When someone knows how to play an instrument (such as the guitar or the piano) but didn't study it at school and doesn't know how to read musical notes (e.g., Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney), then how is that person described in English?

Is it correct to call such a person an "uneducated musician"?

  • 1
    He "plays by ear", "picked it up on his own", "doesn't read music" -- but to me,not uneducated.
    – WRX
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 23:41
  • And when I'm talikng about myself it should be diffrent? (e.g. if I represent myself etc.) Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 0:28
  • If you you have no talent, you might admit that. However if you have talent saying you are uneducated might sound like false modesty. Andrew got it exactly right. Those terms work as well for you as for another musician. "I am self-taught." However, "I picked it up" might also sound false, but "I play by ear", does not. If you also mention that you practice, that will keep your midesty intact!
    – WRX
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 0:56
  • 6
    You could probably just say untrained. Doesn't mean you're bad, it just means you haven't had any formal training. By that token, you could also say John has not been formally trained (similar to the clasically trained in the answer below).
    – flith
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 9:19

4 Answers 4


No. "Uneducated" has a very different meaning.

In many cases, you would say that a musician who has been to music school or studied at a conservatory is a "classically trained" musician, or some variation which would include the type of education, for example: "He studied at Julliard." You can assume that classically trained musicians can read music, since it would be nearly impossible for them to get through school without that skill.

Someone who learns on their own is called a "self-taught" musician. As Willow Rex mentions, you can also say they "picked it up on their own". Self-taught musicians may or may not be able to read music, and there is no special term for this other than "someone who can read music".

As a side note, someone who can play while reading the music for the first time is said to be able to "sight read" music.

  • I don't think that's actually part of the question, more an example of the kind of musician, but I'll add it in.
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 0:44
  • @user3169 a musician who can "play by ear" is one who can hear a piece of music and play it back without having to see the music. It doesn't mean they can't also read music.
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 4:23
  • 2
    @user3169 Acutally, being able to read music, and knowing about music theory, can make it easier to "play by ear," because you can remember the "meaning" of what you listened to instead of just "remembering all the individual notes". It's possible to listen to some music and then write it down accurately in music notation, without needing to play the notes on an instrument to check that you got it right - that skill is no different (and not really much more difficult) than being able to write down an English sentence after you hear somebody speak it.
    – alephzero
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 7:11

A common expression is that somebody "never had any music lessons". Of course that doesn't mean they never learned anything about music - just that they learned by listening, playing, and most likely talking to other musicians, but they never had a formal teacher.

"Uneducated" has the negative meaning that the person hasn't learned anything, even if they did have a formal music education!


Autodidact is another word conveying the meaning "self-taught". It implies some level of skill which has been apprehended without formal training.

Note that it is a noun!


autodidact: a self-taught person

  • 4
    Completely true but the adjective "self-taught" means exactly the same thing and will be understood by many more people. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 12:31
  • @DavidRicherby You have a point, but to me "autodidact" conveys that the person in question has singlehandedly reached some (less than basic) level of proficiency, while "self-taught" just means they can perform the action without having been explicitly shown how to. cf. "Jimi Hendrix was an autodidactic guitarist!" vs. "My brother is a self-taught guitarist!" Correct me if I'm wrong (and perhaps this kind of nuance is better suited for english.se :) ) Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 12:53
  • 5
    I don't think there's any such distinction: the dictionary definition you've quoted gives no nuance to "autodidact" beyond "self-taught", and examples of usage in dictionaries that I've seen also don't suggest any distinction. As for your brother vs Hendrix, I think it's just that "autodidact" is a fancier word so it's more likely to get applied to fancier people. And I'm pretty sure Hendrix was a fancier guitarist than your brother is. :-D Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 13:05
  • @ToivoSäwén I agree with David. "Autodidact" is a wonderful word but it's so rarely used that most people would just look at you funny. Otherwise it literally means "self-taught", just with fancier Greek roots
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 21:03

It's not correct to call him "uneducated", since that means that he has little or no education about everything, not just music.

Having or showing a poor level of education
— oxforddictionaries.com

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .