The Boon and Burden of Musical Notation

We’ve recently published the final instalment of Ken Johansen’s Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum on the Online Academy which explores the subject of playing by ear. In this guest blog post, Ken discusses how the tendency of Classical musicians to be overly-reliant on musical notation can be detrimental to the development of general musicianship.

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Many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives as musicians are actually marvels of human discovery and ingenuity – the tonal harmonic system, the piano keyboard, and musical notation, just to name three of them. That human beings were able to invent a system of symbols that can represent even the most complex musical creations, preserve those creations for posterity, and allow other musicians to recreate them, is nothing short of miraculous. Without musical notation, the whole history of western Classical music could not have developed as it has.

Because nearly everything is written down in Classical music, the score becomes a thing of great importance. Musicians seek out the best editions, study them with scrupulous attention, and try to interpret the intentions of the composers as faithfully as they can. Students work hard at developing fluency in reading musical notation and deciphering all the symbols on the page in real time at their instruments. This is all as it should be, as these attitudes and skills are essential requirements of competency and proficiency in the performance of Classical music.

Yet our dependence on musical notation can also become a burden. In our quest to be accurate and faithful to the score, we may read it too literally, forgetting that the score is not the music, only a representation of it, and can never tell us everything we need to know about how to play it. Rather than interacting imaginatively with the score, we risk becoming mere followers of instructions. This deference to the score leads some young musicians even to distrust their own musical instincts. Not infrequently, I have heard students play notes that are obviously misprints quite literally, because “that’s what’s written.” Similarly, students are more inclined to play grace notes and other ornaments the way they look on the page, or the way an editor suggests they should be played, than to use their instincts to tell them what sounds good. They are also prone to play with an unwavering metronomic beat rather than trust their own feeling for expressive tempo fluctuation, something that is difficult to indicate with notation.

But more serious than these details is the deleterious effect an over-reliance on musical notation has on general musicianship. Because we rely so heavily on written scores, many Classical musicians are unable to play anything at all unless it is completely written down for us. Most conservatory piano majors can learn to play Chopin etudes and Beethoven sonatas, but very few of them can sit down and improvise a few chords to try out an unfamiliar piano, transpose a hymn for a church service, or accompany Christmas carols by ear at a holiday party. Given a partial score, such as a progression in Roman numerals, a figured bass, or a lead sheet, they tentatively search for notes, as if reading a foreign language. In sight-reading, few are able, or willing, to wing it by improvising or simplifying when the going gets tough, so accustomed are they to playing all the notes on the page literally.

These students are not to blame for their discomfort in playing without scores; they simply have never received instruction in playing by ear or improvising. Modern piano pedagogy tends to favour the development of instrumental technique over general musicianship, so most piano lessons do not include this kind of training. Yet there is great satisfaction in being able to play without a score, or with only an incomplete score. It brings a sense of freedom and creativity that is frequently lacking in the playing of today’s young pianists, who often seem weighed down by the duty of being accurate and “correct” in their performance. The ability to play without a score on the music stand leads naturally to exploration, improvisation, and perhaps composing. Even if we only play something simple, it is our own creation. There are no wrong notes, no incorrect interpretations, no feeling of heavy responsibility. It feels as if we are speaking the language of music rather than just reading it.

Ironically, the freedom gained from playing without scores makes our playing with scores more spontaneous and enjoyable. In fact, the ability to improvise is a major contributor to facility in sight-reading. An improvisational comfort with the instrument, and with the musical language, allows the sight-reading pianist to follow the broad outlines and general mood of the music, simplifying or altering difficult passages where necessary, without getting bogged down by the details of notation. It is for this reason, and for all the reasons mentioned above, that I include playing by ear as part of my sight-reading class at the Peabody Conservatory. Many of my students find this to be one of the most enjoyable and beneficial parts of the curriculum. For me, it is always a great pleasure to see a little bit of the burden of musical duty being lifted from their shoulders.

– Ken Johansen


The last instalment of the Advanced Sight Reading Curriculum, Playing by Ear, is available with an Online Academy subscription or for once-off purchase from our store here. Please click here to find out more about subscription options, or click here to view the series index if you are already a subscriber.

