I'm in a high school choir and we just got a new teacher. He is adamant that we don't listen to rehearsal tracks or recordings, because "real musicians don't." Is there merit to this? Is it better to learn a piece by working on rhythms and notes without hearing them? He likes sight reading with as little help as possible. It is very slow work, even though we're supposed to be the top choir in school, making our performances lackluster.

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    Real choir should be able to be first to perform a piece. That means you should be able to read it and perform without listening to anyone else perform it. I think that's the "real musician" skill that he wants you to learn in this phase.
    – Džuris
    Mar 19, 2018 at 21:44
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    It always makes me wince a little when someone comes here and says "my teacher does this thing that I think is stupid; is it stupid?" Of course learning pieces by ear is important, and even essential in my opinion, but there is much to be learned by working slowly and methodically through pieces note by note. This will really help you to learn and internalize the music; in the end it will help you to hear better. Teachers all have different perspectives, and you should try to learn everything that you can from each one you are fortunate enough to have; they all have something to teach you.
    – user39614
    Mar 19, 2018 at 22:00
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    True scotsman fallacy
    – AAM111
    Mar 20, 2018 at 1:24
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    @OldBunny2800 -- I don't see how no true Scotsman applies here, since it seems pretty clear that the teacher is not attempting to stake out a logical position, but rather a rhetorical position.
    – user39614
    Mar 20, 2018 at 1:39
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    While I'm not a professional musician by any stretch of the imagination it seems like his approach of "as little help as possible" is overly harsh. Depending on the number of parts I would imagine in most instances it's much faster to teach a 4/5 part arrangement by ear using the score for reference than in would be for everyone to try and sight read it with no assistance.
    – RobbG
    Mar 20, 2018 at 9:05

6 Answers 6


I'm in a high school choir and we just got a new teacher. He is adamant that we don't listen to rehearsal tracks or recordings, because "real musicians don't." Is there merit to this?

It's certainly not true that real musicians don't listen to tracks or recordings... As Mafii says, many excellent musicians don't actually use scores at all. However, it probably is true that most 'real' choristers can read music to an extent.

Is it better to learn a piece by working on rhythms and notes without hearing them?

There are a some advantages to working from sheet music:

  • If you have good sheet music skills, it allows you to play a piece from the sheet music without having practiced or learned it before at all. That may not always be necessary in your situation, but it does mean that your teacher is able to introduce material to the class without having to have you listen to it first. The score is also a useful aid to memory even if you have learned a piece somewhat 'roughly'.

  • in a complex piece, it's going to be much easier for most people to pick out their line from a score than by ear.

  • In rehearsal, it's much easier for the choirmaster to be able to say 'Ok, let's start from bar 47' and have everyone able to pick up from there, than try to describe things in any other way. It's also good to be able to annotate a score with instructions. It's this practical way of 'working from the score' that your choirmaster probably needs you to be able to do.

Of course, there are some advantages to working with recordings too - it means you don't have to learn to read the score, most people (even proficient readers) can probably get the piece into their "mind's ear" more quickly from a recording, and a recording of a good performance might reveal stylistic subtleties and inflections that aren't obvious from a score - not to mention that you can 'study' a recording while jogging, doing homework, etc.

He likes sight reading with as little help as possible. It is very slow work, even though we're supposed to be the top choir in school, making our performances lackluster.

It sounds to me like you need to meet each other half way. Big ensembles do usually work from scores for good reason, and members of most choirs should probably aim to improve their reading skills. However, if some of the members of your choir don't have sufficient reading skills, perhaps your teacher should compromise a little on the "as little help as possible" bit.

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    I appreciate your response, and understand both arguments. With our old teacher, we found a "best of both worlds," reading and marking the score while occasionally listening to the recording to better understand swung rhythms and jazz techniques. Unfortunately, we now have novice choir members in our competitive choir who have never read sheet music, so the reliance only on this method has led to a gap in our knowledge of the music. I'll work on the meeting halfway, and do what I can!
    – Nicole
    Mar 20, 2018 at 1:08
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    "we now have novice choir members in our competitive choir who have never read sheet music" - thus the new teacher's method is valid, to resolve this deficiency. Of course, another solution would be to predicate competition choir membership on an ability to read music
    – NKCampbell
    Mar 20, 2018 at 19:35
  • Excellent points. Everyone sometimes chooses to learn a piece the easy way, and learning by ear is also a useful skill. But there's just no argument to be made for not developing reading skills as much as possible! It was invented because it has a use. Similarly, I can learn a piece on piano quickly if I just look up the chords on a guitar site. But that means my left hand is doing basic accompaniment unless I spend a lot of time reinventing or picking out individual notes by ear. If I read it the sheet music it's a shortcut to a rich, considered harmony — if I've practiced my reading skills! Mar 21, 2018 at 0:01
  • @LukeSawczak I guess there are so many skills to learn in music (and the rest of life!) that sometimes you have to do a calculation of cost (in time) vs benefit - Ideally we'd all learn a bunch of instruments, develop great earing and reading skills, learn how to write our own software synthesizer, how to build a violin, and all sorts.... but sadly you sometimes have to draw the line. I learned to read when young but in the last 20 years or so almost haven't needed to read from score at all - the one exception being singing in a choir! Mar 21, 2018 at 7:52

"real musicians don't." Is there merit to this?

