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.

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