If you’ve ever tried to learn piano, one of the first things you may have been taught is how to read music on a sheet of paper.
This is what a treble clef looks like. The open circles are worth four colored-in circles. Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge.
For most of music history, teachers have convinced students that knowing how to read music is super important. Fundamentally important. As if you won’t be able to play music without knowing how to read notes.
However, as someone who has been teaching music for over 20 years, I’m going to say something controversial: I disagree.
In fact, I believe that you don’t need to read music to play your favorite songs on the piano, to be a musical person, to understand music on a deep level, and to have fun.
I Faked My Way Through My Piano Lessons
Here’s a confession: I didn’t read notes during the first four years of my piano lessons. Instead, I’d listen to what my teacher played, memorized it, then recreated it by ear.
I was a couple of years into my piano lessons before my teacher realized that I had pulled a fast one and really truly couldn’t read a note! I ended up having to repeat an ENTIRE level and she stopped playing the pieces for me before sending me home to learn them. I felt so lost and frustrated.
Eventually, I did learn how to read music. But it was mostly due to social pressure.
Now, I’m not saying that reading music is useless. In fact, knowing how to read music is a very useful skill. And some people really like it — especially if they learn well visually or if they want to learn how to play classical music.
But knowing how to read music isn’t required for everyone. In fact, for some people, it might not be your best use of time. In this post, I’ll explain what I mean when I say you don’t need to know how to read music to play your favorite songs.
A Learning Method for Everyone
For most of history, there was only one way to learn how to play an instrument: you get a teacher and you learn how to read notes.
This is why I usually recommend students learn note-reading around their second or third month of piano, when they already have a basic understanding of chords.
Now, some people do learn better with sheet music. They may find comfort in being told exactly what to play.
Other people (like me), find sheet music anxiety-inducing. We prefer freer structures like chord charts and lead sheets, where there’s room for us to fill in our own notes.
Reading Music: The Advantages
Knowing how to read music definitely has its advantages. As long as there is sheet music available for the music you like, you have all the information you need to play.
And if you like classical music, it’s super neat to play a piece exactly the way it was meant to be played two hundred years ago.
But depending too much on sheet music can be disadvantageous as well.
Reading Music: The Disadvantages
Sheet music is convenient, but if for some reason you can’t access it (because of copyright, price, availability, etc.), what then?
This is where people who can play by ear have an advantage. And while the final product may not be a perfect rendition of the original, well-practiced musicians can get very, very close.
Many of history’s greatest musicians started out this way. The Beatles didn’t know how to read music, and Mozart was said to have recreated complex pieces by ear as a teenager.
But what if you want to compose your own music? Before recording was a thing, knowing how to communicate your ideas with pen and paper was definitely useful. But today, it’s easy to record things using your phone, and many singer-songwriters write music with only chord charts.
And there are many cultures with rich musical traditions that never developed a notation system. So, no, you don’t need to know music notation to write your own music!
Ear Training Tips for Note Readers
So, what if you’re a note reader who’s interested in developing their ear? Perhaps you had classical piano lessons as a kid, then saw a jazz pianist improvise, and thought, “WOW! How did they do THAT?!”
Just like learning how to read notes, learning to play by ear takes practice. But here are some tips to help you get started:
An interval is the distance between two notes. By knowing what certain intervals sound like, you can quickly find melodies. This same method can be used to find chord progressions by ear.
The best way to learn intervals is to play and then listen to them. You can also associate intervals with songs like:
- Minor 2nd: Jaws theme
- Perfect 4th: Wedding March
- Perfect 5th: Star Wars theme
- Octave: “Over the Rainbow”
Practice With Songs You Know Well
Start with a song that you know very well — preferably, a song that you can sing. You don’t have to be a fantastic singer, you just need to be able to recreate the melody. That way, you can check the notes you play against your voice without having to rewind and replay a track constantly.
Find the Key
Often, the note a song’s chorus ends on is its key. Sing that last note, find it on the keyboard, and test if that note is also the key of the song by using diatonic chords. Pro tip: test the I, IV, and V chords first.
Use Lead Sheets and Chord Charts
If you’re not ready to leave sheet music yet, try chord charts and lead sheets first. Chord charts and lead sheets provide some structure, but they also allow plenty of room to be creative.
Tips for Reluctant Note Readers
On the flipside, many of us (including me!) get anxious about reading notes. There’s pressure to play every single note correctly, and the whole process feels clunky, slow, and restrictive. Here are some tips to help you:
You Don’t Need to Read Every Single note
The first thing you need to realize is that you don’t have to read every single note.
