I read music to learn new pieces.

My personal experience is not necessarily to read notes (as in: abc, even though I can) but more what key the note represents, using intervals and so on.

Once I know a piece, I barely or very loosely follow what I am doing keeping an eye on the sheet music and where I am.

I have recently decided to actually read whilst I am playing a piece instead of playing from memory which "slows" me down... a bit, making it a bit more challenging to play.

Is this right? Will I get better? I have a excellent memory but not getting any younger hence the sudden need to read whilst playing.

How do professionals do it? Memory or actual reading... or both?

  • 3
    It's like reading books: the more you do, the easier it is to read quickly. Apr 13, 2017 at 11:40

7 Answers 7


Two pieces of advice: 1. The secret to learning to read music is to read music. There ain't no other secret. 2. As soon as you have read through a piece of music once, chuck it and get another piece to sight read. This is about learning to read, not preparing pieces to play (in which case you would read the piece until you perfected it). 3. (bonus piece of advice) Your body is apparently designed so your eyes can look upwards really quickly and detect sabre-toothed tigers/mothers-in-law about to pounce on you from tree branches. When reading piano music, try looking more down towards the bass staff and trust your eyes to check out the treble staff. 4. (special bonus advice) start REALLY slow and force yourself to keep pace and finish the piece. Ignore the mistakes and keep going. This is the opposite to learning a piece of music, where you need to avoid mistakes so you don't have to spend time un-learning them. That's the reason why you should discard a sight reading piece once you have tried it once.

  • Even if all the other answers are excellent, this one is straight to the point and gives me a simple work ethics to be even better. However, can you extrapolate on reading both staffs at the same time? As you say, I look up and read the treble but just glanced at the bass, generally. Playing Bach made it better but I am interested in what you think!
    – user33232
    Apr 22, 2017 at 5:32
  • 1
    Perhaps an analogy will help. I you drive your car down the road looking straight ahead you're probably going to have an accident. We need to look in front, in the rear view mirror, to the sides and way up the road ahead. Fortunately with music we don't need too look behind, we just need to look at the notes in front of us and what's coming up, but we need to 'force' our gaze a little bit towards the bass clef and certainly as far ahead as we can manage. Sheep counters can easily count a thousand sheep rushing by; they know where to direct their gaze. Apr 22, 2017 at 8:46

A lot of the pros I've played with are capable of reading something unseen at a good performance level straightaway. They've played and read so much, that it's just part of the job. They're there to provide instant music, accurately, so that's what they do.

Others, who happen to have good memories, will need to look at and probably dissect pieces in order to understand the structure, etc., and commit it to memory. A good move if performing in full view of the audience, where it looks professional to play without dots.

Yet others are capble of winging it - but obviously it depends what genre and what instrument. If it's a piano concerto, winging won't do the job - except for the improvised part, if it's needed.Having said that, there are many (apocryphal ?) stories of famous composers/players doing just this.

A drummer I used to work with couldn't read dots, but supported artists who usually gave them to him. Most didn't realise, because he had the propensity to play what he felt was needed, and generally, he got away with it, if that's the right term. I'd call it being an empathetic musician who knew his stuff.

So, there are many different ways to tackle this issue. Learn to sightread impeccably. Be a brilliant listener/thinker and go with the flow. Use the good memory - or improve it! Are just three.

  • So my idea to rely a bit less on memory and increasing my sight reading whilst playing is the right path? Even if it slows me down at first, it will eventually equalise?
    – user33232
    Apr 13, 2017 at 7:46
  • 1
    Each of the scenarios I mentioned is 'the right path' - but for different players. In my experience, it seems that each individial has some innate ability that manifests itself to suit one way better. As in, people who sightread well naturally will develop that, possibly to the detriment of other strategies. Most of the players I have played with fit into great sightreaders or great improvisors/play by ear sorts. I feel that if one is better at one kind, that sort of takes precedence, and other useful skills suffer as a result. So, choose your best skill and hone it. Try to keep others too!
    – Tim
    Apr 13, 2017 at 7:54
  • I see what you mean. Excellent insight, painting the full picture.
    – user33232
    Apr 13, 2017 at 9:13
  • That was clearly a small-group set drummer. No orchestral percussionist would survive that way. Apr 13, 2017 at 11:40
  • That's why he was called a drummer, not percussionist, which is very different, in a very different setting - although up to an 18 pce band, not a 3-4 pce.
    – Tim
    Apr 13, 2017 at 11:43

If you are just learning a new piece, you need to break it into parts.

First, slow down. This is extremely important, as it is very rare that someone could learn a decently-challenging piece in tempo. You want to play with separate hands, and your tempo should be how fast you can play perfectly while sight reading. Remember, in your first reading, play with correct fingering, hand shaping, and articulation to minimize bad habits later on (although in some special cases, one might play with different articulation to learn a very technical passage) As you familiarize yourself with the piece, slowly increase the tempo while maintaining the good habits you've built.

You mentioned how you would rather read keys the note represents. This is a good step in the direction of understanding the music you are playing. This means understanding key, harmony, voice leading, etc. This will not only make your piece sound more interesting, but it will make it much easier to read music if you understand it.

Memorizing the piece comes later on after you bring the piece into a reasonably good tempo and polish the piece. However, muscle memory is very important when playing technically-difficult passages. Especially if you have fast runs and passages, it would be much harder to learn this part of the piece (compared to learning other parts of the piece). In this case, isolate the difficult section, and practice the part slowly. Utilize different practice techniques such as practicing with dotted rhythms or different articulations to hammer in the precious muscle memory of the difficult section.

