Sheet Music: Documentation for Musicians

Musicians of all sorts are constantly practicing to improve their ability to manifest the music in their heads into the instruments they play. Where there is a large split is in how that music gets into their heads in the first place.

Some people are very good at playing by ear - they hear a song, know where those notes lay on their instrument, and can reproduce it fairly easily. This gives them a lot of freedom, for if they’re familiar with a song, they can play it without much practice or preparation, which is great at parties!

On the other end of the spectrum are the excellent sight-readers, who can play any piece from sheet music. A good sight-reader can play a song whether or not they’ve heard it before; before radios and recorded music became commonplace, this was often how music was spread. A reliance upon sheet music is both an advantage and disadvantage, for while a sight-reader without any music is infinitely less capable than their fellow ear-trained musician, they are limited in the music they play only by the size of their library, rather than the extent of their memory.

In this way, sheet music is documentation, just as much as software docs - it frees up your memory from storing how to play (use) a song (a tool) that you haven’t touched in months or years, and also helps introduce a new musician (user) to it.

Sheet music has an additional benefit when learning new songs. Frequently, sheet music will have additional notations specifying fingering and sticking; while a musician learning by ear can certainly learn how to make the same sounds, they may find out much later that what they thought was so complicated is really quite simple when playing it the way the author intended. Sound like any software experiences you’ve had?

Of course, most professional musicians will strive to be good at both sight-reading and playing by ear. Although there’s no direct parallel to software for playing by ear, it’s important to keep in mind that we have two parts to take care of as well - intuitive design that works well without training, and good documentation to fall back on for advanced usage.