Playing from memory vs sheet music

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    So what is the deal with reading sheet music while you play, for those that don’t play from memory, or both?

    Do people use sheet music just as a guide, something to glance at when you are coming up to a part that changes drastically, or for reminders with lever changes.. articulations..etc..? Or do some of you actually use the sheet music for site-reading as you play?

    I just can’t imagine playing a piece without my fingers already knowing from memory where they are going without any reminder needed, I’m impressed by people who can, because it seems a difficult thing.

    I feel like not a real musician about this, sometimes when I’m playing with other people I’ll pretend to be reading the sheet music because everyone else is staring so intently at theirs.. in truth it’s easier to play the song without looking at my hands than trying to actually read music as I play.


    You can develop your sight-reading skills by doing a little bit every day. Anna Dunwoodie has published a great series of sight-reading books just for harpists. Since our orchestra often does three different programs in a week, I don’t get enough time to completely memorize them, so I refer to the music to stay on track. However, sometimes there are jobs where you get the music when you arrive, or the day before. So it’s a good skill to be able to immediately transfer what you see on the page to how it feels in your fingers.


    Oh goodness, I’m impressed that you can memorize so well! I sight read, and it makes me VERY dependent on my sheet music. One little breeze… *laughing* But the up sides, as Elizabeth said, is being able to play instantly (or with very little practice) brand new pieces.

    I need to work on memorizing the wedding standards like Canon in D and Here Comes the Bride so no wind messes me up!

    You are a true musician because you create music. End of story! Your talent is completely unique, and playing from memory is a part of it. You can develop your sight reading if you want to, it is a good skill to have, but don’t feel inferior because you don’t have it.

    Some musicians are completely dependent and seriously sight read everything, from the tempo to dynamics to fingerings…. Others (like me) have to play the pieces and become familiar with them, but sight read most of it. Some use it as a reminder for if they have a gap in their memory. Everyone is different!

    I hope this helps, God bless you!



    Elizabeth – those Anna Dunwoodie books sound interesting. Do you know where they can be obtained from? I’ve checked Anna’s website but she doesn’t give any information about them and I’d love to know more as my sight-reading definitely needs brushing up.


    Lyn – I just ordered the Dunwoodie books after reading about them on this post. I ordered them from Melody’s at this address:


    Thank you Susan! To be honest, they look a bit expensive for me at the moment (especially with shipping to the UK) but at least now I know where to look the next time I’m ready to splash the cash!


    Lyn – there are harp sight reading books by Fiona Clifton-Whelker and also Stewart Green. I bought mine from Pencerdd Music, but any U.K. harp music stockist will probably have them.


    Thank you E NB. It’s hard to know without a recommendation which are the best ones to get so it is really helpful for me to hear which books others have found useful. I’ll have a hunt around for the ones you mention.


    I’m not sure what you are asking. What type of playing do you do? What is your goal in playing?

    Using music in orchestra, band, opera, etc. is one thing, but using music to play a wedding gig would be something quite else. I use it in the group things like orchestra, but not for wedding or reception repertoire…I play only from memory there. So, for me, it just depends on what kind of playing I’m doing.

    Everyone is in a different situation and is doing different things. I see the people on this thread are interested in sight reading, but not everyone needs to sight read. Even in orchestra, I get my parts way ahead of time to prepare…either by buying them or printing them off IMSLP.


    Folk musicians don’t use sheet music (not for gigs anyway). I learned to play the traditional way, phrase by phrase, by ear. I can play much more complicated music than I ever could if I had to sight read it. But then most classical music is even more complicated the the most complicated trad Irish stuff, I assume.


    Scott- What you seem to be referring to, in playing from memory, is muscle memory. With muscle memory, you just sit there almost like someone in the audience, and watch your fingers play the piece. That’s a very dangerous way of performing, because if you make a mistake, you break the sequence of movements and your lost. If you’re going to play from memory, at least take the time to study the music, preferably away from the harp, so that you have an intellectual memory of the music as well as the muscle memory.


    Andee – I don’t think it’s that folk is less complicated than classical music, it’s just that the complicated-ness in folk comes from your brain as you play, rather than the paper. In classical music, the composer has done all the work, as it were, so you need to remember more detail, hence sheet music. In folk, all you get is a tune and it’s up to you to make it into music. You don’t need dots because there is less to memorise, but you make up for it in your playing, because YOU get to be the composer.

    I’d LOVE to be able to sight-read on the harp. But I’m so used to playing folk music on it, I can’t stop looking at those damn strings. Erk.


    Mae, that is really very interestingly put! It makes me proud! I have no interest in being able sight read, and even less now after your wonderful comment!

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