As you start to get a feel for the whole piece, your muscle memory will only get stronger if you practice with the right habits. Break the piece into reasonable chunks, and start playing with two hands and bringing up the tempo. Explore new customized strategies of your own to overcome obstacles of each piece you learn, and as you continue reading pieces, you will get a strong sense of how to practice.

  • Yes. I do all that you mention without too much difficulties these days. I always identify the challenging/technical parts and learn them first. However, I want to know how the pros do it? Do they follow the sheet music like I do or do they really read and play?
    – user33232
    Apr 12, 2017 at 21:09
  • Both rhythm patterns and melodic patterns can be read as a whole group, much like words are read as a whole word instead of individual letters. Once you recognize the melodic run you can read ahead while your muscle memory plays the passage. Apr 12, 2017 at 21:48

I think a lot of pro's in the pop world can play from memory, especially if they have a stage act where they are touring a set of songs and can't have music stands on stage.

But Classical Music pro's (exception: concerto soloists) usually read from sheet music when they perform. Often there's only one or two rehearsals and little advance notice, so the ability to read and play is very important.

It's worth checking out advice on how to improve sight-reading as a way to improve your reading skills.

I think one of the keys is developing the ability to read the score in large bites, rather than looking at every note. You might think of reading as a sort of short-term memorization: e.g., look at and memorize a measure in a glance, then while playing it "from memory" look at the next measure. The goal of memorizing an entire measures at a glance is a little ambitious, especially at first, and may be unrealistic depending on how much musical detail is in the measure.

  • Interesting. I sort of do that but quite loosely. I follow patterns more than a single note but get easily led back to playing from memory. Do I just need to rebalance, a bit less from memory and a bit more reading?
    – user33232
    Apr 13, 2017 at 7:00
  • Playing from memory is probably a good skill to have. As long as you are not missing details from the score, why not? It leaves you able to give more attention to your interpretation. But you can still get a lot of reading practice in by doing more sight-reading, checking out lots of pieces you haven't played before. Apr 13, 2017 at 16:15

Reading becomes easier in time. Keep in mind that your best practice can be accomplished away from your instrument. You can run notes, scales and patterns through your head while lying in bed, driving, eating, lounging, sitting in a waiting room, etcetera. There is hardly a moment that I don't run a lick through my mind in several keys.

Reading is a combination of knowing the notes on the page without thought and your hands being comfortable with your instrument that they go to the correct notes without thought. Thirdly, having knowledge of music theory is very helpful. You need to be able to look at a page and know chords and scales - again, without thought. You should be able to see patterns and just know what they are. Like technique, most of making music is knowledge, not practice. You don't need to practice reading a newspaper because you've already mastered the alphabet. Theory is the alphabet of music.

There are two ways to memorize. The first isn't memorization but rote. Play a piece 200 times and your muscle memory will sort of remember what to do. The plight of this method is that if you don't play the song for a while, you will forget it. Also, while in performance, if you get off track, you won't know how to get back.

The best, safest and surest way to memorize is, again, away from your instrument. With your knowledge of music theory, study the score, make a mental image of the notes in your head. Analyze the chord progressions, they are very repetitive and often predictable. Memorize the patterns and basic melodic structure. Does it start on the fifth, go to the third, then but to the sixth . . .

The third way is not to memorize at all but, study music theory. Here is a basic example. I mean, HEAR is a basic example. You can probably recite to me the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. You don't have it memorized but know the basic layout and can fake the story. Music is much the same. If you can hear it, and know your intervals, you can "read" the notes in your mind. Mary Had A Little Lamb, for instance. I know it starts on the third because I can hear it in my head as being the third. So, the melody is: 3212333 222 355 3212333322321 Because I can hear those numbers in my head, I can "read" the song in any key and never make a mistake or have to guess a note. With practice, you can even do this with more complicated music such as fugues and other classical literature.


The idea of using intervals has to be part of it. This was brought into sharp focus for me when I was teaching music and decided to take a recorder exam myself (to keep ahead of members of my recorder group whom I was entering for a lower recorder exam). I had to play the treble much more than I had before, It doesn't transpose so you have to learn new fingerings for what you see - a bit like learning the bass clef on the piano. However, in my late twenties my brain was busy trying to use other faculties to make up for the lack of facility reading in this new instrument. When I got to the sight reading test I was completely flummoxed. There were lots of high leger lines which were more difficult to read quickly and I realised that what I had been doing was reading the tune, hearing it in my head as though I were playing a descant recorder and then playing back the same tune in my head starting on a different note and playing the descant fingerings on my treble. With the added difficulty of reading notes with lots of ledger lines I just couldn't do so many processes at once.

I might add that the sad fact about muscle memory is that it sometimes fades with age. When I learn a new piece now I have to remember exactly what all the notes are because my fingers no longer give me any clues.


If you're in a situation where a new piece of music is given to you, and it has to be played NOW, you read. This is the normal situation for professional musicians (and a whole lot of good amateur ones). We get good at doing it in the obvious way of doing it a lot! Probably from the first lesson we ever took on our instrument.

You can do this. Of course you can! Success will probably come from being in a situation where you NEED to do it though. Maybe your musical world is one where you don't.

  • The OP probably learned to do this reading his/her native language while still in elementary school. It's no more difficult to learn to read music just as fluently - but as the other answers show, people seem to devote a lot of effort to device "coping strategies" rather than just doing it!
    – user19146
    Apr 13, 2017 at 16:10
  • Indeed. Like 'just acquire the tools of your trade' is some strange, advanced concept! If you want to write stories, learn English. Duh!
    – Laurence
    Apr 17, 2017 at 12:22

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