Does a Piano Player Need to Read Music?

Question received:

In order to make a good pianist do I really have to learn notes and play them? Since 4 years from 12 to 16 I have played music by ear all the way through. I have also watched others play and I play what they play in a day literally. God gave me this talent to where I can play music that I want to within about 4 hours.

I have fans even though I am 16 but some people that ain’t fans do not like me. Some will say “I should learn notes that is what a pianist must learn. If you don’t learn it then what you play isn’t music.” Another is ” my 7 year old brother probably can play better than you.” I don’t believe that though. My teacher Brian Froge told me this, ” that is insane Anthony, I don’t know anyone that can play the entertainer by ear like you did!” That was my first song I learned.

I have been told that but I was told by a collage student that “the most professional piano players play by ear like I do.” Do you think I should stick with playing the way I have or playing with notes?

After this post and reply was made, this video link was sent of Anthony playing:


Conrad’s Original Reply:

Hi there,

To your original specific question: In order to make a good pianist do I really have to learn notes and play them?

My answer would be no, depending on what your bar or definition of “good” is.

However, learning to read music will open up a whole new world for you. There is a misconception about “playing by ear” – most professional pianists read music but also “play by ear”.

In conversations people often say to me “My father is a fantastic pianist and only plays by ear, no training. Do you play by ear or read?” And my usual reply is, “Oh, I only read” – and I try to say it sheepishly so they can retain their pride for their relative.

The two sides of playing great music is reading, then interpreting and getting the music off the page. The printed music is only a representation of a performance, it is not the performance itself. The perfomance itself is a quasi mystical journey and lives somewhere in the ether. How’s that for “out there”?

It has been my experience that the more I learn, the more I realize I have YET to learn. When I know little, that’s when I think I know a lot. My guess would be you are having this experience.

When you go pro there’s a painful experience of breaking out of the bubble – and being called on what you can and cannot do.

So my advice would be that if you enjoy your music for yourself, then by all means continue on this path and enjoy it. If you want to work in the field of music then I strongly recommend you learn to read music.

Have there been great pianists in history that cannot read music? Yes, mostly in pop, ragtime and jazz styles.

Do I know piano players that do not read music? Yes, but they lose a lot of work because of it, so not good for business.

I have mentioned that there ARE famous pianists that don’t read music. But I have had hundreds (yes, hundreds) of people in my life play piano for me and exclaim the joy that they have no training and cannot read music. Not one of them was any good at all. They all played the same tripe 12 bar blues or A minor melancholy pentatonic crap. Of course when they played I told them it was good because they were so excited about their talent. Why rain on someone’s parade?

Now if the same person told me they wanted to go into music as a profession, I would have a different (more pointed) conversation with them. The more you can do – the more versatile you are – the wider net of work you can get.

Hope that helps!

7 thoughts on “Does a Piano Player Need to Read Music?

  1. That does help but I am not really your ordinary ear play. If you don’t believe me go to . Of course some videos I did goof off in but ONLY because my camera was dying. In the mario theme if I could play the whole song without the camera dying I would. I can only make the video go soo long. Trust me though I am not the ordinary player you may think I am. I know you probably have heard the saying ” yeah everyone says that there good” but I know I am good. I do know notes I just don’t like them thats all. The only time I use notes is at school. I don’t use them at home or anything unless its for marching band. Please watch my video(s) if you have time and see what I mean. Just so you know as I said before in short time as it was I was unable to make the music musical and breathtaking. The music doesn’t breathe as it should because of the time I have left to finish the song. I will try and give you a tricky song to listen to that is musical if you’d like. Please e-mail me at *email retracted* and tell me what you think, or at youtube. Thank you for the advice and sorry if my paragraph seems harsh and obnoxious.

  2. Hi Anthony,
    Thanks for the video clip – I added it into the original post. It sounds very good, keep at it. I have no changes to my original reply.

  3. Anthony,

    Here’s the deal buddy… you replied to askland’s response with “yeah, but I’m no ordinary ear play” my response to that is

    no 16 year old is going to think they’re you’re ordinary “ear play” I was one of those 16 year olds…

    You asked for advice and Conrad gave you advice and I think he’s right on the money…and this is coming from your not-so-ordinary ear play, hehe… but I’m not 16 anymore, I’m 28 and to this day I wished my parents would have pushed me a lot harder to take lessons, because no matter how old you get, when you start lessons, you start at the basics and it sucks because while you’re used to playing full-fledged songs, you are stuck having to do scales…

    If you play by ear, you have an edge that most traditional pianists would kill for, you have the ability to improvise, and you also have the ability to regurgitate all the music you take into your ears back on to the keyboard and come up with stuff all your own… but it will take you much much longer to get to a skill level on your own, without lessons and training, that pianists who take lessons receive very early on as a result of their training.

    Lessons and training give you exposure to different kinds of music and train your brain and hands to play different ways, and you end up building a skill level much sooner than just doing it on your own and letting time train you… it took me 22 years to get to this point on my own, without lessons…

    But I could have gotten there when I was your age if I put the kind of time and practice into it that trained pianists are forced to do…

    As a matter of fact, I really didn’t get away from that A minor and C major melancholy pentatonic crap until I was about 22 years old…

    Then I also started playing with a contemporary christian worship band and because I was exposed to playing so many different kinds of music in different keys, I finally gained a comfort level with playing in other keys besides C and A minor…

    So do yourself a favor, when the rubber meets the road, you will find yourself disappointed by the lack of flexibility broad scope of music that your by ear playing brings you as a result of a lack of training….

    I will probably never take lessons, I’m 28 and don’t have time anymore. But I have dedicated myself to playing often, and coming up with my own music instead of playing OPM, other people’s music…

    Take conrad’s advice and wisdom. Balance is good. You’re young enough, you can afford the time to put into lessons… otherwise, you’ll be 28 and still playing weddings and banquets and trying even harder to get into the music business because you didn’t develop the work ethic that comes along with lessons, training, and regid practice regiments.

    Chris Lawrence
    Original Contemporary Piano
    Chris Epic Music, LLC

  4. Hey Conrad,

    Are you on the Randi forum?? Do you know Slingblade??

    Thats my mom…

    Anywhoo… Good luck in your music…

  5. Hi everyone.I am currently doing my cert-ed.Ihad to write a biography and part of it was a story about being taught guitar.
    I had to play a classical piece but,could not read the music fast enough.So i learned it by heart.I played the piece called,Adante.I think at my next class and it was perfect.But the teacher said i was,nt reading the music.I argued that i was but,she said i must read the music.I just wanted to play guitar.After that i gradually lost intrest and stopped playing.
    I often wonder, “what if she hadn,t made me read music”,
    Could i have achieved more in life.

    Has she changed my future!
    Keep playing any way you can,

    And enjoy it.

    Regards Keith.

  6. My 9 year old son can “play by ear” amazingly!! He can play anyting from pop, rag time to classical. He knows the ENTIRE “Fur Elise” song by Bethoven and learned it in a day. He can hear a song on the radio or youtube and go to the piano and with in 3 minutes, he has it. It takes about a day to perfect it! I STILL THINK HE NEED TO LEARN TO READ! Why limit yourself??

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