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Can a professional musician play a song with an instrument without any written music notes? For example, you could play "I See Fire" immediately after hearing it once without a chance to practice it.

Please note that I don`t have much knowledge of music so my question can be misleading.

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  • One thing to keep in mind is that musical instruments existed for thousands of years before music notation was developed.
    – phoog
    Aug 9, 2022 at 17:38
  • The question title and body are two very different questions, imo
    – Edward
    Aug 14, 2022 at 18:07

13 Answers 13

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Yes, it's called "playing by ear." In fact, one of the pinnacles of musical performance is being able to play anything you hear or can imagine without thinking of notes at all, just playing.

This is why jazz players often sing along with their solos. It's often actually part of their training if they're formally schooled.

Notes are like the syllables in speech. Once you learn your syllables as a toddler, you never think of them again. You don't even think about words or grammar. You just think about communicating your feelings and thoughts. It's a phenomenon known as "chunking".

You certainly didn't learn to talk by reading.

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Yes, it is possible. There are people that can play music without knowing the notes. You can work out the songs either by ear or have someone tell you what to play.

People use notes because it's easier to communicate with each other and it is easier to have many songs written rather than remembered by heart. It might be easy to remember 10-20 songs by heart, but imagine if you had to remember 40-50 songs. I doubt the average human can memorize all of them easily.

When you play, you don't have to know the notes. If you sit on a piano and play some notes, it will sound the same whether you know the notes or not.

Like @AJFaraday mentioned in the comments, there are other ways of notating music; ways that don't use notes. The most common instance is the guitar tablature, where you don't see notes, but rather you see which fret to press on each string.

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    I regularly play with guys whose repertoire is well over hundred songs - and that's playing an instrument and remembering the words to the songs as well, so it's more than possible to remember by heart. (Your 2nd para.)
    – Tim
    Jun 9, 2016 at 10:42
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It's more than possible, it's very often done. I can listen to a tune a couple of times, and then play it, without reference to written music. I have to do it some of the time when students bring a recording along, and want to learn it. I can't waste their time - they want it now!

When I'm part of the house band at open mic sessions, the same applies. I hear the first verse, and then play along with the song. Music isn't often supplied - sometimes I am given the key - and it just has to happen. O.k., sometimes it goes a little wrong, but better guys than myself work it out 'on the fly'.

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To answer the question whether a pro can play a piece just from hearing it once, it's more about how good of an ear the person has regardless of whether he/she is a pro or not. Some with very good ears, but with little or no training or experience, can do so with even amazingly complex music. On a general level, yes, a pro can recreate music after hearing it once better than an average person.

However, I would caution one to not champion one over the other, playing by ear vs. reading from written music, and that it's not a zero sum game; one doesn't have to come at the expense of the other. A good ear is something all good musicians, pro or not, have and develop, and the ability to play by ear and the value of doing so will not be diminished if one also learns to play from reading music. The ability to, and practice of, reading music only enhances and facilitates the ability of the musician to understand and express music to its fullest, and this skill even enhances their ability to play by ear. Also, reading music is not that hard to learn, and the ability and usefulness of mentally hearing the music by reading from a score is no different than reading and understanding words without hearing them or speaking them out loud. For these reasons and more, a well-rounded musician should take advantage of all of the benefits afforded the player by learning to read music.

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  • +1 - well put! However, while it's true that it's not a zero-sum game, there's also a non-zero opportunity cost for either skill; There are some individuals who might be better off learning a yet different skill rather than getting particularly good at playing by ear or reading. Ideally these choices wouldn't have to be made, but not everyone necessarily has the time to be completely rounded, unfortunately! Jun 7, 2016 at 1:50
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    +1 - True. What often happens is that a player is naturally better at either playing by ear, or reading. Thus, the more successful way to play gets used more, the less, less. So, he gets better and better at one, and worse and worse at the other. A really good muso benefits from being great at both, but it rarely happens. I can count on one hand those I've worked with who are good at both. It tends to be one or the other.
    – Tim
    Jun 7, 2016 at 4:52
  • @Tim I was with you until the end. While it’s true that all musicians have strengths and weaknesses, I would say that all musicians beyond the beginner level of study should be sufficiently good at both. Perhaps the point I could have made clearer is that the two skills are very basic and complementary, and that one enhances the other in a way that wouldn’t be possible without the other.
    – Max Finis
    Jun 7, 2016 at 10:41
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I believe the answer is - it depends!

