Everyone wants to play the piano, but the fear is often centered around note reading. You’ve probably felt that reading music is the only way to play an instrument, and that can make it tough for anyone to get started with the piano.
So, can you play piano without reading music? Yes, you can play the piano without reading music by listening to music and memorizing which pattern of keys to play. Not being able to read music limits what songs you can play. Most music is written in notation, so you will need to learn how to read it to be able to play anything new.
Although you can play the piano without reading music, it’s not the best way to become proficient at it. There are many benefits to note reading, and it should be the primary way you play the piano, not the secondary option.
Not having the ability to read music can make it tough to learn other genres of music like Classical and Jazz and Contemporary music. It can also really hinder your progress, making it slower to learn a single piece.
There are however many benefits to learning the piano without reading notes, as long as it’s done the right way. Below I’ll share some tips on how to play the piano without reading music, as well as tips to help you with note reading.
The Disadvantages Of Playing Piano Without Reading Music
Playing piano without reading music is actually more difficult than reading notation. The problem is that you’ll be extremely reliant on your musical ear.
If you have not had any sort of ear training, or lack perfect or relative pitch, then this will be extremely difficult to do. Most musicians who play by ear also have an extensive background in reading music too.
Even if they don’t have perfect pitch, they can use their theoretical knowledge to strategically locate pitches, build harmonies, and ultimately play a piece without the music in front of them.
It takes an exceptionally gifted pianist to be able to play music without ever having to look at it. Even classical pianists at some point have to have read the music and internalized it so they can perform from memory.
If a pianist is trying to learn music from a poor recording then it makes it even more difficult to successfully learn the music.
The Benefits Of Reading Music For Piano
There are many benefits to reading music for the piano. For one, pianists are able to gain a lot of musical knowledge by being able to look at the sheet music.
Pianists are able to analyze how the music is structured, and how the harmonies relate between one another. The sheet music also has very precise rhythms, fingering, dynamics, and articulations to help the musician capture the full character of the piece.
If the pianist is going to play with a group of people, then the sheet music helps during times of rehearsal, or for help understanding others parts more clearly.
The biggest benefit though of reading music for the piano is that it doesn’t confine you to just a few pieces you can learn by ear. Instead, you’ll be able to read anything you want, giving you an opportunity to learn thousands of songs.
If you were to just only rely on listening to music and there was no recording available for a particular piece, then you would be effectively stuck! Reading music also cuts down on the amount of time it will take to learn a piece.
For example, if you wanted to learn an entire Beethoven Sonata by ear, it may take you months and years to try to figure the entire piece out.
However, if you learned to read sheet music properly, you’ll be able to learn several pages of the Beethoven Sonata in a matter of days.
Reading sheet music can be both a primary way to learn music as well as a supplemental addition to someone who wants to also do it by ear. Check out this complete guide on how to read piano sheet music in just 11 easy steps.
The Downsides Of Reading Music
Much like playing music by ear has its disadvantages, so does note reading.
There are many pianists out there who are so reliant on note reading that they do not have a developed ear at all. This means they cannot play music without seeing any sort of sheet music which is tough.
This goes back to how they were taught by their piano teacher. There’s really no excuse for it either as many of today’s method books put a huge emphasis on ear training and note dictation.
Sometimes people who read sheet music take the composers recommendations and markings too literally. Creativity in music is much easier to achieve when the music is not in front of you.
This is the main reason why most classical pianists play concerts from memory so that they can have fewer distractions and more expression in their performances.
Even outside of the classical field, it’s not ideal to read notation if you were playing with a rock band or playing a gig with others.
If someone gets ahead or behind a measure, it makes it really difficult for the person reading the sheet music to jump back into the right spot. In situations like this note reading just gets in the way.
Should I Read Music Or Play By Ear?
Ultimately the method of learning the piano is up to you. The best thing you could do is to learn how to play the piano both ways. Reading music is where you should begin, and then you should compliment that with learning music by ear.
Pianists who approach learning the instrument this way will have much better success and fewer difficulties becoming great at both. A really good piano training course like this one will teach you all the principles you need to know to become great at the instrument.
Tips For Playing Piano By Ear
While I think primarily learning to play the piano by ear is a mistake, there are some benefits to it.
