Don’t Read Music? That’s OK …

Don’t Let the Tail Wag the Dog in Your Quest to Play Piano.

In my years of giving live workshops and hearing from thousands of viewers of my television programs, one constant fallacy has remained prevalent among what I affectionately call “wannabe” recreational piano players.

That fallacy is: Being a good note reader is a requirement to becoming a good piano player.

If you want to become a concert pianist and play concerts with symphony orchestras for a living, or make a living as an accompanist, then that probably is true. But assuming your interest lies instead in playing just about any and every other style, be it pop, jazz, blues, country, gospel, etc. for purely recreational reasons, then I disagree heartily with that belief. I would like to dispel that myth for many of you pining to start playing more piano, yet feeling hamstrung due to your lack of note reading prowess.

Although you can be good reader and a good player, you can also be a terrible reader and a good player. Even more interesting (or frustrating for those to whom this applies) is the case of being a great reader and a terrible piano player. Those tend to be the people who, when you ask them to sit down and play a tune, reply “Oh, I’d love to, but I didn’t bring my music.”

Somewhere along the line, the tail started wagging the dog when we started regarding music notation – ink on paper – and the ability to read it with more importance than what it was recording – the music itself. Sheet music isn’t music – it is music notation. Music is what you listen to, not what you read. Sheet music is simply a recording device.

I think it is important to realize that traditional music notation was developed long before the technology existed to record anything aurally. It was the only way you could hope to record and preserve something to give to someone else. Not surprisingly, it does a very adequate job of describing the popular music of the era when it was developed, that which we now call “classical” music.

However, for the popular music of this era, traditional music notation is at best a somewhat crude, not very accurate way to record on paper what is occurring in the aural dimension. The analogy is of a translator being forced to improvise while translating from one language to another because the words simply don’t exist in the other language. Similarly, there are myriad situations when traditional music notation doesn’t contain the “words” to accurately describe the music being played in many popular genres. How do you notate accurately the incredible swing feel of Oscar Peterson’s melodic lines while improvising, or the great, funky syncopation of great New Orleans Style players like Dr. John?  The answer is: you can’t.  The “words” simply don’t exist in the language of traditional music notation. The fact is, for non-classical styles of music, even if you become a good notation reader, traditional sheet music will not give you the information you need to play the style correctly due to the lack of “words” in traditional notation to describe non-classical techniques. Let there be no mistake, notation is an incredible aid in telling you what notes to play. It just can’t tell you how to play them.

Guitar players finally confronted this situation head-on years ago when they developed an entirely new type of notation known as tablature, which contains the 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 an entirely new “language” of notation like 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. It is called lead sheet notation and is dramatically easier to read. It was not developed to be easier as a “shortcut.” It was developed to allow a player of non-classical music to get to what is important, which is playing the tune well versus reading the tune well.

Because of this, I feel it tragic and sad that most beginners spends such an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to become good sheet music readers when, in fact, what they are trying to do is become good players. The vast majority of beginning students never get to a level of proficiency that allows them to have fun playing things they want to play, and thus, they drop out and consider themselves a failure at being able to play the piano. The reality is that they are failed notation readers, not failed piano players. The piano wasn’t the problem… it was the piano music.

Professionals know that their livelihood depends on their playing ability, not on their reading ability. When is 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 (if rarely…), “Boy Scott, you were playing great tonight.”  As silly as that first one sounds, it drives home a great point that should never be forgotten: The objective is to become a good player, not a good reader. I have found lead sheets to be a great way to get the majority of people to a point where they can have fun right away.

Just remember, when it comes to non-classical piano playing… reading piano music does not equal becoming a good piano player. Don’t forget the ultimate goal, which is to become a good recreational player, not a good recreational note reader. Most importantly don’t get the cart before the horse and ever think that sheet music is more than what it is – simply a not-very-exact way to record non-classical music.

Work on becoming a piano player.