About the Advanced Sight-Reading Curriculum

Created by Ken Johansen and derived from his experience in teaching the subject to piano majors at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, the tips and techniques provided come from over 20 years of trying to discover what best helps students to improve their sight-reading.

Sight-reading is an important skill but is difficult to teach and develop. The traditional approach is to simply practice doing it as much as possible in the hope of improvement. While this does yield some results, it can also be daunting and frustrating. Our new curriculum provides an alternative, structured approach to developing the key skills that underpin a good sight-reading ability.

How it works 

  • Each module begins with an introduction on how to practice the particular skill at hand
  • A collection of scores, twenty to thirty pieces in most modules, are provided for practising the skill
  • Each piece is annotated with specific instructions and suggestions, to help students practice in a deliberate way, with clear goals
  • Students can select pieces and exercises that suit their current ability from the full collection
  • The curriculum can be worked through individually, unsupervised by a teacher, or used in the context of a class

Click here to view the introduction to the series.


Stolen Time & Musical Expression

Understanding Tempo Rubato

Rubato (literally meaning “stolen time”) is often thought of as something that is added on top of a performance to create expression rather than an intrinsic part of it. In his recent presentation in our PTC Live series of online workshops, Kris Worsely explored the origins of tempo rubato and discussed how a better understanding of the musical language of composers can unlock its expressive potential.

Pre-romantic Origins

We tend to think of rubato as being largely associated with the romantic period, but elements of what we would call rubato can be traced back to as early as the 9th century! Although there were subtle differences in how it was used, it was very much a feature of music performance in both the baroque and classical periods.

In the 16th century publication, The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione talks about the idea of nonchalance in the context of dance, almost as an element of performance. If one was to approach a dance by counting the steps and doing everything at the right time, there’s no sense of humanity. This also applies to music – simply rendering the dots on the page in a calculated, mechanical fashion is not music making!

Nonchalance, dance & recitative

In the baroque period, rubato mostly appears in vocal music or music which is imitating the voice. This often takes the form of the recitative which uses the free rhythms of speech for expression and to give emphasis to particular notes. Even though written for the keyboard, CPE Bach writes “recitative” as an instruction in his Prussian Sonatas:

tempo rubato in CPE Bach

Ebb and flow

Many teachers in the 18th century taught that there had to be some flexibility with regards to tempo to allow for expression, albeit with the advice that it is not done to too high a degree. Changes in tempo for expressive purposes should be subtle and almost imperceptible.

However, the use of tempo rubato in earlier eras is slightly different from what we’d think of today. In his vocal treatise of 1723, Tosi talks about giving particular emphasis to notes and using subtly redistributed or inflected note values against a steady pulse in the accompaniment.

In 1756 Leopold Mozart published his treatise on the fundamentals of violin playing and in it, says that it’s possible as a concerto soloist to be slightly behind or ahead of the orchestral accompaniment. He also advises the conductor to ignore the soloist and allow them to be expressive with that ebb and flow.

In this video excerpt from his workshop recording, Kris shows how rubato is already written into Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Rondo in A Minor (K511) and doesn’t needed to be “added”:

If you would like to learn more about rubato and it’s use in from the baroque period through to the music of Chopin then you can purchase access to the recording of Kris’s March presentation here. In his next presentation on Sunday 14th May, Kris will be discussing composers who advocated later styles of rubato, including Hensel, Brahms and Rachmaninov. Click here for more information on this event.

PTC Live

The Piano Teachers’ Course UK is pleased to offer a new series of online workshops for piano players and teachers. Hosted in partnership with Informance Publishing, these workshops will give you new ideas, inspiration and practical tips wherever you might be on your pianistic journey!

Learning Phasing, Understanding Rubato & Performance Anxiety

Our fourth set of workshops in this series takes place on Sunday 14th May with presentations by Ilga Pitkevica on learning and teaching phrasing, Kris Worsley on understanding rubato in late romantic composers and Lucinda Mackworth-Young on strategies for dealing with performance anxiety. Click here to find out more.

Further information and links to purchase recordings for the previous events in this series are available here.