As you have stated it, so bluntly, this assertion has no 'merit'. Countless great musicians - including jazz folks, not just rockers - have learned to play from scratch by listening to recordings. Virtually every musician, in every genre, listens to and learns from recordings by great artists, and goes to concerts not just for enjoyment, but to listen and learn. Every jazz instruction book I've ever looked at (about a dozen) emphasized the importance of listening to the masters. Along with almost any instructional music book you get a CD or online audio tracks to help you understand and practice the material.

This example isn't exactly analogous to what you're talking about, but it's something that came to mind now concerning how very prominent musicians can and do use recordings - they learn from them and they are influenced by them. If you look around, you'll find many more examples, and far more dramatic ones. At any rate, nobody can argue that Anthony Jackson is not "a real musician":

Anthony Jackson, (June 23, 1952, New York, New York) is a Grammy-nominated American bassist and session musician based in New York City. Anthony Jackson has been a distinctive voice on the electric bass since entering the scene in New York City. He began playing the piano as a teen before switching to the guitar, and finally picking up the bass after being influenced by legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson (see "Influences" below).

Jackson is a student of Jerry Fisher, Lawrence Lucie, and Pat Martino. He has performed live in more than 30 countries, and has recorded in more than 3000 sessions on more than 500 albums. His bass introduction for the O'Jays' "For The Love Of Money" (on their classic album Ship Ahoy) earned him a co-writer's credit on the song alongside Gamble & Huff. [2]

In 2010, Jackson released his first leader album, INTERSPIRIT, with Greek bassist Yiorgos Fakanas from Abstract Logix.

Jackson, in 1978 touring the Netherlands with Al Di Meola Jackson devised a six-string bass, tuned B-E-A-D-G-C (low to high), which he called the contrabass guitar...

But we also find this:

He cites his main influences as James Jamerson, Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane...Jackson was also influenced by Jack Casady. As Jackson said in a 1990 interview in Bass Player magazine. “Casady, whom I'd first heard on Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow album in late 1966, had a big, rich, metallic sound with a full bottom and a curious, guitaristic way of playing that I was immediately drawn to. "

Music is for listening - we learn music by listening to music. Books and printed music are only aids to help us to hear the music in our minds and play it for the ears. There is nothing more important for learning music than listening to other musicians who have already mastered the art.

What your teacher means is that "a real musician" doesn't have to hear a piece of music in order to play or sing it. "A real musician" can read a sheet and hear the music in his mind and play it on his instrument or sing it without resorting to recordings.

Maybe your teacher is using some hyperbole to drill the idea into your minds, but he is very correct: "A real musician" does not need a recording to know how to play a piece of music. Assuming we have a proper score, all the necessary information is in the written music itself.

IMO it's important to try and follow his advice - if he says not to listen, then don't listen. He's trying to help you learn MUSIC - not just copy what you've heard from somewhere else. He wants you to read the music and understand it well enough so that you can hear it yourself, without any external crutches - to develop the skills of a real musician.

Because of modern technology that makes learning by ear and with the aid of computers so easy, fundamental musical knowledge seems to be becoming less common than it once was. We need to preserve our musical knowledge and traditions among young people. It's up to you preserve one of humankind's greatest achievements, the art of creating and performing music.

Is it better to learn a piece by working on rhythms and notes without hearing them?

We have to define what is meant by "better": If you're a performer, the only thing that matters in music is the quality of your performance. Whatever improves your performance - makes you play or sing with better style, fluency and execution, with more feeling - is the best tool to use. For most people, listening helps their performance. Listening to others is a valuable tool for improving your own performance. So it's better to listen, even if you are also reading your music for a performance.

But in your case, you're not a bone-fide performer, but a student. Your performance is not necessarily the most important thing, but your musical education. The performance aspect is just one part of your musical education. As part of your musical education, your teacher wants to teach you to read music well, and develop the ability to play written music without hearing it, which is something professional musicians are often required to do. If he thinks the best way to accomplish that is not to listen to recordings of what you'll be playing or singing, that's "better". You should follow your teacher's instructions in the school programs.

That doesn't mean that you'll always have to do that - never listen to anything before playing it. But right now, it's a form of exercise - a way of training you to develop an important skill. I'd venture that for the time being, as a student of this teacher, you'll gain a great deal by following his instructions.

It is very slow work, even though we're supposed to be the top choir in school, making our performances lackluster.