38 Comments
  • Jude Baker
    Posted at 16:14h, 20 June Reply

    I am one of those players that can’t sit down and play without sheet music, which includes lead sheets. I have always envied those players that can sit down and just play. I would love to remember a song without having my sheet music in front of me, what suggestions do you have to improve that skill?

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 12:39h, 23 June Reply

      Hi Jude,

      I would suggest forcing yourself to sit down and ONLY play a tunes chord changes (maybe sing along with the melody). If you need to “brute force” memorize it that’s fine. Play through a few bars at a time with a lead sheet, then don’t look at the lead sheet and get those chord changes memorized. Repeat ad nauseam until you get the tune’s changes memorized. What you’ll find out very quickly is that it is not a significant task because chord progressions in a tune tend to happen over and over and over in repeating patterns. Oftentimes there is one 8 measure pattern for the verses and another pattern for the chorus (and sometimes a third for the bridge). In any case, just force yourself to play ONLY the changes of the whole tune from memory while mentally keeping track of where you are by humming or singing the melody along with the chords. Once you have the chord changes learned the melody will just kind of “fall into place.” Trust me – learning the changes to a tune is the “secret.”

      • Tammie Green
        Posted at 18:16h, 15 July Reply

        I have been learning to play several songs and the base line o others however not to the extent needed to play in a public setting. I am using Simply piano at this time. Suggestions, I can read music

        • Hannah Derleth
          Posted at 17:34h, 10 August Reply

          Hi Tammie,

          If you’re pretty good at reading music and you know how to play basic chords, you might consider starting off with Course 2 or 3 with Piano in a Flash. We aren’t too familiar with Simply Piano or what the teaching style is for them, but if you’re already playing both hands together/know some chords, you’re off to a great start.

  • Penni
    Posted at 17:57h, 18 July Reply

    Can we pay you in monthly installments?

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 19:32h, 18 July Reply

      Although that is something we have considered and might try to accomplish in the future, at this point no. However, you can accomplish pretty much the same thing by getting a few Courses at a time versus all 6. You can find the different options available here: pianoinflash.com/pricing

      Hope that helps, and thanks for the interest! 🙂

  • Penni
    Posted at 18:02h, 18 July Reply

    Please clarify that the complete bundle is all the courses. Is that right?

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 19:26h, 18 July Reply

      Yes, that is correct. There are 6 Courses in total and the complete bundle includes all 6. 🙂

  • Sam
    Posted at 12:43h, 13 September Reply

    I would love to take your course but it is out of my reach financially right now. It looks great to me.

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 13:44h, 13 September Reply

      Hi Sam,

      Totally understand. Just in case all you saw was the full Course bundle …

      All 6 Courses at once might be too “pricey” for you but we do offer less expensive buying options. Simply see the pricing page by clicking “Pricing” at the top right of this page.The entire method consists of 6 courses. You can however purchase one course at a time, or the first 2 courses, 1&2, etc. The more you purchase at one time, the cheaper they are per course. Hope that helps.

  • Bob Lavinski
    Posted at 12:16h, 15 September Reply

    interesting scott..ive been playing piano for 63 yrs, raised classically, read like i read a book. it does seem to be true that notation is quite limited. im also a composer, and cant find a way to transcribe my music simply because of what you said..the language isnt there. which leads me to wonder about all these pieces by chopin, beethoven etc etc…wonder if they were really played the way theyre written…much classical has that strict thing about note values. in fact, if you look at some of the stuff chopin wrote, its almost impossible to put it on paper..the best you get ia a 17 note slur oveer top of 6 notes….no one can learn it from reading.. all you get are the notes, not how theyre played. anyway i dont really need lessons (sic), but you did give me something to think about…thanks bob

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 08:47h, 16 September Reply

      All great points Bob! Thanks for chiming in… What a lot of people never realize (or were told) is that Bach and Beethoven et. al. were themselves notorious (in a good way) improvisers. How improvising or embellishing ever came to be seen as “incorrect” when applied to the great master’s works when the the composers themselves played that way is truly a musical mystery.

