory book in multiple formats that uses examples from modern popular and commercial music.

I like that the scale degrees have a different color so students learn to associate a particular scale degree with a particular quality, regardless of what key they’re in. I also like that the notes are in piano roll format, which will translate will into programs like Logic and ProTools. They can speed up, slow down, change modes, and more. The transcription feature is awesome, as well as the ability to export to other programs.

Now, to be clear, the students likely won’t read anything that looks like this during band rehearsals, but this visual system gets them thinking about music theory in a way that (in my opinion) is more conducive to thinking with the ear more than the eye.

On Sheet Music

I still teach sheet music language to students, but we use it more or less depending on the genre(s) we’re studying. The closer we get to jazz, classical, and musical theatre, the more we read. Even if students end up working primarily in commercial and popular music, we’ll at least learn the basics so they’re not completely lost if they have a rare occasion where they need to read, but we don’t spend as much time reading as we do learning by ear. Most of my younger students work in multiple genres since they’re not sure where they’ll end up working as musicians, so they’re learning multiple ways to process and learn and write.

This is just my approach. I’m curious to know if you teach music differently to students who sing and work in genres that are ear-dominant. I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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