Perhaps that's so, and your frustration is understandable. However, as mentioned, right now your performance is not the ultimate goal, but your education. If there was a sight reading competition, I'd put my money or your group to win it.

It's also entirely possible that once everyone understands the new teacher and gets motivated to "go with the new program", your performances will be back up to par before long. Right now you've got a new challenge with the new teacher, so there is certainly going to be a period of adjustment.

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    Superb answer. I can only add to your listen bit-listen also to each and every other person in that choir. And make your part in the team count. +1. I've often played pieces for many years before hearing a recording. It's good to NOT be influenced by someone else's ideas, too.
    – Tim
    Mar 19, 2018 at 23:53

That's a poor argument imo. Many "real musicians" do very much sing or play by ear. They listen to lots of recordings, and lots of other musicians. Some can't even read sheet music, and only play by ear.

It could be however, that he wants his class to learn how to sight read, and how to use relative pitch. He should then however be transparent about that.

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    "He should then however be transparent about that." Teachers are under no obligation to be transparent about their methods. Students usually have no idea what they need (which is why they need teachers in the first place). In fact, there is a long tradition of teachers producing excellent musicians by saying essentially, "don't think about this too much right now, just play the assignments I give you."
    – user39614
    Mar 19, 2018 at 22:04
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    I agree with you to some extend, but this depends on the level. Just outright lying (as he did) is not fair, and creates resentment. @DavidBowling
    – Mafii
    Mar 19, 2018 at 22:05
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    I didn't see an outright lie. I did see a quote out of context, and musicians are endlessly using hyperbolic phrases like "real musicians always do x." My own hyperbolic statement would be: "Real musicians learn everything they can, in as many different ways as they can, no matter how long it takes."
    – user39614
    Mar 19, 2018 at 22:10
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    Not my DV, BTW. I agree that there is nothing wrong at all with playing by ear (although I suspect that the really great players who played by ear and didn't read, e.g. Wes Montgomery, had a higher level of musical literacy than is generally acknowledged in these conversations.) I also agree that the likely goal of this particular teacher is to work on sight-reading, ear training, and audiation.
    – user39614
    Mar 19, 2018 at 22:17
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    @DavidBowling absolutely wrong. A teacher who doesn't explain his reasoning is not a teacher - he's a Marine Drill Instructor Mar 20, 2018 at 13:19

I'm really good at playing from sheet music. I've had several complex pieces I just acquired from sheet music, developing my own vision for them. Listening then to the actual original music often left me with ideas and inspiration about how to better convey original intent, with the original intent having elements and character and orchestration that made more sense than my original pitches.

Last time I had this playing an arrangement of film music for accordion, even a two-stage process since the score I was working with was already a major reduction of the original orchestral score. When finally listening to the original versions, I actually got quite more inspiration from listening to the original film music than listening to the original rendition of the arranger even though that rendition (and the score for it) did incorporate several of the elements I adopted after all. They just made less sense to me without listening to the original. Of course, I did retain several elements I had worked out. And of course either version is a long way from the original fully orchestrated version.

So coming back to your conductor: I consider it quite likely that he wants to develop and realize his own artistic vision without having to fight your impression from the original, and he is correct that in the "real world", not having more than the score and a conductor (and if you are very lucky, the composer) is what an orchestra producing original versions has to contend with. I'd be surprised if your conductor himself hasn't listened to versions of the originals, though.


Learning (and memorizing) a piece "by ear" and learning to read it from the sheet music are both very useful skills. In the classical tradition, learning to read from sheet music is the norm, while choirs in other traditions (e.g. gospel choirs) expect to learn by ear and sing from memory. Neither approach should be deprecated, both are valuable, but they are typically used for different musical genres.


As someone who has sung in a choir in both high school and college, you definitely don't need to listen to rehearsal/part tracks to learn a piece and full recordings are useful to listen to periodically to ensure you grasp the intended final sound of the piece but aren't needed to learn your part specifically.

Do you happen to know what the background of your current music teacher is? How long they've been working after graduating with their Masters or PhD? Have they worked mostly with choirs or mostly with orchestras before they started with your choir?

What has helped me learn complex rhythms the most is indeed hearing them, either sung or spoken by our choral director or played out on a piano. Some people, who have composed approximately thirty to forty-five percent of the choirs I've been in, have been able to learn nearly any rhythm from seeing it and singing along with the conductor.

All of that being said, there is definitely reason behind your music teacher attempting to force you to learn to sight read. It is a very good skill to have in order to follow along with your part in early rehearsals and especially with a choir to be able to read the parts being played by accompaniment or being sung by other sections of the choir. My choir just sang Ralph Vaughn Williams Dona Nobis Pacem and there were sections that we had between fifteen and forty measures of either orchestral accompaniment or solos between parts of the piece where the choir sings. Being able to accurately follow instruments from the orchestra, in the score, made following a conductor who conducted entirely differently than others I've worked with in the past a much easier task.

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