Don’t Rely On Sheet Music

In my years of teaching piano, the following fallacy has been prevalent among what I affectionately call “wannabe” piano players: reading notes well is a requirement to becoming a good piano player.

If you want to make a living as a concert pianist, that is true. Assuming your interest lies in playing just about any other style—pop, jazz, blues, country, or gospel—for recreation, then it is not.

You can be good reader and a good player, and you can be a terrible reader and a good player. Interestingly, you can also be a great reader and a terrible piano player. Those are the people who say, when you ask them to play, “Sorry, I didn’t bring my music.”


The tail started wagging the dog when notation became more important than what it recorded. Don’t rely on sheet music. It’s not even music; it’s music notation, simply a recording device. Music is what you listen to, not what you read. Traditional music notation was developed before technology existed to record anything aurally. It was a good way to hand music down, and it does an especially good job recording what we call “classical” music. However, notation doesn’t record popular music very well. An analogy is of a translator forced to improvise because words simply don’t exist in the other language. Similarly, traditional music notation doesn’t contain the “words” to accurately describe the swing of Oscar Peterson or the funky syncopation of Dr. John. Notation is an aid in telling you what notes to play. It just can’t tell you how to play them.

Guitarists solved this problem with “tablature,” notation that uses graphic symbols, or “words” needed to accurately describe the things that are required of a guitar player to play popular styles correctly. Although piano players haven’t resorted to tablature, those who play non-classical styles professionally have for years used a style of notation that, unfortunately, is rarely taught by traditional piano teachers. “Lead sheet notation” was not developed to be a “shortcut,” it was developed to allow a non-classical player to play the tune well versus read the tune well.

Most beginners spend much time and effort trying to become good notation readers when, in fact, they are trying to become good players. The vast majority of students never get to have fun playing what they want to play, so they drop out and consider themselves a failure. But they are failed notation readers, not failed piano players. The piano wasn’t the problem—it was the sheet music!

When was the last time you saw some pianist out working a gig in a dining room or lounge reading a piece of sheet music? Never, right! No one has ever walked up to me after a gig and said “Boy, Scott, you were just reading up a storm tonight!” Instead I might hear, “You were playing great tonight.”

I have found lead sheets to be a great way to get a majority of students to a point where they can have fun playing keyboards right away. Don’t forget, your ultimate goal is to become a good recreational player, not a note reader. Don’t let the tail wag the dog and think that sheet music is more than what it is: a not-very-exact way to record non-classical music.

—Visit Scott Houston’s Web site at

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