Playing from the Score and Its Benefits

Can you play from the score or do you tend to memorise the moment you learn a new piece? What if playing from the score offered both short and long term benefits? Here’s what I mean…


playing from the score and its benefits


Yesterday I sat down at the piano to practise.


(Okay… Nothing unusual there.)


I did my warmup then sight-read some pieces. I’ve been working on a Kapustin etude and a Rachmaninov prelude, but I was in the mood for something else, something less intense. I looked at the pile of music I had beside me and decided to play one of Schubert’s Impromptu, Op.90 No.1 in C minor, which I’ve learned on and off throughout the years.


There are days when I feel like playing Schubert. Yesterday was one of those days.


I don’t think I had played this impromptu for several years, yet I was able to play through it without too many mistakes. Of course, I had learned it, so I knew the notes, but I had never memorised it. I was reading from the score.


It was so wonderful to play this piece again. It was like reuniting with a long-lost friend. And I didn’t have to worry about remembering how it went or what the fingering was because it was all there in front of me. I could just read the score.


While playing the impromptu, I remember thinking what a privilege it is to be able to take a piece of music you haven’t played in a while and still be able to play it from the music.


It’s technically no longer sight-reading if it’s a piece you’ve learned, but it’s still reading. You’re playing and reading from the score and that in itself is a skill worth developing because then, you don’t have to memorise your pieces. You can play from the music when you’re learning pieces and years later when you return to them.


It’s like being able to take any book off a shelf, open it and read it. It’s the same ability but with music scores.


taking a book from a shelf


But how do you get to the stage where you can comfortably play from a score and read the notes, not just stare blankly at the page?


I think it comes down to how you practise.


Do you read the notes at first and then immediately attempt to memorise them… so you can put the score aside?


Do you play your pieces over and over again until the notes get into your fingers and in muscle memory… so you can put the score aside?


Do you only ever start from the beginning or from the same sections?




Do you use the score like a reference to learn the notes, analyse the structure, highlight the expressive markings, add in or change fingering, write in suggestions, and so on?


Do you keep using the score as a tool to practise in various ways? And when you play the piece, do you keep reading the notes, even though you might know what they are, because it’s much easier to have all the information in front of you (especially the fingering)?


When you practise with the score, you learn to use the score while practising and in turn, you learn to play from the score. The score becomes an aid you can use and reuse rather than a hindrance you want get rid of as quickly as possible. The score becomes like a map that you can study at your leisure. You can decide to go down one street, try another street, jump to a different section of the map. You don’t need to remember the entire map with all the street names, alleyways and bridges because you can read the map and explore as you wish.


In other words, you can start from any bar or any place in the music just from reading the sheet music.


All too often I see students using the score only at the start. And when you ask them how they practise, they will usually tell you that they play from the beginning until the end and then repeat. And when they practise, they spend more time looking at their fingers than at the score, so naturally, they end up memorising the notes because they can’t both look at the music and at their fingers!


How to play from the score

If you want to have the ability to play pieces you learned in the past without having to start from scratch and decode the music all over again, remember to:

  • Keep looking up at the score. Develop the ability to play by feel and trust that your fingers will find the right keys. Use your ears to guide you. (Learn How to play without looking at the keys.)
  • Use the score like a reference where you have all the information in one place and see it as an aid to your practice, not a restriction.


If you can learn to do this, then years down the track, when you feel like playing that Chopin Waltz you once learned for a piano exam or recital, you’ll discover that you can because you will have developed the ability to play from the score!


How do you normally go about practising? Do you keep using the music or do you put it aside as soon as you can? Comment below.


READ MORE >> To Memorise or to Read from the Score? 


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  • Gina says:

    As an 80 year old beginner, I definitely think that my priority should be to learn to not look at my hands while reading the score, and not to memorize it. Honestly, how many pieces of music will I have time to memorize in what is left of my lifetime?

  • Barbara says:

    Hi Manu, Helpful article. It led me to read your others on not looking at the keys. That is my real problem. Especially if there are jumps to notes that I can’t stretch to (which is a lot as my hands are small). So that leads me to memorize the parts that I need to look at the keys for, but not the other parts. Oddly, I think memorizing and looking at the keys seems to block my muscle memory as visual memory is overriding it maybe? I downloaded your keyboard awareness exercises and I’ll see if I can build more of a body sense of where the notes I’m reading are located. I like using the score most of the time. There are very few pieces I have memorized (maybe an age thing–I’m 71.) Best, Barbara

    • Hi Barbara, yes that’s usually what happens. We look down for the leaps and then we end up memorising those parts. Have a go at the keyboard awareness exercises. I think they should help. And practise your scales and arpeggios without looking down. That helps a lot too.

  • Jeff Zafiropoulos says:

    Hi Manu,
    Your content is always interesting and relevant even to guitarists.
    Jeff Z

  • Kathleen says:

    Hi! Thank you for writing about reading from the music score. I have always played music from the score because I don’t think I could memorize it; so you have given me great comfort and validation as I learn the piano. I started by using Alfred’s adult All-in-One course (level 1).

  • Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.



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