Using Sheet Music Effectively

Sheet music has highly appropriate uses. It also has highly inappropriate uses. The amateur musician needs to know how to make good use of it, and how to steer clear of its pitfalls. This article is intended to provide that guidance.

Originally published 2001


Coming to music late in life has had one advantage. As a practicing philosopher and software designer, I’ve had a fair amount of practice in coming to grips with complex ideas and making sense out of things. That I did only a little music early in my life has left me unbiased, as it were, with respect to what works and what doesn’t. (For more about how and why I began to immerse myself in this culture, see How I Got Started.)

The limited time available has made it important to figure out what goals to aim for, and how best to go about achieving them. The question of “playing by ear” vs. “reading sheet music” has been a major topic of interest for quite some time.

A lot of the material in this section assumes a familiarity with Irish Music, although the principles would seem to be applicable to a variety of musical styles. For a quick introduction to the genre, see Introducing Irish Music.

The Different Ways to Use Sheet Music

After thinking about for quite a bit, here in a nutshell is my take on sheet music:

  1. It’s great for learning a tune — at times.
  2. It’s super for fixing the broken bits.
  3. It’s fine for a fast refresher of how a tune goes.
  4. But using sheet music to “play the tune” is just plain wrong.

I’ll expand on those uses just a bit before diving into the heart of the matter — why you don’t want to depend on sheet music to play a tune, and how you can use sheet music most effectively in your practice sessions.

1. It’s great for learning a tune.
This is true when no one you know has ever played it before. A lot of great tunes have undoubtedly been lost because they were never written down, and the last person that knew them died off. Written versions can help preserve such pieces. On the other hand, if someone you know can play the tune, then you are better off listening to it and learning it by ear. (That process is covered in Learning to Play By Ear.)

On the other hand, there is Darwinian selection process in effect in traditional music. The *really* great tunes keep getting played, so they survive. Still, there are bound to be some quality gems in the set of written-but-unplayed tunes.

2. It’s super for fixing the broken bits.
You can consult the sheet music to fill in a gap, correct an error, or remember how a tricky bit goes. As a reference material, it can’t be beat, because your eye can take you right to the part you want a lot faster than you can find it on a recording, or convince a friend to play it for you.
3. It’s fine for a fast refresher of how a tune goes, before playing it.
In fact, reviewing the sheet music (without playing it) is a super exercise — because it builds the most valuable sheet-reading skill there is — the ability to read a score and hear the music in your head. You’ll find out more about that later on, in the section that describes how an intermediate musician can best make use of sheet music.
4. But to sit there staring at the music to “play the tune” is just plain wrong.

Next, we’ll go into why that is so.

Why You Don’t Want to Play from Sheet Music

There are several reasons for not playing from sheet music. Here are two of the most important:

  • Music is a vocabulary
  • Music is (or should be) interactive
  • You need to develop the “hear/play” reflex

Music is a Vocabulary

One important reason to break your dependence on sheet music is that musical notes constitute a vocabulary. Playing a tune is expressing yourself with that vocabulary. But reading from a page isn’t expressing yourself — it’s reading from a page.

Imagine going to a play and watching people read from the script. A session with sheet music is like that.

Playing by Ear vs. Memorizing

It’s important to note that playing without the sheet music (playing by ear) does not mean “memorizing the tune”. Sheet readers think, “I just have to play this often enough to memorize it, and then I’ll put away the sheet music”. (I know they do, because I used to think that!) But it doesn’t work that way.

In the first place, there are way too many tunes to memorize them all. In the second place, a “memorized tune” is the same as a tune that is read from sheet music — it’s the exact same thing, time after time, until it gets so boring that neither the audience or the musicians can stand it any more.

At a dance, I once heard a tune repeated 30 some times, without a single variation. Now, normally a tune is repeated only twice, before going to the next tune. But since the group was composed of intermediate American musicians, there weren’t any other tunes in the set! That would have been ok, even then, except that the tune was repeated note for note every time!

Music is Interactive

The whole point of playing music is to interact — and engage with — others, including folks who are not musicians themselves!

I once went to a party where a couple of people brought sheet music to work on together. They spent most of the time in a corner by themselves, eyes glued to the music. Near the end of the party, they came out and gave a “performance”, to the acclaim of all.

It was nice, in a way. But how much more fun would they have had if they were playing whatever they happened to know, and were free to look up and engage with others?

I was at the same party, with the 2 or 3 tunes I knew well enough to play “off book”, as they say, and a couple of dozen others I could follow along with, either by ear, or because I could read the fingering of another player. (Yeah. That’s cheating. Sue me.)

So while they were in a corner, I was giving the party a little “lift”, with a bit of musical accompaniment — and enjoying the party myself. Of course, with only a few tunes under my belt, there was a limit to how big a lift I could give! But if we knew different tunes, and took turns leading, we could have spent a few hours sharing and learning from each other.

