The problem with sheet music…

I saw a wonderful production of Sister Act on Sunday. There was a 10-piece orchestra in the pit and they were tight. This wouldn’t have happened without a really well written score – sheet music which enabled the musicians to play the right notes at the right time with the right velocity, and enabled the MD to conduct them in a helpful and effective way.

When it comes to many styles of playing piano though, the sheet music you get for a piece can often be of little use, especially if you don’t want to play melody.

Whenever a student comes to me with a new song, I ask them if they would like to play melody or play accompaniment. This can depend on the situation or circumstance in which they envisage themselves playing the song – i.e. is it with a singer or lead melody instrument, or is it in a solo situation.

They are two different skills. When accompanying, although I would say it is essential to know the melody (as it helps you accompany better), you don’t have to play the melody at all, so you can concentrate more on rhythmic patterns, breaking up your chords, and playing nice lines around the melody. When playing melody, you must get it across strongly with one of your two hands, so there isn’t as much scope for the other parts mentioned above.

Students often base their decision of what song to learn on the piano playing they have heard on the original track – as it is often this that draws them to want to learn it.

So, here is some sheet music for Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. It shows you (as far as I can tell) a pretty accurate version of the accompaniment Elton John plays while he sings the melody. But if you want to play melody – it’s not there.


Here is some sheet music for Ed Sheeran’s Perfect – a song not originally played on piano but one that many piano players want to learn. It does show you the melody, and underneath a nice two-handed version of how to play a solo version of the piece (including melody), but no accompaniment.

And here is some sheet music for Paul Simon’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. It shows some of the (beautiful) original piano parts, but again no accompaniment underneath the melody sections.

Over-reliance on sheet music doesn’t make you a rounded piano player, unless you’re mainly playing classical music or shows. You will be able to play certain pieces very well, but you may find it difficult to adapt to different musical situations in which you might find yourself

That’s why it pays to develop your ear, your understanding of music, and your persistence. You’ll have to spend a bit more time working stuff out, but it pays in the long run.

I'm Kieran and I play piano. Actually I do a bit more than just playing - I teach others how to play, and I write music, arrange it and host/produce shows.

One thought on “The problem with sheet music…

  1. The best musicians use the sheet music – or the “dots”, as we call it in acapella singing, – to learn the notes accurately. After that “artistry” takes over in the rehearsal room and on to performance. The best accompianists (hard word to spell!!) have to be able to respond when a singer slows a phrase etc. – so the piano player has to be “in” the performance and not a slave to the “dots”.


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