The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Should soloists perform using a score or not? Which is more liberating for the performer, for the audience and especially for the music? | January 6, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

As he often does, the New York Times’ senior music critic Anthony Tommasini recently raised an important question:

After 200 years or so, are we starting to see a trend developing whereby the stigma of performing solo music with a score is disappearing and the use of scores is increasing in legitimacy? Many conservatories or schools of music even require students to perform without a score for a degree recital. But that may be changing.

Tommasini’s column had the perfect headline: “Playing by heart – without or without the score.”

And Tommasini drew on three specific recent examples of pianists: Alexandre Tharaud, who played Scarlatti and Satie’s “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” at Le Poisson Rouge with a score; Andras Schiff, who played both books of J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” without a score; and Emanuel Ax, who used a score for solo Bach but did not use a score for solo Schoenberg. I have also seen Christopher O’Riley and others use scores on an iPad with a foot switch to turn pages. (All of Tommasini’s examples are seen below. First is Alexandre Tharaud, below, in a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times. Tharaud’s playing is also heard at the bottom.)

Alexandre Tharaud at Poisson Rouge with score Ruby Washington NY Times

Is this a healthy or unhealthy development? Well it seems to depend on the individual performer and certain kinds of music (generally you find Chopin played without a score, but Elliott Carter and other new music with a score.)

Here is a link to Tommasini’s think piece:

The Ear is of two minds.

On the one, hand I remember reading pianist veteran Murray Perahia (below) saying that although he loved playing chamber music and did so with a score, he felt most on top of the music when he memorized it and played it without a score. And the concerts I have heard by him all suggest he is right.

I’ll also bet that Murray Perahia has excellent nerves for performing, and a relative lack of stage fright of the incapacitating kind. He has the right temperament.

murray perahia at piano

On the other hand, even a master like Sviatoslav Richter (below) spent his last years using a score – and many critics said with great results. Of course, he said he turned to the score because age brought a decline in his perfect pitch, which used to help guide him through scoreless performances without wrong notes. Plus, the ability to memorize deteriorates with age.


And I can’t deny it: There is something so basic, so elemental and essential, about seeing a musician sit down at a piano or a cello and or stand with a violin, and start making music without any music in front of him or her.

It just all comes from within. Yes it is showy and impressive, but it also inner and poetic. I feel like I am hearing more directly and personally from the performers and that the lack of a score allows for certain liberties of subjective interpretation. (Below is a photo by Ruby Washington of The New York Times of Andras Schiff recently playing J.S. Bach by memory at the 92nd Street Y.)

Andras Schiff playing Bach's WTC by menory at 92nd St Y Ruby Washington NY Times

What do you think about playing with a score?

Should solo pianists, singers, cellists, violinists and others now feel that using a score is just fine?

I’ll bet that many of them don’t t really use the score They have already have the music memorized and simply find the score reassuring, as a kind of insurance against memory lapses and the like. (Below is a photo by Hiroyuki Ito of  The New York Times of Emanuel Ax using a score to play some solo Bach before he played with an ensemble.)

Emanuel Ax using a score with NY Phil Hiroyuki Ito for NY Tmes

But what about opera singers using a score?

What do you think?

If you are a performer, The Ear especially wants to hear from you.

And if are an audience member, I also want to hear from you about what you think of heating a performer play scoreless or with a score.


  1. It once was an expectation that soloists perform from memory. I find it unfortunate that the bar has been lowered. It is a difficult thing to be sure, and not every pianist will accomplish memorization, thus separating the sheep from the lambs so to speak.

    Comment by Alison Edgar — March 19, 2017 @ 10:06 am

  2. Jake, so sorry this is a year late but I’ve only now gotten to it after deleting 20,000 e-mails. In college @ Eau Claire, our choir once made a concert tour to St. Louis for which we sang memorized pieces. I didn’t have them learned & felt terribly guilty. However, I found that I usually did my best playing when I memorized trombone solos. I’m sure you’re aware that some pro ensembles like the Canadian Brass Quintet plays almost their entire programs by memory. They recently appeared in the Middleton PAC & are, I think, still the best br 5tet in the world. As for Richter, I have an LP of him doing Chopin, the jacket notes of which say he could reach a 12th between thumb & middle finger. My soul-mate is a world-class kybd artist who is limited because her hands, unlike Richter, are small.