You Need to Develop the “Hear/Play” Reflex

Secondly, playing without the sheet music means a lot more than memorizing a series of finger positions. It means hearing what you’re playing an instant before you play it.

Now, if you are just learning to play, that process involves a lot of struggle. You hear the note in your head, but you put your finger in the wrong place. Or you don’t hear the note far enough in advance to get your finger to the right place in time.

But those mistakes are wonderful!! In each case, you are learning — learning important skills that will one day make it possible for you to interpret the music — to play it with subtle variations in timing, to add ornamentation, to write your own tunes, and to play variations on others.

That process also builds your listening skills. It makes it possible to hear what the fellow next to you is doing in the session. You might hear a variation you like better, and decide to copy it (as ethnomusicologist Chris Smith once pointed out). Or you’ll be able to hear the tune and mentally subtract the ornamentation, to get the basic skeleton. Or maybe you’ll hear whether you’re in tune! (Not a bad idea under any circumstances.)

The reason all of that becomes possible is that you spent time making those mistakes, learning how to hear a tune in your head slightly in advance of when you play it, and learning to finger the desired pitch in a built-in, reflexive action that connects the sound in your head with a position on the instrument. That “hear/play” reflex that translates an inner sound to an outer expression is the skill you really want!

When you play off the page so many times that you have the piece memorized, what you’ve done is built up a series of fingering actions until they have become a reflex. And you’ve acquired the ability to translate notes on the page (what you see) into fingering motions. We might call those “fingering pattern” reflex (where more complex patterns are built on top of smaller component patterns) and the “see/play” reflex (where you see patterns and translate them into digit manipulations).

Sheet Music: A Snapshot in Time

Sheet music does carry with it one danger, in fact. At a cultural level, it tends to “freeze” things that are, in their natural state, fairly liquid.

The sheet music version of a tune represents one person’s recording of that tune, at one point in time, in one place. Now, tunes evolve over time. In different regions, they evolve differently. So the same tune from one region may be played quite a bit differently in another region.

Over the several hundred years that a tune is in existence, a note could easily be added or subtracted here and there, creating the version we presently think of as “the” tune.

Then too, as a player evolves, they may play the tune with more embellishments, or possibly with fewere, and write down their favorite variation.

Finally, advanced players typically never play a tune the same way twice in a row. They add ornaments, vary the timing, and play subtle variations. In other words, as Chris Smith once mentioned in conversation, the concept of a “tune” is in fact a collection of tune fragments, and variations on those fragments. The way you select the individual fragments and string them together to make a rendition of the “tune” constitutes your interpretation of the music.

Clearly, sheet music can only record so much. It has no method for recording the huge number of possible variations for even a simple tune. Reading sheet music can therefore put you in the trap of thinking there is a single “right” version of the tune — and that you have it!

I once experienced that circumstance. In a neighboring town, there was a dance teacher who had generously devoted years of his life to teaching the art of Irish dancing to college students. He took the time and trouble to create a manual for his students, to help them learn the dances. Years later, a collection of them were at a ceili (social dance) hosted by Valerie Deam — a native of Ireland who taught the dances as they were danced in her native Waterford. She was astounded and amazed when she overheard those college students saying to each other, with arms crossed and heads shaking, “Nope. That’s wrong. That’s not the way it goes.” (True story!!)

Sheet music carries with it the same trap. If it makes you think you “know the tune” and you aren’t listening for the way its being played by the fellow next to you — who just happens to be steeped in the tradition!

Those are valuable skills, to be sure. But in that process, your head is not involved in the sound. And that lack of involvement produces a deadly, mechanical precision that takes the life out of a tune as surely as it puts skill into the fingers!

The only way to develop that “hear/play” reflex is to play tunes that are in your head, and pick them out on your instrument. That process is covered more fully in Playing By Ear. The main point in all this is to make sure you are not depending on the sheet music when practicing — and certainly not when playing in a session, be in a slow session or the more normal, hell-bent-for-leather session. However, even though you don’t want to be dependent on sheet music, there are still highly appropriate ways to make use of it. We’ll cover those next.

How to Use Sheet Music Effectively

With all of the foregoing in mind, the appropriate uses for sheet music spring readily to mind. We’ll cover that in three stages, giving the kinds of uses that are appropriate for:

  • The advanced musician
  • The intermediate musician
  • The beginning musician

(Even if you’re not intermediate or advanced, it’s good to know what you’ll be able to do in the future, and what you should be working towards. That knowledge helps to keep you moving in the right direction. So read on!)

First though, lets talk about how you can learn to hear sheet music.

Learning to Hear Sheet Music

The techniques for using sheet music effectively all revolve around your ability to hear the sheet music in your head. When you can do that, you are always playing by ear, whether you are using sheet music or not!

This point was brought to light by a physics professor at Stanford who also plays piano and conducts. In a conversation on the relative merits of sheet music, he explained that he sees the music, he hears it in his head. At the time, that pronouncement came as a revelation because I hadn’t know it to be possible.

