At all the performances of concertos I've attended, the soloists perform without sheet music, whether it is a concerto for piano, viola, or horn. Has this always been the performance tradition for concerto soloists, or was there some notable soloist who later soloists modeled their stage presence after?

When typing this, this question here was suggested as a similar question. I didn't previously notice that vocal soloists aren't as bound to performance without sheet music. Have vocal and instrumental soloists always had this difference or did they start similarly and diverge?

2 Answers 2


Musicians starting memorizing music during the Romantic Era. This practice was introduced by virtuosos such and Liszt and Paganini who may have wanted to show off.


I'm not sure if there IS a definitive answer to this question, but here are some thoughts.

In the Baroque court, composers were under such time-constraints there would have been little time for soloists to memorize the music. While the orchestra was drawn from the court entourage, who were already on the payroll, professional musicians were hired to play the solo parts in concerti grossi. Because of the expense they would not have been allowed the time to learn the music, so were undoubtedly reading it. They must have been extremely good at reading.

Classical piano concertos were often first performed by their composers, who probably knew them by heart. Perhaps that led audiences to expect the soloist not to be reading the music.

But playing concertos without the music isn't necessarily simply a tradition. By the time you have practised (US: practiced) a concerto enough to perform it well, you HAVE learnt it! Also, if you're a pianist or a string player and the piece is at all demanding, you need to see where your hands/fingers are on the keyboard or fingerboard, and there isn't time to keep looking away at the music. It's difficult to play difficult music while looking at the music!!

Accompanists don't have technically-challenging music to play, and they usually read. Singers don't need to see their hands/fingers while performing, so they can have music. So can wind/brass-players. The only reason they, and sometimes singers, don't is that, as I said above, by the time you've practised it enough you've learnt it.

  • What I've been wondering in many concerts too: Vocal soloists usually are holding their sheet music in the hands, even it seems to me easier to memorize the music for them (unless it is not a 12 tone composition). Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 11:09
  • Being a good piano accompanist is an art which includes playing very technically-challenging music. Here is an example: youtube.com/watch?v=Jd7ODIGY6Bk. Regarding violin playing: Well, you better learn to play without looking at the fingerboard except occasionally. Here is an example with sightreading playing the violin: youtube.com/watch?v=1rZ0ymDHwnU Commented Nov 16, 2019 at 22:47

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