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When I'm learning new songs on piano (about to take grade 1 for an idea of where I'm at) I use the sheet music to learn what notes to play.

Once I've learnt the song, I tend to no longer be so much aware of what the notes specifically are, but use the sheet music for a more general feel of the music. There are a few pieces I can play with the sheet music in front of me, even though I'm not consciously reading it.

So is the purpose of the sheet music that I read along when I play so I know exactly what I'm doing? Or is it there to teach me, and then be a general guide when I'm playing?

I'm worried about learning bad habits that will hold me back from learning further, but I can't imagine what it would feel like to be reading the sheet music on the go constantly.

I play guitar as well, but mostly I just end up learning that by rote and never use the sheet music, or keep a copy of it to hand for a quick once over if I'm a little rusty.

  • I think the answer is different depending on whether you're reading a lead sheet (or other sheet music with comping) or not. If you're reading a lead sheet, you're OK if you fudge accompaniment. If you're reading full sheet music in the classical tradition, you need to play along exactly as written, and if you deviate, even if it's only in the dynamics, chances are that at least one audience member will notice unfavourably. – Dekkadeci Jul 16 at 12:12
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    Why should piano be singled out? It could refer to any instrument. – Tim Jul 16 at 18:41
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    Is the purpose of a novel to entertain? To explore ideas? To aid in an examination of the culture that created it? It all depends on how you use it. – David Bowling Jul 16 at 18:47
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So is the purpose of the music that I read along when I play so I know exactly what I'm doing? Or is it there to teach me, and then be a general guide when I'm playing?

Both.

If you are able to memorise aspects of the music, then it's going to be very hard to disable that ability — so it's inevitable that the information you take from a given piece of music will change as you repeatedly read from it.

You might feel your sight reading skills aren't getting a strong workout if you're remembering large swathes of the piece. But you can do some more "gym work" by just doing more sight-reading of fresh pieces.

Once I've learnt the song, I tend to no longer be so much aware of what the notes specifically are, but use the music for a more general feel of the music.

Well, not being aware of what the notes are could be an issue — especially in an exam!

It's a good thing that you are able to analyse and remember the piece enough to get a good 'general feel', but if you're unable to remember the exact notes and you're losing the ability to focus on the music enough to see the exact notes, then you are effectively playing your own rearrangement or interpretation of the piece.

If you want the skill of being able to play back the piece as written, then perhaps you need to re-focus on picking out the notes on the score, even if you also have the remembered 'shape' of the music in the back of your mind.

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    I think I expressed myself badly there. By not knowing what the notes specifically are, I more mean that the notes become a visual guide to where my fingers need to be during that bar of music, but I'm not reading it like "4th finger G, then 3rd finger F#" etc. I know what the notes are, but I'm more using the music to guide my fingers rather than naming the notes in my head and converting that to a key press – KentGeek Jul 17 at 12:57
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    @KentGeek I think I did originally interpret the question as you meant it then - I just saw how other people were interpreting you, and I edited slightly in case you meant that the notes weren't coming out exactly as written. I really don't think you should feel the need to name the notes in your head as you play them; The names are essentially arbitrary and don't tell you any information that the visual position on the score (along with any sharps/flats) doesn't tell you already. – topo morto Jul 17 at 13:06
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    The names of notes are for textual or verbal communication of musical ideas - you don't need to think in terms of the names. The symbols on the sheet music are for visual communication of musical ideas - you don't need to think in terms of these symbols, either. The way that the notes feel or look in your head may be entirely different from those. Personally, I find that the "look" of the notes in my head resembles the instrument I'm playing - I think in terms of chord shapes and relative intervals and how they look on the instrument rather than in terms of "C", "G", "F#", etc. – Dr. Funk Jul 17 at 18:57
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It depends to a large extent on what you're aiming to achieve as a pianist. If your aim is to become a good classical music player, the ability to sight read to a high standard is pretty vital; less so if you're just aiming to attain enough technical proficiency to enable you to jam, improvise and "sit in" with other musicians. In the latter case, my personal experience is that developing a really good ear is tremendously important although it still helps a lot to be able to refer to the dots for a reminder.