  • Bobbie Spivey
    Posted at 17:46h, 04 October Reply

    Hi:
    I already know cords I play at Church with my Son he plays guitar another plays bass
    I want to learn melody and runs. can you help me?

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 12:19h, 05 October Reply

      Absolutely Bobbie … The style of piano I teach fits perfectly with more contemporary sacred music, and accompanying yourself or others signing, etc. When you play with a group (as you know) chords are the basis of how you all play together. The other half of the equation it sounds like you need to focus on in the right hand playing off melody lines, and other embellishments when there is a break in the melody. We get into all of that in-depth in all 6 Courses in the method. It’s an integral part of this style of non-classical playing…

  • Wanda
    Posted at 10:36h, 14 August Reply

    Scott I purchased your complete set of play piano in a flash. I do pretty good at playing. The only thing I am having trouble is Playing in time It is hard for me to play as fast as I should but, I am working on that.
    I couldn’t do anything without the books and cd’s I purchased from you.

    Thank you.

  • Neil McNulty
    Posted at 12:52h, 19 November Reply

    I told the piano teacher, who wanted to start with a stubby pencil to chart notes, to forget that, I did not have the patience to learn how to read music, I just want to know what key combinations make what sounds. He replied that it is not possible to play piano without reading music.I replied “Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles cannot read music. Within one year, I could play anything on my Baby Grand, and still only know how to read one note: middle C.

  • Liz
    Posted at 18:45h, 16 February Reply

    Hi Scott, I can attest to the fact that many people can play piano (I also play ukulele and guitar) without needing to read music notation. I’ve played chord progressions by ear for decades. I can play and sing, lead music, etc. It was by ‘accident’ since I couldn’t learn to read music and either I gave up or my teachers did.

  • John
    Posted at 11:36h, 12 July Reply

    Hi Scot
    Your method is just the ticket for me, have tried to play keyboard on off a number of times. Ended up using EZ play today books and Fake books. Have bought your 11 DVD set which I am still working through. I can read music but not at a very fast speed so I mainly play ballad songs, and hymns. With those who have problems in learning to read music. Here is my suggestion to not only to learn to read music but also to learn the song they are working on.

    Get blank music scripts and write out the notes of the song, if whanting to memorise the song, just repeat a measure or two, have a go at the repeating the notes at times by not looking at the song score. I must point out it is not necessary to do the repeating process, but to write out the notes to improve note reading.

    Another method which I use is to have a notation writing package, I use Finale, then have Finale play the song at different tempos.

  • Hassan Bangura
    Posted at 11:07h, 21 July Reply

    Thanks.
    What’s the cost of these lessons and services?

    • Ryan Eldridge
      Posted at 09:59h, 22 July Reply

      Hi Hassan,

      We sell each of our courses for $149 each. To help put the price in perspective, let’s look at Course 1 as an example. Course 1 contains roughly 3-4 months worth of material. 3-4 months worth of traditional, weekly piano lessons, averaging $30 a lesson (which is low-balling it), would cost you over $350-$400 (not including the books, which we provide for free), which for the same amount of material in our Course only costs $149. If you have any more questions, please reach out to us at 833.887.4266 or email us at support@3.136.150.220.

      Ryan
      Support
      Piano In A Flash

  • M J
    Posted at 16:11h, 21 August Reply

    My mother is a 93 year old lovely lady who plays piano EVERY Sunday for her church. She learned to play “by ear” and learned (I imagine) just the way you are describing). Her father was very musical, (church song leader, trumpet player, etc) so she had a natural instinct for music. Please help me learn to play chords!

