Why do (Classical) musicians need to read music?

Being only a drummer (a rock drummer, at that), I’ve always been baffled by classical musicians’ seeming inability to play without sheet music. I realize they do many long pieces, but after playing something enough times, you’d think they’d be able to memorize it. Similarly, I often wonder why a conductor is needed at performances - after enough rehearsals, wouldn’t everybody have the tempo changes and dynamics down?

Even stranger is horn players - and here I’m talking about rock/pop/soul music - reading sheet music for really simple songs - songs in which they mainly play a repeated riff during the chorus. I’ve seen this at numerous concerts and TV broadcasts, and it makes no sense to me.

Obviously, I’m ignorant of the intricacies of classical music, but why don’t more performers work without sheet music?

I’m very curious to see the answer to this.

My WAG, as a non-classical musician: compared to a rock musician, there may be a smaller ratio of rehearsal-to-performance. A classical orchestra might perform a two-hour concert, then have to turn around and perform another two-hour concert, with a totally different set list, a few weeks later.

Comparatively, a rock band’s concerts will likely draw from a comparatively smaller set of possible pieces, most of which the musicians know well, because they’ve played them regularly for months, or more.

Classical music is generally more complex than rock, so memorization is harder – and indeed, there usually aren’t that many rehearsals.

I’m working on a rock version of some classical stuff, and I’m finding memorization to be not impossible but pretty difficult. I need the sheet music.

As far as conductors go, they still serve to hold the group together as well as provide a cohesive interpretation. When you hear an orchestra, you’re really hearing what’s inside the conductor’s head. Barenboim and Ozawa, for instance, are not simply interchangeable technicians. They will give very different versions of any given piece, according to their artistic tastes.

Often soloists do play from memory. However, in an ensemble situation, getting everything as right as possible is more important than playing from memory.

Also, songs with complex orchestration can be very hard to play without music. In a large ensemble, you can’t always hear everything clearly, and music helps you to keep your place and focus on your part when you’re in the middle of a cacophony of sound.

As for R&B-type horns, I imagine that a lot of why they read charts is:

[li]So much of what they play song to song is the same, with maybe a slightly different rhythmic pattern. I can see how music would help keep the player from getting those precise phrasings confused.[/li][li]The horns have to play together as a unit, and so precision is important.[/li][/ul]

Ultimately though, it’s about the fact that playing with music is a lot less work and stress on the players, so why put them through that when the music will sound just the same?
(I’ll add that if you work a piece long enough, the sheet music becomes more of a general reference and less essential; memorization happens at least partially even with sheet music).

  1. Habit. Recording engineer Geoff Emerick remember when The Beatles brought in a symphoney to run up the scale for the end of “A Day In The Life.” The musicians were baffled. They’d never operated without sheet music before. They were supposed to what?

  2. The music was scored to be performed a certain way. The speed and even loudness is right there. There’s not a lot of wiggle room, though a few conductors might interpret passages differently.

  3. I was in band for 6 years. We would memorize about 12 marches a season for the half-time show (that way you could concentrate on the march, not reading the music). Each march might last 3 or 4 minutes. I would hate to have to memorize a 2 hour show. And then, that would be the only show you could perform.

  4. Variety. This relates to #3. You have a lot of composers to choose from.

This is especially true. I have had the good fortune to have played in some very large halls, including Carnegie and Alice Tully halls. The Carnegie experience was especially remarkable. I played in an rambling, huge orchestra of approximately 100 people. Yet while on stage, I could hardly hear anything played by anyone more than two or three seats away from me. I’d been a musician for years, but that was without a doubt the first time I lived or died by that baton.

You don’t need conductors, you don’t need sheet music, you just need to think about it.

Very few rock bands have more than about five people, while a typical orchestra has about forty. That means that while you only have to be aware of what four other people are doing, everyone in the orchestra has to be aware of what almost ten times as many people are doing. The former is manageable, but the latter is not.

The usual thing in not-classical music is to have a chart, which is just the chord changes. It’s generally a bunch of numbers and symbols; looks like math. In a very real sense, it is math.

A session musician has to get what’s going to be played very quickly, 2 or 3 hearings, then be able to perform it. There’s no time for memorization. You have a chord chart and whatever musicality you bring to the session.

In classical music, memorization is not important. Memory can be incomplete or faulty, and there’s no room for that in a concert. By the time a piece is ready for performance, the written music is used more as a crib sheet for the musician than a text.

Soloists often perform with no music. And, of course, opera singers are totally on their own.

