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For as long as I've been playing piano, I've always played by ear and I can replicate a lot of songs/pieces after I hear them a few times (I have synesthesia and I might have perfect pitch), but I really want to learn sheet music so I can play more complex pieces and play 8 hand piano, duets, etc. I've watched countless youtube videos but none of them seem to be helping me; if the youtube video says to play a simple piece and they are playing along with me, I instinctively don't look at the sheet music and end up memorizing it...

(I'm in my school's band so I know how to read music for the flute...but it feels so different when I try to read sheet music and play the piano).

I don't want to lose the skill of improvising and play by ear, but I also want to learn sheet music and eventually sight read.

Does anyone have any suggestions/tips for this?

Edit: Thank you all for the suggestions! They really help!

My plan:

  1. I'm first going to write music to learn (write the score of a song/piece that I already know) to create an association between my hands/the piano and the dots

  2. Then I'm going to try to sightread sheet music from pieces/songs that I have never heard before

  3. Learn new etudes every day, and not play the ones that I have learned for a couple of months while I get better at sight reading.

  4. Also, I'll make the etudes harder as times goes on

Again, thank you so much for the help- I really appreciate it!

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    The tips in this answer may be helpful to you: Acquiring advanced level sight reading
    – Aaron
    Jun 21 at 4:09
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    "I've watched countless youtube videos but none of them seem to be helping me": youtube videos are interesting within their context and within the context of your knowledge. Music, as many other "craftsmanships", cannot be learnt just by "watching" it. Seeing is learning, but that's not usually enough. You can learn from them, but that's just part of it. If you're lucky enough, you can get through it, you may even be successful, but that's just 1 in a *thousands. The interaction of learning with a teacher that knows how to react to your learning and therefore guide you is priceless. Jun 21 at 5:07
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    The answer to pretty much all "How do I get better at X" questions is to practice more. Practice, practice, practice. If you can't control your own instincts, you can't achieve anything. Nobody can do that for you, so it's really up to you.
    – J...
    Jun 21 at 11:58
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    I get better playing my instrument whenever I stop watching youtube or reading the n'th "guide" online, and just start playing the damn thing. I also threw out all those web sites with online notes, and went back to good old paper. The 'net is just so distracting; and also directionless unless you are very disciplined.
    – AnoE
    Jun 22 at 13:33
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    "successful" self-taught people are usually people that [luckily] got some early learning about correct "meta-methods" about learning and understanding, due to their parents/friends/teachers/etc., their surroundings, and their experience. They learned how to learn. And the most interesting fact is that such people also learn that they'll never stop to learn both on their own and from other people (meaning "actual" teachers as much as other people). The "learning method" is all about acquiring a method to learn. Jun 23 at 1:50

11 Answers 11

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This may be unconventional but why not go in the opposite direction? Make yourself write out pieces that you know how to play or have written on piano. You already know about music notation so it shouldn’t be a big stretch. Identify the key and time signature and write some charts. This will make you connect the keyboard with the staff in a different way than the way you seem to be resisting. Give it a try, it can’t hurt!

EDIT: I was a little pressed for time when I wrote my answer so I’m adding this edit to express one other thing I didn’t include earlier:

Stop watching videos to teach yourself how to read! Like others have said, make yourself read actual charts of music you don’t know with no help from a scrolling piano roll or hands on a screen. The fact that you have good ears is a great asset but it’s not enough by itself if you want to be a well rounded musician.

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    In short, I guess this is "transcribing through playing by ear"?
    – Andrew T.
    Jun 21 at 7:55
  • Maybe my answer brings nothing new to yours. This approach is exactly what I mean. Jun 21 at 13:20
  • @AndrewT. I suppose, yes. In school people learn to both read and write after they can already speak. The two go hand in hand. Jun 21 at 15:31
  • @AlbrechtHügli It is the same general idea as the first part of my answer but you do offer more details and specific things to work on. I’m glad you share my opinion about the importance of being able to write music, it certainly improved my reading. Jun 21 at 15:37
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    The transcription needs to be tested - checked for errors. Otherwise it can hurt. There are several ways of doing this: show your notation to another musician, or have somebody else's notation available to compare yours to afterwards, or use scorewriter software that can play out what you write. Remember also that there are always many ways how to notate something correctly, and even more ways to notate it incorrectly (e.g., to struggle with notating a simple rhythm although you can play it out confidently) or confusingly (e.g., in a wrong key signature with loads of accidentals). Jun 22 at 12:42
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Practice it the hard way: Take sheet music for music that you have never heard before and play it from the dots without finding a recording first. Thanks to the Internet, you can find collections called "50 easy etudes", "100 progressive etudes" etc. by Czerny and others that have had their copyright expired a long time ago. They're often not that musically interesting, but at least there's no shame in quickly moving to next one once you have memorized the previous.

