The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music notes: Close the score and listen to the music | November 29, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

I hear a lot of classical music on the campus of a major university (University of Wisconsin-Madison) where there is a major School of Music (ranked in the top 5 percent of public schools of music,  according to UW officials) that offers some 300 concerts a year. score2

So fairly often I see people listening with a score, either a regular size music score or one of those smaller study scores that seem to be getting harder to find these days.

I have heard other members of the audience talk with reverence about those who really want to know the music intimately that they bring a score. (And I saw quite a few score-listeners during the Beethoven piano sonata cycle performed last season by UW pianist Christopher Taylor.)

I beg to differ, to disagree.

I think that, except in unusual circumstances, a score gets in the way of appreciating the music – and in the way of others appreciating the music.

True, you may be listening to a piece because you yourself are studying or even learning it.

True, you may be a professional critic or a student studying the piece and have a special reason to see if the performer is following the dynamic or tempo indications or even playing the right notes. Henlescore

But for the most part, reading a score is too often a kind of pompous exercise, a way of showing off that you are a special or sophisticated listener. It’s like the way The New York Times critic Harold Schonberg used to listen with a stop watch to compare tempi. But psychological time (philosopher Henri Bergson’s “duree” or duration)  and clock time are quite different matters. A slower playing can sound faster and vice-versa. Pianist Vladimir Horowitz was a master of that.

You actually learn much more about the music simply by concentrating on the listening experience (and, as the composer Igor Stravinsky pointed out, on the visual experience, since so much of making music involves hand-eye coordination.)

But overall, I find the scores to be a distraction — not only to me and to the music, but to the people who are sitting near me and who cannot avoid watching me turn pages or, worse, hear me turning them, no matter how careful I am.

If you are there for the experience of music, then get into that experience and kept yourself be convinced or unconvinced by what the performer or performers do with the music – not with what the written notation, an approximation at best, of the music happens to be.

Do you use a score at concerts?

What do you think of people who do?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. I heartily agree — I find that having a score or a script in my lap while I’m listening is a distraction.

    It’s different if I’m at home and I’m trying to follow something deliberately, or studying it for educational reasons. But in the moment, at a live performance, I want to be there with my impressions and my experience of the music/dance/theater.

    Excellent point!


    Comment by Lindsay C — December 2, 2009 @ 6:22 pm

  2. When my daughters attend my quartet recitals, they like to follow along with the score. Yes, they miss the visual part of the performance, but they learn something of the music’s architecture, and it keeps their squirminess down. Better to look at a score than at each other – they can get pretty giggly and disruptive when they put their minds to it.

    Comment by Marika F-H — December 2, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

    • Hi Marika,
      Thanks for reading and writing.
      That seems like a perfectly sound reason to follow the performance with a score.
      It keeps them focused and they learn too.
      I’m betting they are music/string students who want to learn from and emulate Mom.
      Or maybe grade her!

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 2, 2009 @ 5:06 pm

  3. First time I hear about this, and It Is Sad. What’s the point? What’s the use? I can not believe…

    Why on earth would I want the score at a concert? The score is a guide for the interpreter, for the composer to remember his stuff, not for reading at the performance! You enjoy music, you feel music, you touch music with your mind and fly through where it may lead; math excercises about tempo and perfect execution go home.

    And if it’s a pompous exercise, even more sad. There is no way to be a ‘sophisticated’ listener, like having the script when you go to the theater. Enjoy and relax…


    Comment by Nic — November 29, 2009 @ 2:03 am

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