I have recently started playing again after a 10-year-ish break.

When I first learn a piece I consciusly read it note by note.

Well, almost note by note, if I see an ascending scale starting from e.g. C I won't actually read it note by note.

But when I practice it at a more comfortable speed, after I've gone through it a couple of times, I realize I'm not actually reading notes, I'm more like looking at the music and thinking: "oh, here's that bit", "here's that phrase", "oh, in this bar we repeat the theme in a different key - okay".

I tend to look at phrases, shapes and parts of phrases.

On the other hand, I am doing something with the music, because if you take the printed music away from me I basically stop at the first phrase or at the second or third bar wondering "okay, what comes next?"

Is this a bad habit?

If it is, how do I stop it?

Thank you!

3 Answers 3


It's certainly how we recognise words,we look at shapes rather than sound each bit. That's for kids learning to read their first words.A lot of what we see is perceived in that same sort of way. When we speak, we don't necessarily plan each and every word and phrase. As far as KNOWING each note - If you stopped a brilliant player in mid flow and asked what the last note he played was, he'd probably say " the right one, or one that fitted". It's not necessary to be able to label each note in turn to be able to play. It may help in the initial stages, but that needs to be out of the way sooner rather than later.

  • Thank you. I am accepting this answer - anthough @MeaningfulUsername's is certainly as good. Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 12:47
  • 1
    I would expect to able to stop an expert performer and ask which note they just played. But the answer I would get back would probably be something the musician has to think about for a moment as they "reverse" the chords, scales, riffs and other structures they were actively thinking about to decide which note best fits that information.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 22:15
  • @Kevin - of course! But that wasn't the point I was trying to make.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 8:32

Sounds like a natural and good thing which should not be worked against. Similar to recognizing words instead of putting them together letter by letter (like one does when learning to read), it's good to recognize phrases instead of individual notes.

  • Thank you - but, if you hit me on the head and asked me "okay, so what's the third note of the bar you just played" it would take me a couple seconds to say "er, uh... yeah, the bit that goes dah-dah-dah... yeah, it was a C". Is it still a good thing? Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 9:41
  • @SomeDudeOnTheInterwebs: That depends on the situation. But I can't really see where this would be important, since usually the music is played as a sequence. To be able to identify individual tones isn't usually required. Just think of pieces you can play without sheet music, you wouldn't be able to answer that question faster, and those pieces you really know. Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 9:44
  • Thank you - obviously I don't expect people slapping me when I play and asking such questions, I was using it as an example to highlight my mental processes :) Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 9:47
  • @SomeDudeOnTheInterwebs: I assumed that :) Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 9:47

It really depends on your specific personal goals.

It's only a bad habit if you have a compelling need to be able to sight read and play a piece note by note. If you were going to be in a position where you would be expected to instantly play any piece that was put in front of you without rehearsal, then you would want to overcome that tendency and learn to play note for note by looking at the note and playing the music as you read it.

But if you are playing for your own personal enjoyment, or will only be required to perform pieces that you have plenty of advance time to prepare, then there is no need for you to make an effort to re-program your ingrained method of learning to play a piece.

In my case, after I painstakingly work out the piece by reading the music and listening to a recording of what it is supposed to sound like, I memorize how to play it and then don't even use the music. But I only play for my own entertainment and enjoyment and occasionally share with a few friends. I personally have other things that I would prefer to devote my time and brainpower to than learning to sight read music note by note.

But I can see that having the music would make it easier to remember what I was remembering. In other words, I would not have to remember every place there was a key change or a fast ascending run or a pause or turnaround - because I could follow along with the sheet music and at least tell where those parts were. But since I play most of my music on guitar and only a few things on piano, I will probably do fine just memorizing the entire piece and maybe use the sheet music to brush up on a piece I have not played in some time.

If what you are doing works for you and what you want to accomplish with your music, then there is no need to worry about changing your methods. Your time and energy may be better spent learning more songs. Good luck with your music.

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