Use Printed Music in Your Piano Playing

You’re learning to play the piano for one simple reason: to play music. Okay, so maybe you’re also learning piano to impress your friends, but after you achieve the first goal, the second goal naturally just happens. Unless you’re playing strictly by ear, you need some music to read. Enter the concept of printed music.

Types of printed music

Thanks to five centuries worth of composers, you have a wealth of printed music from which to choose. Generally, you find it in three packages:

  • Sheet music: Single songs printed on 2 to 12 pages, folded or stapled together.

  • Folios: Collections of various songs, packaged together for a specific marketing reason.

  • Classical books: Some classical pieces are very long and require an entire little book to hold one piece.

For example, suppose you want to learn the song “Hallelujah,” written by Leonard Cohen, after hearing a recording by Cohen, John Cale (whose version is on the Shrek movie soundtrack), k. d. Lang, Jeff Buckley, or Rufus Wainwright. You can purchase a digital download of the song from a sheet music website, buy the published sheet music of the song from a music store, or get it in a folio (book) of songs from the film Shrek.

Buying folios is a great value. Sheet music sells for around $5 for one song, whereas a folio sells for $20-$25 and may have 10 to 50, or even 100, songs. However, chances are that if you’re looking for a really new song, it will only be available as individual sheet music.

Arrangements and transcriptions

Printed music, whether in sheets or folios, comes in many different formats called arrangements. Arrangements allow the publisher to release the song for several skill levels and for various keyboard instruments. It’s the same song, but the publisher has arranged the notes and chords to suit the needs of each skill level.

For example, you may want to play a very easy version of a song on your digital keyboard, or you may want to play an advanced piano solo version on a grand piano. Both formats are available. And, of course, you can also find other arrangements of the same song for different instruments and voices.

Fake books

A fake book isn’t really fake — it’s a real book. This is just the music industry term for a printed music book or folio that gives you only the melody line, lyrics, and chord symbols of a song (you have to come up with, improvise, or fake, the actual notes you’ll play). Compared to a piece of sheet music that has both hands written out and fully harmonized, a fake book merely acts as a road map of the song, allowing you to play the melody, sing the lyrics, and create your own left-hand accompaniment with the noted chords.

Working pianists love fake books because they can take a request, flip to the song (usually printed in its entirety on one single page), and improvise their own version of the song. It’s even better if a pianist is accompanying a singer, because a fake book’s streamlined form makes it easy to transpose (or change keys) a song on the spot to accommodate the singer’s range and repeat the whole song or just a certain section. And that’s why you put the little tip jar on the piano.

Some recommended fake books — based on content, usability, and price — include the following:

  • The Classical Fake Book (Hal Leonard)

  • Fake Book of the World’s Favorite Songs (Hal Leonard)

  • All the Right Changes, by Dick Hyman (Ekay Music)

  • The New Real Book Vol. 1–3 (Sher Music)

  • The Real Little Ultimate Fake Book (Hal Leonard)

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