A major symphony orchestra plays a different program every week, usually consisting of stuff that they either haven’t played before, or at least not recently. Even if it’s something they know well, every performance is going to be interpreted differently, and require different markings, which the musicians need to have in front of them to remember.

Professional musicians need to learn a lot of music in a very short time, often with a dearth of rehearsals. Many musicians still need to have their parts memorized. For instance, I’m currently in rehearsal for an opera. All of the singers have their parts memorized before the first staging rehearsal; obviously you can’t do an opera with scores in hand. But the singers have had their contracts for months and have plenty of time to learn their music. We also have three weeks of staging rehearsals to put everything together. The orchestra, on the other hand, will meet two or three times with the conductor, then do three run-throughs with the singers before the first performance. That’s not nearly enough time to put together a convincing performance from memory.

As for the conductor, besides providing interpretation, it’s very difficult to keep a large ensemble together without a single conductor. For one thing, you can’t really on listening to maintain the beat, as the distance across the stage and any reverb from the hall will mess with the timing if you’re going by sound. Going back to opera: it can be really difficult to impossible to hear the orchestra in the pit, which makes the conductor essential just for finding out where you are in the score. The house I’m doing this opera in has a particularly deep pit, and even when playing loudly, the orchestra tends to be almost inaudible, especially when we’re singing.

Amusing anecdote about the role of a conductor:

I was working on a show a few years back. I was the music director, and this guy Stuart was the vocal director. During a rehearsal, Stuart asked if he could conduct one of the songs. He wanted to show me what I should be getting from the singers. The song started out with a big chord and a ff timpani roll. Stuart raised his baton hand about a foot and gave the downbeat. The resulting sound was kind of unspectacular. I stopped him after just a bar or two and pulled him aside. Without saying a word to the orchestra, I whispered a few things to him, pointed at the timpanist, and demonstrated a much larger gesture.

Stuart turned back to the orchestra and started them again, but this time with an upbeat that went behind his head and came down like a hammer. The resulting sound was big, round, and satisfying. Smiles spread across the faces of everyone in the room. It was a 200% improvement.

And his cutoffs beat the shit out of mine. The chorus never sounded as good as they did that night.

Ever try it with a double conductor? It’s very weird.

I do believe that a Professor Harold Hill (Gary Conservatory of Music, class of '05) pioneered the technique nearly a century ago. :wink:

It’s difficult to play music if you can’t see the notes you’re going to play ahead of time. On a guitar or keyboard, you can see all the notes there are, and you keep an eye on certain frets/keys that are like milestones on the “roadmap” of a song. Eventually you develop “hand memory” and can play with your eyes closed, but you’re still visualizing in a sense.

With wind instruments there’s nothing to see or visualize, and the notes you’re going to play next are hidden behing the note you’re playing right now. Without sheet music, you have to conjure them up in your head one at a time rather than associating them with coordinates on a visual plane. So it’s much easier to have the sheet music in front of you.

Huh? Are you saying that a sax player can’t improvise?

Last year, we (my wife and I) had to conduct some backstage ensembles for Otello. We used monitors, but it was still hard to stay together with the principle conductor. I’m not entirely sure why they had us do it that way rather than simply have the ensemble watch the monitors; I guess it allows for direct human contact with the ensemble which would be lost just staring into a screen, but we had to concentrate so hard on staying with the beat that we couldn’t do much more than wave our arms. But that’s the way the conductor wanted it, so that’s the way we did it.

In that case, I guess we had three conductors; the Act III finale ended with the chorus on opposite sides of the stage with both of us conducting from different monitors.

That must have been really hard. I know the exact scene you’re talking about, and it seems like a logistical nightmare.

And dammit, I want to conduct that opera. I actually did have the entire thing memorized at one point, many years ago.

There are times I’ve had a secondary conductor, but we didn’t use monitors, the person would peek through a hole in the set.

OK, I guess I get it - didn’t realize there weren’t months of rehearsals for a work. And I understand not being able to hear what’s going on, actually - I’m sure any rock drummer who’s played live has had to play in clubs without monitors, which makes it impossible to hear your bandmates (and, in my case, always made me play at about double the tempo).

I saw a string quartet playing in the subway the other day, and they were all using sheet music as well, and seemed to be playing rather short pieces. Since they could obviously hear each other, should I assume they used the music because they were playing works that were unfamiliar to them? Or was it just out of habit?

You’d have to ask them. But my guess is it’s just habit. And they read from sheet music because they can.

What’s the best way to get a guitarist to play softer?

Put sheet music in front of him.

Here’s a related question: why wouldn’t you use sheet music?