Why Pop Piano Sheet Music Sounds Wrong

If you come from a classical piano background, you may know very well the frustration of downloading the sheet music to your favorite song only to be disappointed when you actually start to play it. Hey, wait a minute! This doesn’t sound right! You have discovered the great divide between the classical notation world and modern piano playing.

Depending on what version of sheet music you found, a few things probably happened.
1: The music was dumbed down to accommodate less skilled players. You look at measure after measure of whole notes and half notes and know this can’t be right. The song doesn’t have these long notes in it. Too simple sounding.
2: The music was transposed to an “easy” key so more people can play it, even if it isn’t marked as an easy version. Sometimes you have a few options of what key to download, but if you don’t have the music in the original key, it won’t sound at all like the recording. Worse, if you or someone else tries to sing along, the song could be too high or too low to actually sing.
3: You just might be lucky enough to find a great version of the song on sheet music. Often these are pretty good if there is a specific piano intro, think “Don’t Stop Believin’”, “Piano Man” or “Someone Like You”. But not so fast. Often these arrangements fall short after the intro and become just a shell of a song. It was looking so good there for a minute, but once the verse starts… back to whole and half notes or some other simplified version that sounds nothing like the song.

But don’t throw away the music just yet. You can salvage most of these. The secret to success is in the chords. If the music has chords written on top of the notation (often believed to be for guitar players) and the song is in the right key, you can play off of those and create a much better sounding piano part. Even if it’s in the wrong key, you can do some simple math to write the chords in the correct key. To make this switch to a more modern approach to piano playing, it takes a shift from reading specific notes off the page to using chord structures to play what you hear on the recording or to invent your own arrangement.

Most people who learned piano the classical way lack the ability to play from the more modern notation of chord charts. Most professional players on the recordings you hear don’t get sheet music to play from. They get charts, sometimes called lead sheets. The piano playing artists don’t typically write out their music either. It’s usually up to someone else to write it down after it’s recorded to put it on the sheet music. When the artist writes and then plays their own songs, they’re doing it from chord charts as well. With this chord based system, the player then creates a part from that structure instead of reading exactly what notes to play, leading to the fact that they rarely ever play the exact same thing twice. This is why quite often that various versions of songs, and especially live performances, have slight changes to the playing… the songs sound a little different each time. Singer/songwriters like Elton John, Billy Joel, Alicia Keys, and others play different versions of their songs at each performance, but it’s still linked to the chord chart. If you know how to play like that, you can recreate any performance you hear, since you won’t be able to find sheet music for the live version you like. 

Don’t get me wrong, the ability to read music is a great skill to have. If this is your background though, you just might need to branch out if you want to play more modern styles of music or not get locked into one arrangement of a song. Those that can do both have the advantage of being able to read specific parts when needed but also play from chords to either mimic a favorite version or come up with a unique piano part on their own.

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