I have about a year of piano lessons under my belt, except those were many many years ago. I recently picked up the piano again, because I watched some very inspiring pianists online. Thus, I have been printing out the songs I wanted to play and learning them bit by bit.

I think my problem is that although I am learning the pieces, I'm not actually reading the music as I play. What basically happens is that I learn a bar, play it over and over again, and then muscle memory or something kicks in and I manage to play it without looking at music. In fact, I can't even play it while looking at the sheet, because my fingers end up hitting the wrong keys.

This method of learning feels wrong, as I've heard that one should be able to play without looking at ones hands. Does anyone have any similar experiences, or have any suggestions for how I should change my learning style?

Perhaps I should invest in some sight reading books and try those?

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    If you want to play without looking at your hands, try playing something really simple with your eyes closed, like a scale or a 5 note run, then work up to actual songs.
    – Karen
    Mar 30, 2016 at 16:47

7 Answers 7


We all learn pieces in different ways. It could be said that, actually, really good sight readers don't need to 'learn' pieces, and some I know will give excellent performances of pieces the first time they play them. They are superb sight readers.

Others, like myself, will have to play a piece in various ways to get to know it. As in go over and over a phrase, a bar, etc. Repetition is one of the best ways to get something into the deep recesses of one's brain, proven by how hard it is to 'unlearn' something that one learnt incorrectly. So, going over music as you say you do will ingrain it, muscle memory takes over. At that point, though, tweaking the performance becomes the next target - dynamics which may have been suppressed till now have their chance to be added.

As I've no doubt said before, sight reading and learning a piece are two very different things, so don't worry if you can't look again because it messes the playing up, but just bear in mind that the first couple of times one plays a piece, it's sight reading; after that it becomes repetition or practice.


There's nothing wrong with doing it the way you are, but it will definitely hamper your ability to sight-read. If that's an ability you want to have — or even if you just want the ability to figure out a piece quicker — then yes, you should work on sight reading. What you describe sounds very similar to how I started learning, and it took a lot of effort later to make up for all of the sight-reading practice I had missed.

The answers to this question as well as How can I improve my piano sight reading? can help you get started.


I'm in the same boat you are. Played saxophone for years before picking up piano and really struggled going from reading one note at a time to 3 for each hand! Yet, learning pieces my way allowed me to memorize about 20 pieces. I play them for my church occasionally and get great comments!... And then they say, "Hey can play such and such song for me in a few weeks?"

So there's advantages and drawbacks. I can play many songs beautifully from memory, and didn't have to start with the "plunk, plunk" sound of beginner sight reading music. I also don't have the "breaks" in my play as I try to read the next note; muscle memory already has it, and I can actually focus more on tempo change and dynamics once I've leaned a piece. The disadvantages? I can only work on a few songs at a time, and take a long while to learn them, and then may review the ones I've learned (although not add often as you'd think).

So here's my answer: if you're re-learning piano as an enjoyable hobby and are ok 29th having 20 or so songs by memory, and don't want to spend years in the drudgery of boring way music, the way your doing things may actually be best! But if your goal is to be a pianist able to play most song well within a week, sight-reading practice will be absolutely essential.

  • Thanks for your comment! I'm most worried about losing my muscle memory if I don't play a piece for a long time, thus rendering me unable to play the piece at all... So it'd be nice if I could go back to an old piece and play it through by sight reading instead of re-learning it... besides pianos are quite expensive, if I'm going to spend so much on one I think I should learn for the long-term :)
    – Chara
    Mar 30, 2016 at 14:32
  • @Chara I fully get that. I have a keyboard with a pedal that was relatively inexpensive. It didn't have weighed keys tho, so I have to play on a real piano occasionally to practice dynamics. As to remembering, you'll be surprised how long that muscle memory really sticks with you once you've learned a song well. I often go a month without touching a piano, then return and can still play most songs with very few errors or memory freezes. Mar 30, 2016 at 14:48
  • Lol that's good to hear! I haven't gone too long without playing piano so I don't know how capable my muscle memory really is :) Currently I'm playing TV/anime songs, but I would like to transition to classical so I think sight-reading is probably a very useful skill to have.
    – Chara
    Mar 30, 2016 at 14:52
  • @Chara A great transition is the music by David Nevue. He himself is a slow sight-reader with Amazing piano pieces. I recommend getting his "Whisperings" Cd and songbook here: davidnevue.com/albums. Listen to a few samples first. They are very enjoyable and relatively easy to learn once you have a feel for the song. Being able to hear them played as well will help you figure out the trickier rhythms. Mar 30, 2016 at 16:22
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    Hmm, you're right, his pieces do resemble an in-between of what I'm playing now and classical music! They don't sound difficult to play at all, but there is also a simple beauty to them :) Thanks for sharing!
    – Chara
    Mar 30, 2016 at 17:16

Yes, if you want to be good at sight-reading, you must practice sight-reading. The best way is to NEED to sight-read, because you are constantly presented with new material that has to be played NOW, at church, school etc. But sight-reading books are good too.


I suggest that you divide the piece into "links", or a group of notes, usually 2-4 bars. Start with the left hand until you are able to play it three times perfectly, then the right hand and then both hands three times perfectly. Move on to the next link, and so forth. I suggest that you start with a middle link, rather than always starting at the beginning.


Reading notes has many parallels with reading letters and words. You can easily learn a piece and you very well may play all the correct notes but unless the sight reading is on point, the comprehension of how the music tries to communicate the message is lost.

It is like a person who understands the phonetic alphabet. He may read a book in a language he does not speak, he may very well make all the right noises when he reads the words out loud, but because he does not speak or understand the language that the book is written in, the message of the book is lost.

So yes practice your sight reading. It is a great thing to possess. You can even do harmonic analysis of your pieces. This is richly rewarding thing to do as it educates you in how the great composers used notes and theory to make memorable music.


There's nothing wrong with the way you play from memory. However, at some point, you will need to do some sight reading to help be more versatile. One way I learned to do sight reading is by using Bela Bartok Mikrokosmos. He basically wanted to teach his child to play the piano and wrote 5 volumes to teach his son to play. It really works and you can also pick up some great melodies he wrote. All available free on the Internet. The first volume is very simple and I started on the second. Good luck

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