I've been playing piano for about 10 years, and in that time I never really learned how to read sheet music. I have a very good ear, and usually just figure out pieces through listening to the recordings of the greats with little to no reference to sheet music. Technically, I believe I am where I'm supposed to be - the last two pieces I learned (successfully) were La Campanella and Ondine from Gaspard de la Nuit.

However, as I try to expand my repertoire into jazz and more dissonant harmony, my ear is failing me. I'm having to turn to the sheet music constantly, which slows things down a lot. So I'm setting out to learn to read sheet music. Of course, I know how the notes on the staff translate to notes on the piano - FACE and all that, but the most complex piece I can "fluently" read is something like heart and soul.

I see two options at this point - the first is to buy a bunch of those introductory books full of little, easy pieces to sight read and play through those. My fear with that is that I will bore myself to quitting piano. What I want to do is sit down with the Kapustin variations and just slog through it, sight reading it completely. I know it would be a slow process, but I think it would be a lot more fun and fulfilling.

My question is whether this is a viable method - is it detrimental to learn how to read sheet music with very complex pieces?

  • 1
    It will be interesting to discover just how MUCH of 'La Campanella' and 'Gaspard' you're playing. If you've worked those pieces out accurately by ear, I don't think you'll have too much trouble with notation!
    – Laurence
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 18:08
  • I would say start easy. Sight-reading very complex stuff will likely frustrate you. But i do think it's helpful to push yourself. It's good to try a variety of levels of music. Another thing to try is to just keep going with a piece, whether you're hitting all the notes or not. You can even practice with a metronome and force yourself to keep going, whether it's going well or not.
    – Ringo
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 0:24
  • IMHO, you don't need advice here. You know yourself: the easy way could be "boring", the hard way could be "fun and fulfilling". Jump in. If you don't make progress, try an easier tack. Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 2:04
  • @SteveBennett You're right, of course. I just wanted to know whether anyone had experience with the "fun and fulfilling" route and whether it could lead to something. Evidently, the answer is, "maybe"!
    – Nico A
    Commented Jun 21, 2018 at 3:00

2 Answers 2


You need to see reading as the interesting challenge. Whether or not reading "complex" pieces comes easy to you and not is completely personal. In general this is not a good idea. There is a steady progression to learning reading. As a guitarist I was trained the classical way and did start reading from my first lesson. Over the years I let it go stale relying more on my ear to the point where I was almost illiterate even though I knew how to read. A lot of guitarists play by ear or tab then try to learn SMN late in life. There are a lot of great books out there that try to teach the rudiments of sight reading for "advanced" guitarists without boring them. I do not know if this exists for piano but I would say that you will NEVER waste time and money working through a beginner book for sight reading. Just pick a well known trusted book. Go through it page by page in order and following instructions. If you can already play you will not be bored for long. The point is not to be impressed with your chops, but to become literate. If you couldn't read words you'd have to start at the preschool level. The stories are not very exciting but the reading may be tough. So you want to focus on that aspect and not be concerned about the coolness of what you are playing.

  • SMN = "sheet music notation"? or ...
    – bgp
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 7:32
  • 1
    Yes. There is a 15 char min so away I type.
    – user50691
    Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 11:40

I've been in your position before - in some ways I'm still in it. I don't sight read nearly as well as I'd like, but I do sight read a lot better than I used to.

What worked for me was doing both of the things you suggest, but maybe slightly different. If i want to learn a piece, I slog through reading the music no matter how long it takes me. That has helped my sight reading a lot, especially with more distant ledger lines and certain chord shapes.

At the same time, I spend some time going through easy pieces. I think finding a more interesting set of music that is straightforward that isn't beginner's books is both possible and a good idea.

Some ideas for interesting music that is easier to sight read are exercises by Carl Czerny, Mikrokosmos by Bartok (check IMSLP) and/or a copy of The Real Book. The second "starts [simply] at the beginning, but it progresses [to greater difficulty] quickly" (thanks to alephzero for the suggestion). The first has a lot of variation and you can find eight measure exercises completely in C major as well as longer exercises with more key variation and chromaticism. The last usually has single-note melody lines that can start off straightforward and then become highly chromatic. Both have interesting rhythms to learn to read.

  • From the OP's description of his/her current level, rather than Czerny I would strong suggest Bartok's "MIkrokosmos." Yes, it starts at the beginning, but it progresses quickly (and gets to ABRSM Grade 8 level) and right from the beginning the pieces and exercises are musically challenging. (IIRC even the first book has some exercises with the two hands playing in different keys at the same time, for example.)
    – user19146
    Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 18:36
  • @alephzero Good idea. Edited into the answer. Commented Jun 20, 2018 at 18:40

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