Now being an aspiring musician, I've heard of people who can deduce entire orchestral scores and seemingly hear symphonies on the spot — like they can hear them while they are reading it.

But what does it actually mean to be able to look at symphonies or other orchestral works like this?

Yeah, people say that when they read orchestral scores they can hear what it sounds like, and you think that you have to have a talent especially to sight read it.

But if I just familiarize with the music just by casually listening to it, then maybe I can go back and read, and then I can understand and hear some of the sounds playing back.

For example, if I listen to a Mozart sonata and I play the sheet music, then I can literally imagine the sound while sight reading it.

I guess there is a very good thing about being able to read orchestral scores that will help anyone improve their musicianship, and I'm wondering if I should do so.

  • 3
    I'm going to have to trot out my story [again] of the friend at the rehearsal for the first ever performance of a large choral piece… by a bad choir. He was given the score to follow along, which he did for about 5 minutes, after which he said to me, "I can either listen to them or read the score. I can't do both at once" & left the building so he could better 'hear' the music. Some people can just 'hear' it on first look.
    – Tetsujin
    May 13, 2021 at 7:00

1 Answer 1


What does it mean to hear symphonies or other orchestral works at sight?

It does mean that people can look at a score and imagine what it will sound like. As with any other musical ability, there are levels, and some develop it to a higher level of ability/skill than others.

How is it done?

It's no different than any other sight-reading; there's just more to look at. In general, one reads from the bottom of the score to the top, but there's also a process of scanning up, down, and across the page.

It is a very useful exercise to listen to music while following along in the score, whether a single instrument or a full symphony.

I'm wondering if I should learn to read orchestral scores.

"Should" only applies if the goal is to work as an accompanist, rehearsal pianist, or conductor, where score reading is a necessity. Otherwise, it's an interesting skill to develop, and can be occasionally useful*, but is far from necessary.

*For example, as a trumpet player, it's nice sometimes to be able to play from the orchestral score so that I can see what others in the ensemble are playing.

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    In addition to being able to read the whole orchestral score (no small feat), one must also be familiar with all the instruments of the orchestra and what they sound like. Unlike choirs and pianos, orchestras are heterogeneous, which means much of 'what a symphony sounds like' is timbral, ie in the orchestration.
    – ibonyun
    May 13, 2021 at 19:21
  • There's also the awkward part about needing the ability to sight-read the parts of transposing instruments correctly at concert pitch, including rarer instruments like A Trumpet and anomalous instruments that may not change key signature accordingly like French horn. (This also applies to concert band - baritone sax has a weird-looking cheat for fast transposition but requires transposing by a wicked large interval.)
    – Dekkadeci
    May 14, 2021 at 12:33

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