Robert Estrin - piano expert

Do You Have to Be Able to Read Music to Play the Piano?

Reading music may not be a requirement to play the piano.

In this video, Robert explains that the ability to read music is not a requirement for playing the piano.

Released on January 4, 2023

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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

I'll go so far as to say that this is something that's sadly neglected in the conservatory training of so many concert pianists who can't improvise the simplest tunes by ear because they're never expected to.

Welcome to, Robert Estrin here with a really important subject which is, do you have to be able to read music to play the piano? Now, many of you know that I have a deep background in classical music. Being a second generation concert pianist, my father, Morton Estrin, taught me and my sister from a very young age, beautifully trained classical education, how to read music, theory background, all the rest of it. So you would think my answer would be, no, you must read music to play the piano. But I'm gonna surprise many of you by telling you that no, you do not have to read music in order to play the piano. In fact, many styles of music from country, folk, jazz, rock, blues, new age, there are many styles of music that people are very accomplished, people who can't read music. Or maybe they just read a lead sheet, which I'll talk about in a moment. So what is this all about? For example, playing the blues or any type of music like that, to be able to do this, you'll never be able to play the blues convincingly reading note for note.

First of all, the rhythms are really hard to read with syncopated music and jazz, rock, blues, country, and other styles like that. Secondly, the way that music is created in the first place is an improvised form. It's coming up with your own arrangements, playing by ear. So yes, now what about classical music? Those of you who want to play classical music, now I would never have wanted to believe this, but I've encountered quite a number of people who have gone on the internet and watched those notes coming down on the keys like a video game. And I've heard people who've been able to become quite accomplished at playing sophisticated repertoire, learning it note for note, following somebody else on the keyboard. And you wonder, does that really work? Well, to an extent, to get through a piece, sure. Naturally, that technology doesn't offer all the nuance of the notation, how long notes last, the phrasing, how they're connected and detached, and a myriad of other things. But talented musicians who don't want to learn how to read, sometimes who have good ears, can watch the video, figure out where the hands go, and do a reasonable job at recreating those pieces of music.

Now, for anybody who wants to play at a really high level, for classical music, really the notation is really a must. Take it on a really high level. But for those of you just wanting to play music and not be able to be encumbered by the complexity of reading scores, particularly those of you who are interested in other styles of music, you can embrace it. I'll go so far as to say that this is something that's sadly neglected in the conservatory training of so many concert pianists who can't improvise the simplest tunes by ear because they're never expected to. And as soon as they graduate, they discover that most of the work, the gigs out there, are not playing Beethoven sonatas and Chopin etudes. It's really hard to find venues that are gonna pay you to play that kind of music. So even if you are a classically trained musician, you owe it to yourself to explore, improvise types of music. You're gonna be hearing more about that here at, and I'm interested in your comments, how many of you are interested in improvising? How many of you are interested in being able to play music without necessarily reading it, or maybe just reading a lead sheet, which is what most musicians utilize, and most gigs expect you to be able to read, which is just the melody line and the chord symbols, and you come up with the arrangement. That's the way so much music is created in this world. We'll talk more about that. Express your interest so I know how much of these videos you wanna see here on, your online piano resource. Thanks again, this is Robert Estrin. We'll see you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Graeme Costin * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2023 @7:12 pm PST
Thank you for an interesting article about improvising as well as playing from music. I learned from a strict classical piano teacher but also admired, and spent many, many hours trying to copy, a great aunt who became a popular piano entertainer, having had only one proper music lesson in her life. The benefit of developing both skills paid off a decade or so ago while playing organ for a funeral service; I thought I needed to play "The Servant King" but my intro was interrupted by the minister saying it was meant to be "The Servant Song"; an embarrassed silence ensued while I looked for (but could not find) the music, but then I said "I think it goes like this" and managed to accompany the congregation singing it. Someone later said "Ruth can play anything with music, Graeme can play anything without music" -- an exaggeration, but understandable in the circumstances.

I agree wholeheartedly with your article -- we should not restrict ourselves to only playing from music!

Any further tutorials you produce on "playing by ear" or playing from lead sheets will be welcomed by me!
SN * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2023 @2:42 pm PST
Also there’s a fluency that can be derived from reading notes as opposed to clumsily trying to figure out which note is next. Annoying to both player and listener.
SN * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2023 @2:40 pm PST
I find that anyone who teaches themselves from scratch has atrocious fingering. That I think would be a major drawback to not taking at least a year or two of traditional lessons.
Szabo * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2023 @8:54 am PST
Very valuable for the music educator as well. Thank you for this.
Marilyn Oldenhuis * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2023 @8:52 am PST
I am classically trained and would love to know more about improvising on the piano.
Kenneth A. Spencer on January 4, 2023 @8:51 am PST
Very interesting, Robert!
I have been playing guitar from age 12, piano from later teens, and organ since my 20s. I was able to read quite a bit of guitar music, from an early age - especially aided by quite a good ear, and by the fact that the guitar music only has one stave!
Moving onto the piano, I found it very very difficult to read two staves, especially in rthe bass clef - and even now at age 76 I have enormous difficulty integrating left & right hands with two independent musical lines (e.g. Bach's fugue, etc).
Then - onto the organ - three staves eh! But my ear has always saved me - I can read the melody line relatively easily, and somehow my brain tells me what might be acceptable in the left hand & feet. I play for loads of church services and I get by - execpt with the dreadeed SATB, when the choir is involved! But the congregation alone never get troubled by that littloe nicety!
So, as you are a fully trained, highly experienced and skilled concert pianist, I can admit to you, that I envy my organist FRCO friends who can read & play the most complex music (Bach/Vierne/Reger/Buxterhude) that you can put in front any musician, and just do it.
But: it's excellent to be able to play at all! Its really excellent to be able to play anything, even music that's completely unknown to you, and that's only possible if you read well and accurately.
But I'm grateful for what I can do without such a great reading skill.

Thansk for the videos, as always.

Kenneth Spencer
Audrey * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2023 @8:46 am PST
Yes, always wanted the alternative to classical music. Please teach us how to do that.
YamahaSaxMan * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2023 @8:24 am PST
Some musicians have extraordinary ears. The blind jazz pianist George Shearing learned Mozart piano concertos entirely by ear. He also played them live with orchestras. Later, sheet music would be available in Braille and he would learn that way, but back in the 50's he just used his amazing ear.
PJ * VSM MEMBER * on January 4, 2023 @8:24 am PST
Very interesting- I am one who would certainly appreciate your covering this topic in more depth! I can read music but would love to be able to put the sheets away at some point and just improvise from a lead sheet but I don't have the confidence.

Love your videos, BTW. Never miss a one!
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