Why do (Classical) musicians need to read music?

Many, many years a go (40, maybe 50) I heard an interview with a famous classical pianist who was asked the same question. He said that he’d been playing most of the same music for 30 years and of course he could play it without the sheet music in front of him, but he always kept it there because many audiences considered it an act of hubris for a mere pianist to think he could play the music of Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, etc. by heart. Could be true.

The (sadly) one and only time I saw Seiji Ozawa, he did the entire show (Beethoven’s 8th and Le Sacre) without a score. Hubris? Possibly. Impressive? Most definitely.

I know of no classical concert pianist who plays with sheet music in front of him/her. The repertoire is alway memorized.

Here’s an article about memorization vs. using sheet music which comes down in favor of using the music, and gives a bit of history.

Blind since birth, Tsujii first showed interest in piano at 2, when he startled his mom by playing a flawless “Jingle Bells” after hearing it on the radio. “I felt so astonished, so surprised,” his mother, Itsuko Tsujii said through interpreter Kay Nakamoto.

He began studying piano at 4 and now majors in piano performance at a Tokyo university. He can read Braille but doesn’t use it for piano. He plays only by ear. He listens to a live or recorded version of what he wishes to play and memorizes the notes. He then spends hours, even days, matching the score to his flying fingertips.


I have to take issue with this bit:

It happens, but it’s rare. I’ve never been involved in an opera that had prompters, and I’ve done some pretty complicated stuff. In general, opera singers are expected to be completely memorized.

Orchestral music has many moving parts, not all of which are always in play at the same time. Each player needs to be able to follow the music and the conductor in order to come in exactly on time for his/her part, and stop exactly when needed.

A conductor is required to hold the ensemble together, as well as to produce a desired sound from the personnel under his control. The score may indicate certain instrumentation, but every orchestra is different. And every conductor has his/her own style of “playing”. No two are alike.

What you see at a concert is the result of many rehearsals where the conductor has “shaped” the sound of the orchestra to his or her liking. But even then, the conductor may still choose to alter the sound in real-time during a performance for any number of reasons, e.g. the mood, the acoustics of the theatre, etc.

As a player, it is important to have your music memorized enough so that you can play and follow the conductor at the same time.


It’s possible to sightread and followup the conductor at the same time. In fact, if the conductor is in the player’s field of vision, the player has little choice but to follow. It’s almost an autonomic response.

In some of the shows I did, I had a concert mistress who made a point to memorize her part so that she could spend the entire show turned around watching the stage. She NEVER looked at me. I would have fired her, but I needed her boyfriend the clarinetist too much.

I’m going to take a different tack on this - I think there is a different process involved in the brain when reading sheet music as opposed to learning through feel or through trial and error.

I can read sheet music, and I played in bands throughout my school years. When you become really proficient in reading sheet music, it’s almost as if your brain gets out of the way and the music flows right from the sheet to your hands. You’re not thinking, “Oh, that’s an F#, better press down all the keys with my left hand and the middle key with my right”. You just let the notes flow. When you get good enough, you can play completely new pieces this way, without having to hear it or practice it much. You also pay attention to the conductor, but even then it becomes somewhat of an automatic process, where you’re just responding to the notes and the cues from the conductor without doing a whole lot of thinking about it. The brain isn’t really a conscious participant in the act of converting the notes to fingerings (although it can be very active in interpretation, dynamics, and ‘feel’).

But when you’re learning a song by ear, or even through tablature, you have to think about everything. Your brain is actively engaged in working out the problem. And that helps you remember the song next time.

It’s interesting that when I learn a song by ear on my real guitar or sax, I remember it. But if I’m playing Rock Band, which is more like reading sheet music, I can play a song perfectly on expert, but if I try closing my eyes and ignoring the scrolling notation, I find I can’t remember a damned thing. It can be a song I’ve played 100 times in the game, and I’m totally lost without the scrolling notes. But I can pick up my real guitar and play a song from memory that I learned ten years ago and haven’t played for five.

I knew it!

Not every musician’s sightreading skills are on the same level. And sightreading is only recommended at the first practice when everyone gets familiar with the music (assuming they haven’t seen or played it before). After that everyone’s expected to practice their parts at home and become more familiar with it so that they don’t have to sightread as much in subsequent rehearsals and pay more attention to the conductor.

By the time the dress rehearsal comes around, everything should be fairly “memorized”, although the music score is still needed since classical pieces are way too long to have every note, every rest, every dynamic marking, etc. etc. memorized. In fact, you also have to look at the annotations that you’ve added based on the conductor’s comments, which may deviate from the composer’s (or editor’s) scoring.

Of course. But it depends on the level of players. In groups I’ve conducted, initial read-throughs were usually pretty painful. It would take three hours to get through 45 minutes of music.

OTOH, I once sang with a professional orchestra. Their read-through was already at performance level. One rehearsal and they were ready. (The chorus, though, took months to prepare.)

Of course I’m not. But you have to be good. I’m just saying that it’s easier to play music when you have a fretboard, keyboard, or sheet music where you can scan ahead to the notes you’re going to play rather than pulling them out of your head as you play them.

I’m still not sure that I agree with you, but I’d like to hear from a brass or woodwind player for a more informed answer.

Wind instruments are not played with thoughts, they are played with a specific combination of pressed keys, embouchure, and force of breath. This provides a terrain that can be every bit as familiar as a keyboard or fingerboard. Even decent singers (which I am not, so I’m going by what others have told me) have a familiar terrain that they can feel in their throats. Though I can’t sing well, even I can sing a song while thinking ten notes down the road.

In that situation? Because it would be one more thing to have to lug down to the subway, and because it would be pointless if you were playing short pieces you’d already memorized. Why add any unnecessary elements?

That depends on the relative ease of the notes on the page ahead of you versus the notes you’re pulling out of your head. I can think of several pages of Bach where the first thoughts in my head are “Holy shit, that’s a lotta ink!!!*”, whereas my improvised solo can be slow, well-chosen whole notes.

  • Al regretto: unrelated to allegretto, the name of a tempo in which the performer discovers, too late, that the easier opening passage has been played way too fast to render the difficult passage remotely possible.

The story goes that when Tommy Flanagan got the leadsheet for Giant Steps, he though it must be a ballad, because who the hell could play it fast?

And that’s why his solo sounds like that.

I’m a wind player who just took up playing guitar. The difference between the terrain of a clarinet and saxophone is entirely different. The strings and frets are a systematic roadmap that just does not exist on a wind instrument. It is not easy to articulate, but with the clarinet, I always knew where I was in time. but with the guitar, I have a real sense of the space that is totally different than the wind experience.

Notes aside, have you ever tried counting 200+ bars’ rest, sprinkled liberally with tempo, metre, and key changes, pauses/fermatas etc.? Even with the sheet music it requires careful concentration. Good copyists will put in recognisable cues from the other parts roughly 8-16 bars before your entry, and conductors can also cue you, but you’ve still got to know exactly where you are. Such is the life of an orchestral brass player. Even in pieces which I know well from listening to them, I wouldn’t dare rely on my memory - I always count before my entry from a prior cue at the very least, and often count every bar from the end of my previous note.