    Comment by Larry Retzack — January 6, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

  3. […] Classical music: Should soloists perform using a score or not? Which is more liberating for the perf… ( […]

    Pingback by Memory: 3 Tips and 3 Posts | LaDona's Music Studio — February 1, 2013 @ 11:17 am

  4. I sang in a concert choir in college that rehearsed every day and took a fully memorized one-hour program on tour, including at least Bach motet for two choirs. It seemed to me that we did not begin to interpret the music until we were free of the score. We did not have the focus, and we did not pay attention as well to what was happening in other sections. It was a much fuller experience for us and our audience. I felt like I was in a tapestry of sound moving and shifting through time.

    Comment by Ron McCrea — January 7, 2013 @ 11:49 pm

    • Hi Ron,
      I completely agree with you, and suspect any of the score-users do too.
      I suspect that they, like me, use scores as reassurance against forgetting — NOT to actually read from as they play.
      Scores wont really help you or save you if you don’t already know the piece before performing it in public.
      I have even heard of chamber players and some orchestra players who basically know their parts by heart, but who use the scores for annotations and confidence.
      The questions of using a score or not is also a major symbolic motif of the movie “A Late Quartet.”
      Thanks for reading and replying so personally and helpfully.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 9, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

  5. It would seem to me that conservatories might well demand a performance without the score as a graduation requirement. The discipline would be good, as would success in a scoreless performance. That said I have seen great performers play with and without a score and seemed to me to be equally successful. Christopher Taylor’s 32 Beethoven sonatas without a score was a tour de force that is awe inspiring, but so have his performances been where he used a score. These were local performances and I doubt he ever does it on a concert tour, but the caliber of the music would be the same.
    What about opera? Opera is essentially a dramatic as well as musical performance (when done well) and should never require the music when singing. I saw a performance of “The Ring” years ago in Berlin. Siegfried and Sieglinde were singing an impassioned love song to each other – only they were not! Each was facing a different portion of the audience, back half to the other. The singing was glorious, the acting was not. The effect of reading a score while performing the duet would be even more ludicrous.
    Obviously, the music must be from the heart and known by heart but having the score for a piano or violin solo should not be disqualifying. Daryl Sherman

    Comment by Daryl Sherman — January 7, 2013 @ 10:09 am

  6. I always use a score, an electronic one with PDF music files and a footswitch. I use music for jazz tunes and blues stuff as well. I even use scores for progressive rock stuff, which makes me a sort of conductor of the rock ensemble, much like Walt Fowler was in Zappa’s band, conducting with a flourescent “little green wand.
    I like to use music for extended jazz and rock sets, so that I know what is it I have to choose from for the evening’s music. I often don’t look at it after a quick review.
    As for classical piano music, I am such an experienced improviser that it really helps focus me on the correct notes. I have developed a catalog of over 250 pieces of modern settings of public domain standard piano rep called the GateWay Editions catalog, available on CD-ROM from I use it in a plain laptop turned on its side, with the Library view and a 90 degree turn, with a pageturn footswitch. Wouldn’t be without it.
    Opera with a score is called a concert rendition. No costumes, no real acting, just music. Otherwise, it’s a no-go. But, they DO have a pit prompter and a rolling telescroll I would imagine. That’s what my-e-stand is, a rolling teleprompter, under my own control.

    Comment by Michael BB — January 7, 2013 @ 1:32 am

  7. We saw Peter Serkin play Bartok con 1 w/ score; Sam
    got 2 weeks of exercise rising to turn pages. A few years earlier, Thibaudet played the Khachaturian with a score lying on the frame; he apparently consulted it only during the orchestral tuttis. As I’ve aged, memorizing is harder, but I try. And don’t succeed with every piece. Love Richter, but the photo is awful. And totally agree: no to Rodolfo and Mimi looking over each other’s shoulders at their score. Great topic.

    Comment by Fred Wileman — January 6, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

  8. This is a great topic! I think about this often.

    I think it depends on the individual performer, and the sort of experience they want to create for the audience. That, in addition to practical factors like how much time you’ve had to prepare, considering who might be in the audience, if you’ve had enough sleep the night before, and what the “general practice” is for your instrument. Where pianists generally play solo recitals memorized, other instruments don’t have the same tradition at all, and some pianists themselves are surprised to learn this.

    I personally like when there is no score, it does, as you say, seem like it’s coming more from within. And in a way it’s true, because as a performer, you have a much more intimate relationship with the music if you’ve had it memorized.

    But opera… no scores please!!

    Comment by hashimeansbridge — January 6, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  9. Great post. Thinking…. Adore Sviatoslav R.

    Comment by Diana — January 6, 2013 @ 11:22 am

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