  • Debra Elliott
    Posted at 19:42h, 08 September Reply

    Hi Scott, I’ve done about 6 months traditional piano tuition and can read music slowly. Am over the bass clef. Want to start chords. Would I need to start at lesson 1 or could I start at 2
    Thanks Debra

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 16:21h, 28 October Reply

      Any keyboard of over 48 keys would work, digital piano or piano.

  • Nancy McGhee
    Posted at 13:15h, 25 September Reply

    Do you have available dates for your free try-out session after October 20th?

  • John Madura
    Posted at 20:03h, 11 October Reply

    I bought the piano in a flash kit and it is helping. I tried in home lessons decades ago and gave up. I’ll let you know more in a few months since my flash and anyone else’s flash (in time) are different.

  • Marilyn tippett
    Posted at 17:25h, 22 October Reply

    This is my first reply….
    The two webinars helped greatly! Everything after that has helped greatly! But I confess, it took me more than a minute to understand cord charts and lead sheets. After many on again off again trying again years I gave in to your webinars! The old is gone,,,,all become new! I tossed John w Schaum book 2, easy piano broadway hits , big note Rodgers and Hammerstein and more. I love my left hand and right hand notes and they love me. My left hand best. Thank you ever so much. And please keep sending what ever you want!

    • Scott Houston
      Posted at 15:34h, 28 October Reply

      You are most welcome Marilyn. I’m glad you are having fun! Keep up the good work!

  • Marilyn tippett
    Posted at 19:57h, 22 October Reply

    Im sorry, my 77year old fingers don’t always move as they’re supposed to.
    But the best news is, I am already bouncing around on on my left hand. My right hand is being pretty cooperative. I’m much more alive to seeing my fingers and where they go. I would be very happy to continue receiving your news letters. Thanks so much!

  • Sandra Kivkovich
    Posted at 17:01h, 19 July Reply

    Hi Scott,
    I attended your Webinar and found it so informative! In the classes you offer, do you cover the symbols for chords (such as the “triangle”? My knowledge is pretty primative, although I can read melody notes and know a few chords. I never heard of the chord symbols until I saw a lead sheet for a particular song. No wonder I quit piano lessons not long after I began as a kid. My husband bought me a nice keyboard for my birthday, and I plan on signing up for your courses after I acquaint myself with the keyboard. Thanks!

    • Hannah Derleth
      Posted at 17:35h, 10 August Reply

      We would LOVE to have you as a student, Sandra! What a thoughtful gift from your husband.
      I’m not sure we cover the “symbols” you’re speaking of, but if you have a general idea of chords already, our courses will be that much easier for you!
      Good luck!

  • Alan Shapiro
    Posted at 12:06h, 22 August Reply

    I see much is about the triad chords and a simple lead sheet, which is still a written and must be read musical notation, but I haven’t seen much about how to increase speed, left hand bass line movements or two handed chords. I understand that it most likely would come over time but are there techniques that are addressed in the books?

    • Hannah Derleth
      Posted at 09:36h, 25 August Reply

      Hi Alan!

      Quite often the “speed” bit comes with time. However, as you progress through the lessons you should find videos about bass line tips and other helpful hints to “spice up” the song. Hope this helps!

      HD

  • Don East
    Posted at 12:53h, 22 August Reply

    Seeking to find the cords is exactly what I need and want. Who knew that Gingle Bells could my brEak through.
    Thanks

  • Cherif Hamza
    Posted at 07:43h, 04 September Reply

    I would like to use your skills in teaching to learn how to play piano

  • Nina Den
    Posted at 21:51h, 17 September Reply

    I will love to learn how to plsy the Piano. I have never Player one….wondering if I can be teachable at adult age. Will this course apply to my interest- How can I start if its doable?. How much – cost? How many courses ~ total for extreme ( zep knowledge) beginners

    • Hannah Derleth
      Posted at 12:01h, 22 September Reply

      Hi Nina, I recommend ALL adults try Scott’s courses! I’d check out the rest of our website for more pricing information. Check back during the month of November— you never know what kind of deal Black Friday may bring!

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