For one, having a well developed musical ear is important to your development as a musician. Being able to hear harmonies and work out rhythms without having to look at music is really helpful during practice, and especially when memorizing a piece for performance.
Here are a few tips that will help you make better use of playing the piano by ear.
Use High-Quality Recordings
If you plan to replicate a piece successfully, the quality of the recording must also be good. Try to play music from a CD rather than a YouTube video or streaming platform.
Also, make sure to use high-quality speakers or headphones with a wide range of frequency response so that you can hear all of the high notes as well as the tone quality of the low notes.
If you were to use cheap headphones then chances are you’ll lose a lot of the quality and even miss out on crucial notes that are int he piece.
Learn Music In Segments
The biggest part of learning music by ear is to not rush the process. Our brains can only process so much information at a time, and it’s not different with music.
Start off by learning the music in small segments of 5 to 10 seconds or less. Work on hands separate first and then put the hands together.
What you’ll discover by doing this is that you can allocate some notes to one hand that you otherwise may have put into both. Once you’ve learned at least 30 seconds of music, take a break and come back to it the next day.
This gives yourself a chance to internalize the music and to have a fresh start with the rest of the song on a new day. Here are some helpful tips to help you memorize music faster.
Cross Reference With The Sheet Music
Even though you’re learning music without reading it, it helps to cross-reference with the sheet music. Even some basic note reading skills will enable you to do this effectively.
Look through the music and find the parts where you were unsure of some of the chords and melodies. Slowly play through those parts just to make sure you’re on the right track.
For this to work, your arrangement needs to be in the same key signature and meter as the recording so there is no confusion. This method works well with classical music, however, with more popular tunes the arrangements can vary widely.
If you’re not comfortable reading notes, it may be a better idea to use a simple chord chart.
Hum As You Play
Humming or singing as you play really helps with memory. On top of that, it also helps with figuring out which notes should come next in the melody. There have been many times where I’ve hummed a melody but the note I played did not match my tone.
Doing so helped me figure out that I was playing the wrong key and needed to make an adjustment. I think you’ll find it really helps the more you play the piano.
You can always use humming or singing as a way to solidify your playing.
Try Not To Look Down As You Play
The piano is a very visual instrument, however getting comfortable playing without reading music can be tricky. A strategy I’ve used is to never look down when I play.
I find that when you look down you become too reliant on what you see happening. This can really cause issues in the event that you mess up or miss a note. Doing so could throw your entire arrangement off and make it hard to recover during the song.
This is why pianists should also learn through feeling the distance they have to travel across notes. You can start off by learning a piece by looking at the keys in segments. Shortly after, try to replicate that entire section with your eyes closed.
This kind of laser-focused concentration will make you more successful at playing without reading music.
Tips For Reading Piano Music
Reading piano music can seem scary at first, but it’s actually quite simple with practice. Here are a few tips that will help you become more proficient at it.
Learn The Musical Alphabet
The musical alphabet is crucial to piano playing. The alphabet starts with A and ends at G before the pattern starts over again. An easy way to know the location of these notes is to find the pattern of 2 and 3 black keys.
Each day you should review these notes, and then also locate them in the different registers. There are many easy piano beginner books like these that teach you how to do this the right way from the beginning.
This is perhaps the biggest hurdle any new pianist will have to overcome outside of putting the hands together.
Study Music Flashcards
Flashcards are a quick way to memorize the location of the music notes on the staff. Start with at least 3 flashcards and everyday study where they are located both on the staff and on the piano.
Add a card or two every time you practice until you’ve learned all the important pitches. As you start to read through sheet music you’ll find it significantly easier to pick out where to put your hands because of the extra practice.
Sight Read Something Every Day
Sight reading is a great way to learn new music quickly. The more you do the better you will become at knowing where to place your hands and the distance your fingers need to travel.
Each day work on reading at least 8 to 16 measures of new music. The goal is to not stop or go backward. Sight reading is primarily about keeping your eyes moving while trying to maintain as much accuracy as possible.
Playing easy piano music is great in the beginning, but ultimately it will not develop you. Each week you should try to challenge yourself with new music so you do not hit a plateau.
The music can use some of the same concepts that you already know, but it may also utilize some techniques you are unfamiliar with as well.