It depends on what type learning style you respond best to. Some folks are aural learners while others are visual learners.

I do much better playing by ear and not even thinking about the notes I am playing but rather the tones I am hearing. I can find those tones (notes) on my instrument as easily as I can whistle the tone or hum the tone or tune.

I have friends who can't play by ear to save their life. But if you put sheet music in front of them, they can play it flawlessly the way the composer transcribed it - even if they have never heard the song.

I am amazed by folks who can play a song they have never heard by reading the music. They are amazed that I can play a song without any written music, just by hearing it.

Here are two quotes from Learning Styles on Education Planner.org

If you are an auditory learner, you learn by hearing and listening. You understand and remember things you have heard. You store information by the way it sounds, and you have an easier time understanding spoken instructions than written ones. You often learn by reading out loud because you have to hear it or speak it in order to know it.

If you are a visual learner, you learn by reading or seeing pictures. You understand and remember things by sight. You can picture what you are learning in your head, and you learn best by using methods that are primarily visual. You like to see what you are learning.

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    They seem to have missed out the fourth kind of learner - slow...
    – Tim
    Jun 4, 2016 at 7:01
  • @Tim That's funny Tim :-)) Sometimes I think I fall into that category. Jun 4, 2016 at 19:20
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Please use headlines in accord with the body of your question.

Your headline reads: "Is it possible to play instruments without being able to read music?". Your body reads: "Can a professional musician play a song with an instrument without any written music notes?". Those are completely different and entirely separate questions.

The headline is trivial to answer: "sure". The body question would have "depends on musician, song, instrument, previous exposure". Except for classic/symphonic musicians, most reasonably good musicians would be able to repeat some musical phrase you throw at them and embellish it.

If we mash those two questions up, we arrive at "Can you be a professional musician without being able to read music?". The answer to that is "depends on the profession". There are blind musicians in most musical professions but as classical performers they have it tough. In an orchestra, the answer would pretty surely be "no" since a professional orchestra is expected to throw out music reasonably well by sightreading. The extra time to prepare everything your orchestra might come across would be prohibitive.

Similar restrictions would hold for individual musicians-for-hire not bound to particular bands or projects.

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It is possible to learn basic rhythms by ear but eventually you will have to learn standard notation to deal with the complex stuff. I have seen this first hand.

There is a Suzuki teacher in the family. Suzuki is a method that emphasizes the aural training from a young age. Trough this all though there comes a stage where the rhythms become too complicated to do by ear and you have to be able to read the scores to play the music correctly.

The family member does the basic aural training with the children and when it comes time for them to learn to read notes the family member does advise the parents to go for theory lessons.

With all this you do get those parents who of course refuse to accept this and don't send their children to theory lessons. I mean what can a Suzuki teacher with thirty years of teaching experience really tell people that have never played music about theory.

This has the effect of coming to a stage where all progress grinds to a spectacular halt. They want to progress trough the Suzuki books but they cannot play the music correctly because they do know what the notes mean. They play what they think they should play instead of what is written.

So yes you can but you are going to struggle eventually. I personally cannot understand some musicians insistence on denying themselves an education. Did these people also stop going to school in the 8th grade because some person made it big without a GED?

These concepts of music notations are not overly complex nor are they beyond the comprehension of the average intellect. You can learn basic notation along with every able bodied person in the world, for some reason some people don't. Not that this makes all that much sense to me. Music Tuition should also be seen as a broader attempt to educate the child