Instead, focus on recognizing a few landmark notes very well, and then use those landmarks to navigate the notes around it. A step up from a space to a line means a step up on the keyboard, for example.
It’s kind of like scanning a document — you don’t read every single word in a sentence, but you can get what a sentence means without reading each word.
Look for Patterns
Music is made up of patterns. If you use the landmark notes technique, you’ll naturally start relying on patterns to read sheet music.
You’ll find that scales look a certain way, triads in second inversion look a certain way, and power chords look a certain way. After some practice, you’ll be able to recognize shapes and patterns and play those quickly.
Use Lead Sheets and Chord Charts
Sometimes, sheet music can be useful. But if putting a full grand staff score of music in front of you is intimidating, start small and use chord charts and lead sheets first. This can help you attach note names and visual cues to sound.
Learn the Basics First
Learning to read notes can be overwhelming because there is soooo much to learn. So, start with basic music theory that’s actually useful. You can pick out the details (advanced symbols, Italian terms, other clefs) later.
So…Should You Learn How to Read Music?
The answer to this is the classic “it depends.”
There’s no harm in trying to learn a new skill, but if it frustrates you and you end up dreading the piano as a result, try switching learning methods. In summary…
You may want to learn how to read music if you:
- Want to learn classical music
- Have access to sheet music for the type of music you like
- See sheet music as a guide
- Are a visual person who likes symbols
- Want to get into composing and would like to write music down in standard notation
You may not need to learn how to read music if you:
- Want to learn pop music and maybe jazz
- Can’t find sheet music for your favorite songs
- Get anxious and frustrated with sheet music (it discourages you from playing)
- Have an intuitive ear and prefer recreating music by hearing it
- Want to get into composing and are comfortable using music production software
However you choose to approach reading music, make sure you celebrate your strengths!
If you’re better at recreating music by ear than reading notes, celebrate that! Indeed, some people find playing by ear more difficult to learn than reading notes.
And if you’re better at reading notes, celebrate that too!
At the end of the day, pursue a learning path that will keep you progressing in your piano journey. And practice it. Good luck!
Lisa has been teaching piano for over 20 years. She is the face of Pianote and Singeo, online music courses that give students real feedback from real teachers.
A proponent of mental health, what makes Lisa happy is showing people that they can be musical. She teaches students to express themselves creatively and to find confidence and joy in music.
Very well- written article, Lisa. I agree with everything you said.
I had basic understanding of how to read notes but I played mostly using lead sheets and chord charts. Then there came a time when I wanted to play classical music so I decided to enhance my note-reading skills. Thanks to you and to Pianote – I can play classical music, and at the same time be comfortable with chord charts and lead sheets.😊
I agree with all you said there Lisa. I would also say that as I am classically trained it is very difficult and frustrating to play without music.
I would love to be able to just sit down and play whatever is asked of me at a party for instance; or to just play jazz at a bar or at a station when you see a piano just sitting there unattended.
Firstly I can’t and secondly, I would be terrified without music. I would love to have that skill of playing by ear but learning to read music first has prevented me from doing this, in my case anyway. I agree it would be a lot better to teach children to play what they hear and then concentrate on reading notation if need be. Much more liberating and musicality enhancing.
I love the tips that you give us, like : play the note next to it, or play by ear, etc! which we have never heard before!!! Thanks for all that! Pardon my ignorance: what is a lead sheet as opposed to “sheet music”? Thanks.
The Lead sheet is what Guitar music is presented as. It’s just the melody line with the chords marked underneath. So harmonies are excluded and you play the chords when told to play C7 etc. You have to know your chords and if you want know how to add little tricks to make it sound good; like added thirds or octaves, 7ths etc. That’s my understanding anyway. If you read music, it’s like the difference between a reading prose or viewing pictures with captions or short paragraphs or if you drive; a manual or automatic etc.. A lot easier to read, more difficult to play and sound good, in my opinion anyway.
It is great to hear that you don’t need to be able to read music to have fun at the piano! While being able to read music can certainly be helpful for learning and playing more complex pieces, it is not a requirement for enjoying the piano. In fact, there are many ways to play the piano and make music without relying on sheet music, such as playing by ear or using chord charts. Additionally, there are many online resources and tutorials that can help you learn to play popular songs or improvise on the piano without needing to read music. So, even if you are not a music reading pro, you can still have a great time playing the piano and making music!