What is the term for an orchestra or group of musicians playing without sheet music? Essentially they are "winging it" or improvising.

Maybe I need to clarify the question. I recall a specific term for an orchestra or small group of musicians that do not use a score. The sound that the orchestra produces may not be pleasing to the ears. Essentially everyone in the orchestra just plays what they want.

  • 2
    It would be a pretty impressive orchestra that could play without a score.
    – cindi
    Oct 5, 2011 at 16:11
  • The words that come to mind for me are "unusually talented." Oct 5, 2011 at 17:22
  • You're not Doctor John Smith, are you? (Apologies, non Whovians.)
    – rajah9
    Oct 5, 2011 at 19:07

5 Answers 5


There are different potential terms depending on what they are really doing:

  • Playing from memory means they are following a composed piece of music, but they have memorized it.
  • Playing by ear means playing music following what they hear rather than what they see (written music).

Improvising, or jamming means they are improvising, but does not imply whether or not they are reading music.

When referring to a style or the name of a group, the word "free" can imply not using written music. For example, "free jazz". I suppose if someone referred to their musical style as "free orchestral music", it would be understood that it's completely improvisational.

  • 1
    Improvising isn't done by reading sheet music (by definition, since written music is made before performance). Some written music may have "improvise here" sections, or the written music may be purposely not followed, of course.
    – mgkrebbs
    Oct 5, 2011 at 18:55
  • 1
    @mgkrebbs: There's more to a written part than notes. Jazz improvisers for example often follow a part as they improvise, to know the harmony & form.
    – tenfour
    Oct 5, 2011 at 19:06
  • I disagree that if musicians are jamming or having a jam session we don't know if they're reading music. The OP asked about following a score, and since the point of such a session is to create or freestyle, it wouldn't be a jam if a score was followed. Sure, references might be used as a starting point, whether chord progressions or sheet music, but the key is that they're not obeyed as you might otherwise think of reading music (adding individual expression, but trying to be faithful to a composer's intent).
    – aedia λ
    Oct 6, 2011 at 0:07
  • Improvising music involves some amount of external foundation, and there is no implication that it's not a written score, for example following the chord changes of a jazz song. In a jazz jam session, more often than not the musicians are following a book. Does that mean it's not a jam session? Another example is baroque music where improvised embellishments are the style, but they are weaved into the melody. Is this not improvisation? More importantly though, my point is that "improvisation" does not imply one way or the other whether it involves reading music parts.
    – tenfour
    Oct 6, 2011 at 0:28

I'd call it "extemporaneous music". I do not know if this is an accepted term, but I think it would be understood to mean music without a score (regardless of how many people are playing it). There does seem to be a band by that name now, to add to the confusion. This article on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz_piano) seems to use it the way I did.


"Playing by ear"; it means learning and/or performing without any musical notation. The opposite would be "playing by rote."


Here are some partial answers.

  • In Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1048, there is a cadenza for harpsichord. The cadenza is often improvised by the instrumentalist (a harpsichordist in this piece), but very popular ones get transcribed. Fritz Kreisler was a famed violinist whose cadenzas were famous. (Thus you will see pieces described as: "Beethoven Violin Concerto in D Major, 1st. movement Cadenza by Fritz Kreisler.") But this is an instrumentalist, not the whole orchestra or ensemble.
  • Pachebel's Canon may have started with just a sketch and the ground bass of perhaps two measures. Musicians improvised on the theme, adding embellishments on the bass part (which remains static throughout the piece). You have already referred to this word. One might also think of this as a theme and variation. With modern notation around 1919, the piece has become standardized.

I don't know of a name for an orchestra without a score. I have heard of orchestras without conductors and soloists without scores. I also have heard about orchestras with very little in the way of scores.


I think the expression you are looking for is jamming, or a jam session.

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