The best way to learn to read sheet music in that manner is to read along while it’s being played!

The internet is a huge boon, in this process. There are collections of midi files, mp3 files, and abc files, all of which can be used to play the tune. At the same time, there are images of the sheet music created by transcribing those tunes (as well as software capable of doing the transcriptions.) With the sheet music in hand, you can then play the recording and follow along, note for note.

In the process, you’ll like find that sheet music often doesn’t look the way it sounds, rhythmically. For example, a dotted quarter and an eighth note are tied to each visually in sheet music, but they are tied to their adjacent notes rhythmically. So what you see is dum-da, dum-da, dum-da, but what you hear is dum, da-dum, da-dum da. That’s one of the things that makes sheet music tricky. If you’re visually oriented in the first place, it can be really hard to hear it right!

Advanced Musician

If you’re an advanced musician, and you’ve never heard the tune before, you can use sheet music to see how a tune goes. If you’re really good, you’ll read the music and hear it in your head. Otherwise, you can play what’s written a phrase at a time, and put the pieces together to get the tune.

The idea here is to use the sheet music to get the tune into your head. Once you’ve got it in your head, and you can sing or hum it to yourself (even if no one else can hear), then set aside the sheet music and find the tune on your instrument.

This works for an advanced musician, because the written representation of a tune is subtly different from the way it is actually played. This is especially true in traditional music where, for example, music written in 4/4 time may actually be played as syncopated, dotted-quarter + eighth notes. It’s also true in classical music, where the interpretation an artist brings to the music can make a world of difference in how it sounds. So the “advanced musician” we are talking about here is one who is familiar with the genre and familiar with the process of interpreting the music.

Of course, the advanced musician can also use sheet music the same that an intermediate or beginning musician would.

Intermediate Musician

If you’ve acquired a bit of skill, you can use the sheet music to refresh yourself on the melody — for example, when you remember the title and know you like the tune, but you can’t for the life of you remember how it starts off.

At first, you’ll probably need to play what you’re reading in order to hear how it goes. But the best way to refresh a tune with sheet music is to force yourself to read the melody without playing the tune.

In fact, reviewing the sheet music (without playing it) is a super exercise. It’s worth practicing on tunes you know well, because it builds the most valuable sheet-reading skill there is: the ability to read a score and hear the music in your head. Once you can do that, you’re at the point where you be totally effective with sheet music, because you’ll be putting the tune into your head first (the first and most important prerequisite for playing by ear). You’ll then be transferring what you hear in your inner ear to your instrument. And that is the fundamental skill for all improvisation, interpretation, ornamentation, and composition.

Of course, you can also use sheet music the same way a beginner would.

Beginning Musician

If you’re a beginner, you won’t have enough command of the instrument to make out the tune from the sheet, so you should use the sheet music to check yourself. When you sit down to play, work on whatever tune is going around in your head.

I frequently find that after working on one tune, later on I have another tune in my head that uses some of the same notes. Or I’ll wake up with a tune in my head that starts with many of the same notes I was playing the day before!

Then, after you’ve picked out the tune to the best of your ability, use the sheet music to check yourself. Did you get it right? Did you leave anything out? And the best to do that review is to read the music without playing it. Once again, that builds the skill of hearing sheet music in your head.

With the tune fresh in your mind, you should be able to hear it from the page. And as you mentally compare your fingering with the written notes, you’ll be able to spot any omissions or errors. Use the sheet music to play those sections, and see how they sound, in the same way that you would get feedback from a teacher.

You have to watch out. Sometimes the sheet music is for a different version of the tune than the one you have in your head. That’s one reason is a good idea to start off with a group, or with a teacher, so you know that the tune you want to play (assuming you’ve got it right!) is the same as the one your page!

It’s slow going, at first. But it gets faster over time. (For more pointers on the process, see Learning to Play By Ear.)

When you have to, you can always cheat to find out what that bloomin’ note is that doesn’t seem to be anywhere on your instrument. Cheating is especially useful when the tune jumps several steps. Notes that are close to each other are easiest to find. Notes that are farther away are harder to find.

But it’s called “cheating” for a reason. It’s because you’re only cheating yourself. The trial and error process of finding those jumps develops your ear so you hear them. That makes it easier to find them in the future.

Still, at the beginning when everything is hard, it makes sense to cheat a little. You’ve got to manage the complexity of the task, so it stays in the realm of the possible.


Work towards independence from the printed page as quickly as you can. You’ll find a whole new world waiting for you: A world where you have musical ideas going through your head as you move through your day, and where the ideas come pouring out through your instrument when you sit down to play; A world where you can improvise and express your emotions through your instrument, using the language of music — a language that is further from the head and closer to the heart than any other language we have.

Copyright © 2001-2017, TreeLight PenWorks

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