Robert Estrin - piano expert

Should You Play Music Exactly as Written?

Do the best performers play music exactly as the composer conceived it?

In this video, Robert answers an interesting question: Should You Play Music Exactly as Written? Do performers know how to play a piece exactly as the composer would have wanted to?

Released on November 6, 2019

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, this is Robert Estrin at, your online piano store, with a viewer question. The question is: Do classical performers play exactly what's written?

There's a lot to this question. Of course, naturally, classical performers strive for accuracy, but what is the accurate? Think about composers who lived hundreds of years ago. If you've ever had the opportunity to look at some of the great composers' scores ... Beethoven comes to mind. There are scrawls on the page and sections scribbled out, and trying to decipher what they actually meant is no easy task.

Now, it takes a lot of scholarly work. That's why what editions you look at is critical, and there are editions that are called urtext, which is supposed to be exactly what the composer wrote. But how do they know what the composer wrote? Sometimes there are autographed scores, early editions, and there can be discrepancies, and decisions have to be made as to what the composer's intention really was. Particularly with composers with sloppy calligraphy, it can be a real task.

Ultimately, the performer must have conviction about the notes they play, regardless of what is authoritative. If something just seems wrong, you shouldn't play it, even if that's the urtext. Maybe somewhere, somebody got it wrong along the line. You have to believe in what you're playing.

But there's an entire other side to this question that is perhaps even more significant, which is this: The musical score only has notes, rhythm, phrasing, and expression, but there's a whole heck of a lot more to it than that. Consider this analogy of a play. The words are all written out, just like in a motion picture, but the actor or actress must take those written words and create a character out of it. The words themselves really don't come to life until the performer creates that character. Well, exactly the same thing is true with a musical performance. The notes are really just the skeleton of the work, and it's your job, as a performer, to flesh out the living, breathing work of music. In order to do that, many decisions have to be made that are not in the score.

You might wonder, "What? What else is there, besides the notes, the rhythm, the phrasing, and the expression?" Well, a whole heck of a lot. The balance of every single chord on the piano can be nuanced in an infinite number of ways, much less the way a melody line progresses. The ups and the downs, the rubato, that is, the speeding up and the easing up of the tempo in Romantic period music, to give flavor and emotion. All of these things are left up to the performer.

So it's more than just a matter of accuracy; it's all the things a performer brings to a performance to turn it into a piece of music, and only part of that is in the score. So that's the job of the performer. It's not just about being accurate, and if you want to prove that to yourself, listen to a computer playing a score of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, or anyone else. You can program in everything, and still, it's not music, is it?

All right, thanks for the great questions. Once again, Robert Estrin here at Keep the questions coming in. See you next time.
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