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    'Once you have memorised...' No. Once you've read a piece once (!) that's the sightreading done with. Any more times and it's practice learning, which has little to do with sightreading at that point.
    – Tim
    Jun 21 at 7:01
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    Let's just add that (!) if you don't remember everything on first read, you're not up to music.stackexchange's standards.
    – ojs
    Jun 21 at 7:06
  • Practice, practice, practice!  For us play-by-ear folk, I'm afraid it's the only way.  I'd also suggest trying to play some pieces to a metronome (forcing you to keep going, even if you get most of the notes wrong), and others at your own pace (trying to get every note right).  But don't play any piece through more than once (or at least, not within the same few months), else it's no longer sight-reading!
    – gidds
    Jun 21 at 8:56
  • If you read the actual question, it says "I really want to learn sheet music so I can play more complex pieces and play 8 hand piano, duets, etc". This doesn't sound like pure sight-reading to but more like reading the sheet music to support playing.
    – ojs
    Jun 21 at 8:58
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    In the UK, where there is a sight-reading component in music performance exams, there are books of suitable sight-reading material available for most instruments; these could also be a good resource if you haven't already tried them. See for example the resources here: gb.abrsm.org/en/our-exams/what-is-a-graded-music-exam/…
    – dbmag9
    Jun 21 at 13:32
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Don't watch videos - read music! Lots of it. Borrow a hymn book. It's your job to play the 'hymn of the day'. Today's is no 1. Tomorrow's is.. yes, you've got it! Not to LEARN it, but to PLAY it. Straight off.

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Only a partial answer - as someone blighted like you.

Because you are so quick using your ears, you don't need (often) to rely on the dots. Reading and 'learning' (if that's the correct term) the dots is second place. yes, if you have particular parts to play, that's the only way - play as writ - but systematic learning to read is the only way to go. Do it from a basic point of view - count like hell and read like a robot, not putting any feeling into what you play, initially, but just read and play like a machine.

The simple answer is that because you can play easily after listening to something, you feel there's no real need to use sight reading. Often, that actually is the case. But if there's no opportunity to listen first? That's when the reality of 'I need to sight-read' kicks in!

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Play through a lot of relatively easy music. Once you have played it through once or twice don't practise but move on to the next one. Mistakes don't matter but if you constantly have to stop to read the material you might want to try slightly easier material.

You could borrow this kind of expendable material from library for example.

If you have enough material you can return to the old material once you feel you have forgot it completely (some months should be enough since you have only played it a couple of times). This is also a nice way to track progress: after practising daily for a few months you're probably more fluent the second time around already.

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My recipe - I can‘t repeat it enough times: READING BY WRITING.

What does it mean?

Write down your melodies you can play by ear, also triads, arpeggios and write rhythmic variations of chord progressions. Remember the pattern of the notes and the pattern of the piano keys and the fingerings. Transpose your notation in different keys. Play with close eyes. Imagine the pattern of your notation and compare your image with the written notes. If you are able to notate what you can play, then you should be able to read and play what you have written - and other writings too.

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  • Before visiting Japan, I worked at memorizing the two "easy" kana alphabets, just to be able to read some signage. That became much easier when I started to drill writing those kana, despite having no need to write during the visit. Jun 23 at 1:29
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Reading notes is hard, and is a completely different skill than musicality.

As others said, don't learn by following a song. Learn the rules and practice on your own. It can be very hard at first but keep practicing.

One tip that helped me is for a given song, practice reading the tones separate from the timings. Practice doing one note after another as quickly as possible without regard to timing. (If it sounds too horrible, maybe do it on a keyboard that is turned off!) Then practice doing the right timings with only a single note. After you're comfortable reading just the tones of the song, and just the rhythm of that song, then do them together. Granted, this is less important if you're musical and/or know the song, but I think it helps divide and conquer the process of getting fluent at deciphering the meaning of the symbols quickly.

