No Music Stands on Stage

Pick up a guitar, leave the sheet music at home…

When you see a professional rock band onstage, do you see them with music stands? Nope. Do you see Angus Young – guitarist from ACDC – looking at a piece of paper with his scale shapes on it whilst he’s running around the stage entertaining the crowd? Probably not, (unless you’re thinking of a different Angus Young to me). Most modern guitar players will play most things from memory.

In my recent studies in music education, I’ve been reading about how most contemporary musicians, learn and perform music. This especially applies to guitarists, drummers and members of a typical pop/rock band.

As I tell my students, the best place for anything we’re learning to be isn’t on a sheet of paper, but in their head. Memorising music is essential if one wants to play in a contemporary setting other than a concert band, or a classical piano recital.

What’s good about having no music on stage?

  • Having a clearer stage that’s not cluttered with music stands
  • Being able to focus more on the performance itself rather than just playing the right notes
  • Playing one’s own interpretation of a piece, rather than playing exactly as the original
  • Improvising with more freedom and versatility

We already do it without thinking

We often don’t quite know how we’re memorising a piece. Rather it seems to be unconscious, something that just seems to happen as we’re learning and practicing a song. An understanding of music theory makes this happen much more quickly and easily, because we already understand the language of music. It’s kind of like learning to say a sentence in a language we already know how to speak, rather than learning a sentence in a language that is completely foreign to us.

The psychology of memorising music

As we learn a song, in actual fact we’re developing our own mental representation. At a semi-professional level, we start with a broad overview of the song in mind. Ie what it sounds like and a rough picture of how it generally flows between each section. This meta perception of the piece’s structure is composed of the phrases, melodies, chords or riffs themselves, which we then begin to learn to ‘fill in the gaps’ so to speak, of our initial perception of the song. We learn these by focusing upon the actual notes and expressive techniques of which each is made up.

Since our memory couldn’t possibly recall every single note of a piece at the same time, we learn (and consciously remember) the notes of each phrase, join them together to create phrases/motifs (which we can begin to play without focusing on every single note), join these together to construct whole coherent sections of the piece, and finally fit the sections together to create a whole song. As we do this, in terms of how we perform a piece, our memory begins to work at a higher and higher level, with less conscious recall, until the final result is achieved.

The final goal

If we are able to, as soon as possible we should try to play through the whole thing (even just roughly or with missed phrases), as doing this helps us to see the goal/bigger picture towards which we are working, and practice becomes more enjoyable.

The goal: Play the whole song from memory!

Although in some contemporary genres sheet music may still be appropriate Eg. A concert band, Jazz gig playing standards, many modern musicians want to play his or her favourite songs heard on the radio, Spotify, Youtube etc. and I can guarantee that the original artists of these bands do not use sheet music when performing live.

Getting rid of the sheet music, makes PLAYING music more fun!