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Is it okay to say "I can play the piano by music notes" (meaning that if you gave me a sheet of paper with some music notes on it, I would have no problem reproducing that piece of music by looking at that sheet of paper and simultaneously playing the piano) or there is a better way of expressing this thought?

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up vote 12 down vote accepted

Instead of saying "I can play the piano by music notes", it would be more understandable to say:

I can play piano by reading sheet music

This means that, given a piece of sheet music, you can play the piece. If you can not only read sheet music, but you can play a piece you have never seen before on the first try, you can say:

I can play the piano by sight-reading.


I can sightread on the piano

As Wikipedia explains, sight-reading is:

the reading and performing of a piece of written music, specifically when the performer has not seen it before

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D'oh. Good answer...beating me by 5 seconds. – tdhsmith Sep 11 '11 at 15:21
Thank you simchona!!! – brilliant Sep 11 '11 at 20:47
I've heard the formulation "I can sight-read" used a lot when the instrument in given by context : This piano player is an excellent sight-reader! How would you say "I'm an excellent sight-reader on the / with / at piano" – Shawn Sep 22 '11 at 3:51
@Shawn I don't understand the second half of your comment. You ask "how would you say..." to something I never said – simchona Sep 22 '11 at 3:56
@Shawn you might say. "I can sightread on the piano" – simchona Sep 22 '11 at 4:14

The term I am most familiar with is sightread.

to read (as a foreign language) or perform (music) without previous preparation or study

Then you could say that you can "sightread for/on the piano".

Also some people may prefer to use a hyphen in the term, sight-read.

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+1 for using sight-read. (5 seconds off or not, I like your answer) – simchona Sep 11 '11 at 15:22
Would that be for or on then? Or something else? – Shawn Sep 22 '11 at 4:13

A typical way of saying this is "I read sheet music."

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Though that can mean you read without knowing how to play. – Mark Sep 22 '11 at 7:13

If you'd like to retain the structure of the popular expression "to play by ear," I would use "to play by score".

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I honestly don't think (as someone who studied music) that anyone would use this. – simchona Sep 13 '11 at 4:28
I found a few references online, but it's not that common. Still, I was emphasizing the parallel structure which might be nice in dialog. But point taken, I won't defend this too much. :-) – Codie CodeMonkey Sep 13 '11 at 5:42

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