Is there More than One Way to Play the Piano?

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The simple answer is yes, there is more than one way to play the piano, but you must decide what it is you hope to accomplish with your piano playing before deciding which technique is best for you. There are three main ways of playing the piano:

1. Sight Reading
2. By Ear
3. Chord symbols

Sight Reading

Sight reading is how most musicians approach music. They read a piece of manuscript and play what they see. It shows them the melody, the harmony, the pace, the timing, any changes in tempo or key as the music progresses and indicates any other requests by the composer, such as repeated measures etc. The disadvantage of sight reading as a way of playing the piano is that you will need at least a basic understanding of music theory before you start, and if you hope to sight read music on a larger scale perhaps playing Mozart or Beethoven, then you will need to commit time to learning all the various symbols used in these musical compositions.

The main advantage of playing the piano through sight reading is that you will have the skills and confidence to pick up any piece of music and know that you can play it. At first play you might not have a perfect performance but technically you will have the musical knowledge to interpret the composer’s ideas into a fair recital.

By Ear

This is an option for anyone who has perfect pitch. Playing the piano by ear is where you hear a piece of music and having identified a starting note can follow the melody from memory on your piano keyboard. With this form of piano playing there are two big disadvantages. Firstly you’ll have to remember what you played each time you play that piece of music because you won’t have anything to read as a guide, and secondly others won’t be able to play with you.
There’s a big advantage to being able to play the piano by ear however if you have the skill to be able to do so. You can hear any piece of music and almost immediately be able to reproduce the same melody on your piano. As a composer being able to play by ear means that any tune that’s running through your head you can create in the same way that you play tunes composed by others. You should also be able to identify harmony lines and separate these out from the main melody.

Chord Symbols

If you play the piano using chord symbols you will be able to produce a good sound, but you’ll be restricted in what you can play. Unlike the pianist who sight reads, or the one who plays by ear, the pianist who reads chord symbols has only music that incorporates this kind of notation to choose from. For those who want to play music that is chord based, and has no real need or desire to play other types of music, it’s a limited but sufficient skill. Chord symbol music can sound heavy, but if the pianist using this form of piano playing is able to understand and incorporate such things as anticipations and suspensions into their playing, this can greatly expand the richness of the music produced.

When considering what kind of piano playing skill you want to acquire, consider first of all what you want to achieve with playing the piano. If it is only for your own enjoyment then playing by ear, or even chord symbols may be more than enough, but if you hope to become a concert pianist, or perhaps play in a group, then you should consider committing the time needed to learn the music theory required to play the piano by sight reading.

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