Think of reading music the same way that you would think of reading English. There are totally illiterate people who can nonetheless tell fascinating stories because they know and understand their subject. Stand-up comedians might jot down ideas for material but they'll not necessarily limit themselves to a precise set of words when they tell the joke to a live audience. On the other hand, if you want to play Hamlet, you'll need to learn every single word that Shakespeare wrote; most people would do that by reading the script. If you're a BBC announcer, you'll be expected to be able to instantly read a newsflash with absolute authority, even if it contains awkward names such as "Ghislaine", "Okechukwu Enelamah" or "Temenuzhka Petkova". The principle is the same. If you're the rehearsal pianist for an opera company, you're going to want to be able to turn to page 47 of the piano score of a new composition and play it as if you've known it all your life. However, if you're playing background music in a cocktail bar, a fakebook containing toplines and chord symbol could be useful but you might not need even that if you've developed reliable technique and a good ear. As a full-time pro for forty years, I've done both jobs and I feel I've benefited from both experiences. On the whole, my subjective opinion is that my ear (and ability to "fake" my way through) has been far, far more important than reading ability. But it ultimately depends on where you want to go with your piano playing.

Happy practising!

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    The Hamlet / standup comedian comparison sums it up perfectly. This is what I tried to convey in my answer, but didn't quite manage :) – fdreger Jul 17 at 9:55
  • Thanks, this is helpful. I don't know exactly what my goals are at the moment. I started learning when I was 31 having wanted to play for 25+ years with various obstacles in the way. I know I'll never be an amazing classical pianist, but being able to play classical pieces is definitely on my goals list! – KentGeek Jul 17 at 12:48
  • except that many standup comedians are meticulous writer's and refine and hone their words precisely and tell the jokes the exact same way every time – NKCampbell Jul 17 at 20:30
  • A tremendous real-world answer! – Fattie Jul 18 at 16:38
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For the purposes of your Grade 1 examination, the requirement is to play the notation accurately and completely. There is room for individual expression, but it doesn't extend to changing stuff that IS notated. Like the notes!

There are musical situations where the notation may - and should - be considered more of a general guide. But, particularly when playing with others, don't be TOO ready to discard or change detail. Those details may be very necessary to the overall ensemble.

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It's just there!! Or not!! Of course it's there initially, for someone to learn to play from. It's also there as a reminder for someone who's already learned it. It's also there for someone who is a good sight-reader to play it immediately. If someone has learned it 'by heart', then it matters not if it bursts into flame!

My students are constantly reminded that when they become great sight-readers, there's hardly a need to 'learn' a piece. I play with guys who deliver as if they've played something for ever, never having seen it before. Awe inspiring, and frightening! But only possible for great sight-readers.

So, to sum up - the dots are there for all purposes, but if you're the possessor of a really good memory, they're superfluous. Once it's been learned!

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    No matter how good a sight-reader you are, if you're playing in the LA Philharmonic, or in the Guarniari Quartet, or the Benny Goodman Swing Band, you darn well will be using sheet music all the time. Be careful about generalizations! – Carl Witthoft Jul 16 at 13:11
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    @CarlWitthoft - I stand chastised - again! However, cast your mind to, for example, piano or violin concertos. I don't remember seeing the soloist - probably the most important player - reading off anything. And most swing band members will only glance at the charts occasionally. Be careful with criticisms! – Tim Jul 16 at 15:55
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    I guess it depends on the instrument too. Solo violinists rarely use sheet music, solo pianists usually do, even if that means having a page-turner. Whether they actually need the score, or it's just a backup or more of a ritual is of course unclear. Pieces used as encores are usually played from memory. Some pianists, like El Bacha, make a point of playing from memory, but they are the exception. – Your Uncle Bob Jul 16 at 16:53
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    @Tim full agreement that a soloist in front of an orchestra will play from memory. Part of the difference is that the soloist performs maybe a few dozen pieces over the year while the orchestra performs 4 or 5 different pieces each week! – Carl Witthoft Jul 16 at 17:36
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For some people they need the sheet music. For some it is used just like you are using it, as crutch to learn or a guide to remind you of the bigger picture. Some don’t need it at all.

