sheet music vs. learning by ear

From: Rich Lafferty
Subject: Re: Tradition v orthodoxy: ear vs sheet

On Wed, Jul 31, 2002 at 10:37:00PM +0000, Stuart Dunlop wrote:
> Brilliant post, Rich

Thanks! :-)

> The discussion point is this: who are the more ‘real’ musicians? The ones
> who play from sheets, or the ones who learn by rote?

As zen master Joshu might say, “Mu.”

Or as zen master Satchmo might say, “Man, if you have to ask, you’ll
never know.”

I’d say that in *any* style, the folks that have memorized the music
will be able to do more with it than those that have to read it off
the page. I don’t think there’s anything specific to trad or jazz or
classical music when it comes to that, except that you *start* getting
the tune from sheet music more often in some styles than in others.
I can’t think of any genre of music where accomplished performers
regularly sight-read in public performances (unless they’re
last-minute subs — and note that classical musicians are only using
their music as a reminder in public performance, they’re not actually
*reading* from it.)

It’s just like acting or storytelling. For both, it’s almost always
unacceptable to read parts from paper in performance (although there’s
less need for a “cheat sheet” like a classical musician, they *do*
have a prompter!), but there’s a mythos that the storyteller learned
his text from another storyteller, while the actor learned his text
from a script. But you can’t tell from a story if the storyteller
learned his stories orally or from paper; you can only tell if he’s
a good storyteller or not, and then try to explain it by guessing that
he’s learned it from paper. Even more so with the actor — you *assume*
that he’s reading the part from the script, and it might not even
occur to you that he’s ad-libbing sections here and there.

Same thing with musicians. You can’t tell during a trad performance
how someone picked up a tune — but if you hear someone playing
poorly, then you might hypothesize that it’s because they don’t know
the tune well (and you might be right!), and then hypothesize that
*that* is because they learned it from paper (and you might be

Now, the other side of that coin is that the people that have to bring
sheet music to gigs are also the ones that haven’t figured out the
style yet. There’s a word for those — “inexperienced”. Or “bad”,
maybe. Or “clueless”, you get the idea. But they’re not playing poorly
because they’re learning from sheet music — both their reliance on
sheet music and their poor playing are symptoms of inexperience or
Just Not Getting It.

The reverse of this is that you only hear about bad players with sheet
music — when someone blows you out of your chair with a great
rendition of a great tune, you don’t *think* about how they picked it
up. It’s sort of like how the phone always rings when you’re in the
shower — you don’t notice the showers you have when it doesn’t

Personally, I tend to expand the breadth of my repertoire with sheet
music or ABCs, and improve the depth with recordings. But I cannot for
the life of me memorize changes easily, so when I’m playing jazz on
the bass, I’ve always got a cheat card handy, usually stuck to the
shoulder of my bass! I’d be the first to admit I’m a weaker jazz
player, though.

The leader of one local session has a great repertoire and plays
/real/ solid, but has a deck of cards, on each of which is the first
few bars of the A-section of a tune. That’s enough to get him going,
and the rest is in his head. Believe me, no-one’s going to accuse Alf
of having to rely on written music — he’s a good enough player that
the question just doesn’t matter.