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You're getting a lot of good suggestions, but I just want to offer a systematic approach to sight reading. Sight reading was part of the grade exams when I did it, and it seems to be a skill in itself. In the grade exams, you get a few minutes to look through the piece before you play it, so here are the things you should notice in those few minutes:

  • Key signature (and key signature changes)
  • Repeats (where will your eyes go next) and probably page turns
  • Tempo (how fast should your eyes, and therefore hands, be moving? Does it speed up or slow down anywhere?)
  • Tune (notes and rhythm) You'll usually find that melodies are somewhat predictable (i.e. you might sight read the first four bars of a tune and then they largely repeat it with some sort of variation - that's where your good ear comes in - your eyes recognise the pattern on the page, you know you've played it before only a second ago, minor mistakes aren't a big deal in sight reading). At this point, I try to "hear" the tune in my head.
  • Dynamics (but if you're like me, these will go out the window as soon as you start actually playing)
  • Any bits you're going to have to "fudge"! I'm not confident enough to say I can play everything first time, and I look for any places where I don't "get" the rhythm or places where the page is "black" with lots of notes and I might silently try to finger those places specifically before I play them. I might also look for syncopation because I find that awkward.
  • And then you say "I'm ready" and try to play that whole piece all the way through without stopping while trying your best not to mentally revisit the mistakes you know just made! That was always the hardest part of sight reading - silently acknowledging the mistake and getting over it quickly enough to keep the piece going and not make another regretful mistake due to your own distraction.

Also, be prepared to slow down. Right now, your hands and ear are well developed, but your eyes are less well so. It's going to feel frustrating for a while.

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You are not comparing like with like. When you play by ear some song you've heard, you only need to play a rough approximation to it, accurate enough to let your listeners recognise the song. Playing off sheet music involves playing all the notes. And the other stuff such as dynamics and phrasing.

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  • It's quite possible to play accurately by ear. Admittedly, some of the harmonies are sometimes not too easy to replicate - especially on piano - but dynamics and phrasing are the easier parts.
    – Tim
    Jun 22 at 8:13
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I'm a very beginner piano player. Now I decided to learn to read notes very fast because it is a constant hurdle to learn a new piece and struggle even to read the sheet. And I found that using an app to help me with that removes a lot of resistance.

For a very simple reading of random notes, I found Piano Note Trainer to be a nice free no-ads app that connects to your keyboard via MIDI.

There are other payed apps that give you sheet music and again use MIDI or audio recognition (much less reliable). Like Simply Piano and flowkey. They require payment although not sure whether you can get away for free with flowkey. I decided to look more at them once I'm very fast just reading random notes. There are plenty of other apps so take your time to explore the available options.

In one video I watched, one guy recommended learning music theory so you can read whole chords as a single entity instead of reading each note individually. I guess this is the thing you need to strive for.

PS For MIDI connection, you need USB HOST adapter for your phone and USB on your keyboard or MIDI->USB adapter.

PPS I like the advice in another answer to write music to learn.

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My plan:

... Then I'm going to try to sightread sheet music from pieces/songs that I have never heard before ...

Just do that one thing. Skip the others. At least skip them as a plan for sight reading.

Sight reading is a skill separate from composing, transcribing, analysis, or memorization. You can make an easy analogy about reading between music and poetry. A person can easily read a book of poetry, probably memorize parts of it, but they probably can't recite it on first sight unless they spend time reciting lots of poetry. I'm talking about reciting with a decent sense of meter, rhyme, phrasing, etc.

You have to learn how to take queue from the written page and perform without hesitation. You can go slower than normal tempo, but you don't want hesitation, no breaking of the flow of time. For me, I am sometimes only half aware of the "meaning" of the sight read music (or recited text, I sometimes read out loud.) It's like shutting down any thought about the writing so conscious thought doesn't interfere with the sight reading.

I especially try to view the sight reading as fingering changes and not reading pitch letters from the staff.

Build a sight reading library. Others have mentioned the huge amount of material from Czerny, including lots of beginner material that is good for sight reading (the one downside is lack of variety in keys, the beginner stuff is mostly C or one or two sharps/flats. Along with Czerny look for collections with titles like "album for the young." Hymnals are another great resource, because they have dense harmony, good amount of counterpoint, and there are literally thousands of hymns.

There are some other categories of music that havn't been mentioned: dance collections, old song books, and figured bass solo sonatas. A few examples, you can put the PDFs on a tablet or get them printed at a print shop...

There is lots of music like this. Music that was meant for people to play at home to entertain themselves before the time of electronic recordings. Music for the average, amateur player. Not Liszt, etc. for the professional concert hall. This music was meant to be read. You don't memorize 120 country dances, you read from the book. Sure, you might memorize some, or half remember, but the book would still be read to aid memory. Learn to sight read by playing stuff that was written to be sight read.

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