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    As a player for 50+ years, I find it much quicker and easier to hear some rhythm pattern once and be able to replicate it, than have to read what someone thought it might be on the stave. Yes, I read music, but feeling and hearing are far more important, I think. I've worked with too many musos who rely totally on the dots, and have no feel for what is actually going on. They're reading rather than listening. Is music better when it's read or when it's organic? I know what most real musos will say.
    – Tim
    Jun 3, 2016 at 18:52
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    I agree with Tim. Unless you feel the song, you cannot fully express it. And you cannot feel it unless you listen Jun 3, 2016 at 19:29
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    @Tim I Agree with you 100%. Perhaps you and I share the same learning type preference, Studies have suggested that some folks are aural learners while others are visual learners. When it comes to music, I'm definitely aural. If I try to read it, I really screw it up unless I can also hear it and then my brain probably shifts to aural learning mode with visual backup. Others may be the opposite. Jun 3, 2016 at 19:29
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    Listening is crucial. Cannot stress it enough. Jun 4, 2016 at 0:15
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    @Tim: I don't completely disagree, but I don't think your criticism of “reading rather than listening” and the read/organic dichotomy are justified. Sure, when first sight-reading a piece one may be too occupied with the information / technical aspect to properly feel the music yet, but that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with whether you play by ear or by eye, more with how difficult the composition is. And as Neil says, notation allows composers to express some ideas that really wouldn't be feasible without. Jun 6, 2016 at 22:23
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Sometimes, it will depend on how intricate the piece is. Being able to play what you hear is one thing, being able to memorise it is another. It may take several listens to figure out a piece of music, it can also be tricky to hear a particular part if it is very quiet in the mix.

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It truly depends on what you want to play.

Classical music

Unless you're a true genius hearing and memorizing every single note, that is going to be an unreal challenge.

Modern

Absolutely possible, assuming you've learned chords. With a bit of practice, you'll reach a fairly nice rendering. If you did not learn chords, that is going to make it much harder; so if you want to go the easy way for modern music and nice sounding (like the music you mentioned), just take time to learn chords.

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No, but I will say this...you spend a lot of money hiring people to middle your music if you work with an orchestra. Also, hashing out chord structure and key changes takes a hell of a lot longer. If we are talking music "production" as opposed to live performance, a solid grasp on MIDI programming will get you a hell of a lot further than a musical education.

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Yes of course, playing music by ear is possible and many people are doing it. You don't need to be able to read sheet music to become a great musician. Take Jimi Hendrix. He is so popular and so good at guitar, yet he never learned to read sheet music. And not just Jimi Hendrix, of course, he is just one example. There are many more others that can play instruments but can't read sheet music.(Bob Dylan, Taylor Swift, Stevie Wonder obviously). Although in my opinion, it will be better if you have a good ear but can also read sheet music. But anything is possible. Even if you don't know how to read sheet music, you can still be good at playing instruments.

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  • But someone else had to compose the music for the other players, and write it out so that they could learn what to play, right?
    – Rosie F
    Aug 14, 2022 at 14:19
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The simple answer to your question is that some people absolutely can, although there are plenty of pros who can't.

In this clip, the amazing autistic and blind savant Derek Paravicini takes a theme he's hearing for the first time and improvises on it.

And then there's Art Tatum:

Tatum was blind, too.

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  • This video contains content from A+E Networks, who has blocked it on copyright grounds. Aug 6, 2022 at 4:49
  • @AlexisTyler That's too bad. I have no idea what this video was any more, either.
    – BobRodes
    Aug 7, 2022 at 5:32
  • Managed to find the name "Derek Paravicini - The Piano Genius" Aug 8, 2022 at 3:08
  • @AlexisTyler Oh, thank you! I didn't think of copying the link back into youtube. Nice move. I'll find something else of his.
    – BobRodes
    Aug 9, 2022 at 5:22
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I realized I could perform and sing at the age of five years old. I picked up a guitar and in an hour, after looking through books, I began to play Love Hurts by Nazareth on the first day.

At the age of 40, I still cannot read music but I can now can play any type of music on a guitar, as long as I have heard the song. I can also create music effortlessly. I never was taught music, and there is no one in my family with musical background. Music cheers people up and takes their hurt away.

I hear music in my head all day long. It’s so real I can dance. I also can play the basics of every instrument I want to play. I thought it was normal when I was younger but now I realize I was born with my gift. I live on a small island with not many opportunities to make a career. The Internet makes it so easy to learn and to get your music out there, but it has to stand out to be heard.

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