The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: How do you cope with wrong notes you hit or hear? Pianist Stephen Hough has a healthy and helpful point of view. | June 23, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

None of us likes hitting wrong notes.

And most of us detest hearing wrong notes almost as much as making them.

But does that mean that we are being too perfectionist with ourselves and others?

It could be that wrong notes may lie at the heart of the musical experience as a LIVE event.

The outstanding, award-winning British pianist and prolific blogger Stephen Hough (below), who has played several times in Madison at the Wisconsin Union Theater and with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, recently posted a blog entry that dealt with that issue.


Hough makes some interesting and convincing points that might just help us in our own playing and performances.

And he backs up what he says with some personal and historic examples of wrong notes hit by some very famous musicians, including famed piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz (below top). (I forget who it was but somebody remarked that arch rival pianist Arthur Rubinstein (below bottom), renowned for his rich tone, often hit wrong notes. And the response was: “But what wrong notes!“

Vladimir Horowitz

artur rubinstein in moscow 1964

Anyway, here is a link to the blog post:

Take a read and be sure to listen to the examples and read some of the comments left by others.

See what you think.

Then let the rest of know your reaction to Hough – and to how you cope with hitting or hearing wrong notes.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. If you were to ask a jazz pianist what is a wrong note you might be surprised by the answer.

    Peter at


    Comment by Peter Tarsio — January 1, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

  2. I have worked with many a player who would grimace openly when they made or heard a wrong note from others. I suppose it was their attempt at “being professional”. What it really does is distract other players and they usually just roll their eyes. Marcel Tabuteau, principal oboe of the Philly Orchestra was often heard playing wrong notes but they were “glorious” wrong notes!


    Comment by Robert — June 23, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

    • Yeah, there’s no point in bragging about how many clams you can dig up at one paid concert setting/sitting, but I would certainly counsel any young person to NOT telegraph the error with a grimace, or any other bodily or facial language. i got a chance to play a lot of nice wrong notes today when I sat at a student’s piano, they were graduating from high school, and saw the Invention in F of Bach on the stand. I did my best to practise what I have been preaching, as that piece is not UP in my repertoire at the moment. MBB


      Comment by Michael BB — June 23, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

  3. Of course I’ve made/heard wrong notes. As a young baritone horn player in the S Milwaukee High band I was initially astonished to hear kids purposely playing wrong notes to exacerbate practice teacher Fred Hemke. But during my summers @ the National Music Camp & 1 winter @ the Interlochen Arts Academy, I soon learned that wrong notes unintentionally played are OK, nothing to dwell on unless it’s extremely noticeable. And even then, if in a public performance, don’t stop. As Michael noted above, keep the rhythm flowing.

    One thing I learned from Henry Smith, former prin. trombonist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, was that integrity is way more important than note perfection. In his audition for that job he was competing with something like 50 others, 1 of whom was a truly world-class player from France. Henry was next up & could hear enough to know the guy had played flawlessly. During his audition, Henry made some mistakes. When he got the job, his first question to Ormandy was why was he successful when he knew the Frenchman had outplayed him. Ormandy said he was so impressed with the Frenchmen’s shaping his tone to Philly’s Germanic tonal concept that he asked Frenchie if he’d been listening to Philly’s recordings. When the guy said no, Ormandy knew he was lying so Henry got the job because his integrity was intact despite dropping a note or 2.


    Comment by buppanasu — June 23, 2013 @ 11:52 am

  4. Dizzy Gillespie used to say, ” I don’t care much about notes, but I LOVE Sounds! ” I have two attitudes about this topic.
    The first one is, when my students are performing in recital, I ALWAYS count wrong notes, and listen for them intently. Because, if a student plays their selection without error, I think they deserve to hear that honest and verified assessment from their teacher. Usually, at least ONE person does accomplish this interesting task.
    It is not at all difficult to listen for any key/pitch/rhythm errors while hearing the Music they are making as well.
    In fact, if one does both, one can make the most important critique of all, which is that someone played their piece perfectly, but did not make enough Music with those perfect notes and rhythms.
    The second attitude I have is that I NEVER interrupt my students when they are Performing a piece for me in the studio. How can one learn to handle errors if one is not allowed to make them, and carry on, in the safe environment of teaching? Selling the listener a wrong note or a wrong rhythm is a vital skill for every performer.
    Lastly, we focus on pitch errors almost exclusively, to the exclusion of rhythm. Rhythm errors are WAY more important, in the sense that they are MUCH harder to conceal and “sell. Yet, in reading and practicing music, rhythm is usually last on the list of things that concern us, even behind dynamics! It is SO much easier to hang the right notes in the right rhythm, but, if one focuses on the right notes rather than the correct rhythm, the piece cannot obtain its proper flow. Sometimes I have the student engage in what I call Rhythmic Sight-Reading. The idea is to get ALL the rhythms correct, to the exclusion of any other criteria. Any key played in the proper flow is the Right one. It especially helps adults, who are often totally addicted to correct pitch to the exclusion of correct rhythm. Skeleton underlays the Muscle.
    I tell my students that, in order for the error not to be “telegraphed” to the audience, there must be NO interruption in the rhythmic flow. This is a dead giveaway, as is any attempt to “Fix” the error. Fixing errors is a feature of Practise, not Performance.
    Stephen Hough is spot on in his analysis. And his handsome pal will have a career as a pianist, because even classical labels like a pretty face and ____ whatever else to put on the cover art, and have the audience admire.


    Comment by Michael BB — June 23, 2013 @ 10:57 am

  5. A timely post since I was musing about a concert last night where I heard several fluffed notes. Thank you, Ear, for putting the focus on our humanity and steering me to Hough’s blog post. I laughed until I cried. And now I can also forgive my pianist mother her wacky renditions of Chopin. Who knew she was up there with other great performers?


    Comment by Ronnie Hess — June 23, 2013 @ 10:45 am

  6. Music is about so much more than notes — as anyone who has listened to a wooden performance knows. I think it was in the second volume of his autobiography that Rubenstein wrote “I let the wrong notes pile up at my feet.” But such music!


    Comment by Susan Fiore — June 23, 2013 @ 8:04 am

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