There are some situation where it would be inappropriate to use sheet music (think rock band live show), and some where it would be fine (broadway play pit musician that isn’t even seen).

I think what you are doing is just fineBut keep your final goals in mind. If you are using while learning it is fine no matter what.

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I play the piano as well and will be taking level 9 soon. I generally use the sheet music to learn the pieces as is recommended and slowly start to not look for specific notes but more patterns in the sheet music. An interesting experiment to try on yourself is to use a differently formatted sheet music for the same piece. eg: One text is bigger than the other so it takes up 3 sheets instead of 2. And you will feel completely lost even though it is the same notes on the sheet music.

In short, while learning a piece one should read along with the sheet music but as you learn the piece you can start to use it as a general guide of where you are in the piece and look for dynamics and other musical information.

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So is the purpose of the music that I read along when I play so I know exactly what I'm doing? Or is it there to teach me, and then be a general guide when I'm playing?

Both true. You have no liberty to change things as you wish (emphasis on change!). What you need to keep in mind always is to deliver a performance faithful to the composer's intentions. Music notation is itself very limited, so not absolutely everything can be written down (also, it would make no sense).

You can think of it this way: two different composers, or maybe even the same composer but in different time periods, are played differently, even if they wrote the exact same piece, you would play, interpret, them different.

As to what exactly you can and can't do apart from what's exactly indicated in the sheet: here comes to play one of many roles the professor plays: he/she should guide you so with time, apart from technical knowledge you get to know how different composers/eras are to be played.

I'm worried about learning bad habits that will hold me back from learning further, but I can't imagine what it would feel like to be reading the music on the go constantly.

Having to un-learn bad habits is something you really want to avoid whenever possible, so it's a good time you ask!
For this I suggest you take this matter to your teacher, as he/she will be the one who knows the repertoire you're studying and what of the things you're adding on your own are correct and which aren't.

I play guitar as well, but mostly I just end up learning that by rote and never use the music, or keep a copy of it to hand for a quick once over if I'm a little rusty.

Well, it depends on what you want to achieve. If you're studying just for fun... have fun (?

Hope this helps!

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For professional, solo playing - the piece is expected to be rendered exactly as in the sheets, but no sheets are used (learning music by heart is an essential skill).

In orchestra pit, comping etc. - sheets are used for reference.

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    "... exactly..." if that were true, none of us would own 5 different performers' renditions of the Bach Cello suites -- or Beethoven's Ninth, or for that matter St. Louis Blues. – Carl Witthoft Jul 16 at 13:12
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    @CarlWitthoft - I suspect that those 5 different renditions of each classical music piece all followed the sheet music (at least similar enough editions) exactly as indicated, yet came up with different staccato lengths and relative dynamics. With that being said, I've heard commercial recordings of classical music with disgusting abridgements, and I recently listened to more than 10 separate recordings of Chopin's Fantaisie in F Minor, Op. 49, and it completely boggles me how many interpreters ignored at least 1 pivotal dynamic change or sped up a march section with no tempo change marking. – Dekkadeci Jul 16 at 16:20
  • @CarlWitthoft did you actually think that performances of classical pieces differ because players diverge from sheets, and do it in different ways? This premise is so wrong, it's hard to even begin having an argument. As for St. Louis Blues, I don't think there ever existed a sheet for solo piano version that ever got performed at a concert. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong. – fdreger Jul 17 at 8:37
  • @fdreger Your defnition of "different" may not be the same as the definition used by us classical musicians. Different articulations, tempo swings, dynamics, all are considered significant (and will differ from the original markings when such exist). – Carl Witthoft Jul 17 at 13:06
  • @CarlWitthoft: I don't know where you get your ideas about classical performance or why are you using pluralis maiestatis. If you have some trustworthy sources, please share them. Throughout my classical piano education I was taught that the chief rule of performing a classical piece is being true to what's in the text. When in doubt (e.g. editions differ) urtext edition works as the ultimate source of truth. If I were caught changing articulations, tempos, dynamics etc. during an exam concert - I would flunk it. If I did it on a piano competition - it would lose points. – fdreger Aug 13 at 16:28

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