How Many of Our Mistakes Do Audiences (and Other Musicians) Actually Hear?

Nobody likes to crack notes, miss shifts, or play out of tune. Especially in front of an audience. But unless we decide to give up the experience of performing live, that’s just something that comes with the territory.

And…right about now there’s probably a voice in your head saying, “Yeah, ok, Captain Obvious – what’s your point?”

Well, I was watching this interview with cellist Astrid Schween the other day, and heard her describe how important it is to understand the difference between practice mode and performance mode (it begins at 8:42 here).

Whereas practice mode is characterized by careful self-monitoring for mistakes and imperfections, analysis, and critique, performance mode is where we are focused more on sound, phrasing, and the beauty in a piece that we want an audience to experience. Which, when you think about it, are about 180 degrees in the opposite direction from one another.

So there is this interesting paradox about practicing, where the more time we spend in practice mode, the better we get at doing something that is a total no-no in performance (?!).

And what’s so bad about playing out of tune or a barely perceptible tremor in our sound anyway? Well, for me, the honest answer is that playing less than perfectly made me feel embarrassed, especially in front of friends, teachers, or other musicians. But I suppose the “correct” answer is that the reason why these little imperfections of pitch, sound, rhythm, and so on matter, is that they detract from the beauty of the piece, and the listener’s experience of the performance.

But how distracting are they really? And do our musician friends and colleagues who make us the most nervous really notice as many of the mistakes we think they do?

10 pianists. 1 hour. 4 pieces.

Well, these are tricky questions, and I don’t know that we can come to a totally definitive conclusion, but there is an interesting Yale study that provides some surprising insights.

Ten Yale piano majors (9 grad students and 1 incoming student) were given an hour to learn and record four short pieces. Given the time constraints, their performances of these pieces obviously fell a wee bit short of perfection. Especially since if you really want to take things to a high level, there are a whole range of different types of imperfections that could exist in a performance, from sound to rhythm to intonation, and many more subtle details. But one obvious category of errors is whether we play the right notes or not.

And in that regard, the collective recordings of the pianists’ performance of Chopin’s D-flat Major Prelude contained 380 total note errors. Meaning, the pianists either a) played a wrong note, b) left out a note, or c) played a note where there was none written in the score.

Pianists grading pianists

Eight Yale undergraduate piano majors, all of whom were familiar with the piece (and two of whom had studied the piece), then listened to the recordings, uninterrupted, with blank, unmarked copies of the score.

They were asked to circle any wrong, missing, or added notes they heard in the recording. And that if they couldn’t quite figure out what happened, circling a group of notes was ok too.

How many errors did they notice?

Before we get into the results, take a moment to guess how many of the note errors the pianists were able to detect. Or even better, what percentage of the note errors they noticed.

Got a number in mind?

Ok. So here’s what happened.

Of the 380 errors, the eight pianists as a team, detected only 38% (i.e. 143). The highest individual score was 22% of errors detected, and one pianist caught only 7% of the errors.

There was surprisingly little overlap among the pianists too. Only 6 out of the 380 errors were noticed by all 8 pianists; 3 errors by 7 of the pianists; and 5 errors by 6 of the pianists.


The obvious limitation of this study is that given the sheer number of notes that pianists play, and the polyphonic nature of the instrument, it makes sense that a listener would be less likely to notice omitted or incorrect notes, especially if they occur in the inner voices. A different instrument’s note errors, on the other hand, might stand out a little more clearly.

And when we’re talking about experienced musicians like our teachers and the performers we look up to, who have cultivated great ears and musical insights over many decades, and also know the repertoire we’re playing inside and out, the results of course may be different. Especially if the definition of errors is expanded to include musical nuance and many of the higher-order aspects of music that much of our work ultimately centers around.

Nevertheless, we do tend to be much more sensitive to the imperfections in our playing than others are. Because when we listen back to our own performances, we often realize how much less noticeable most errors are on the recording, compared with how catastrophic they seemed under our ear at the time. So all that energy we devote to beating ourselves up and feeling embarrassed about mistakes and imperfections in a performance is kind of wasted on stuff that not only goes unnoticed, but prevents us from attending to the interesting music stuff that we actually want an audience to hear.

So ultimately, it seems that the mistakes we make are probably much less distracting to the audience than we might assume. More than anything, it’s probably the case that these mistakes distract us from the task at hand, and this hijacking of our attention is what gets in the way of our ability to play our best, and bring a little beauty into their world.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


18 Responses

  1. Another great column, Noah! Whatever the details or limitations of the actual study, your interpretation of the results rings very true to me.

    I would also add that we tend to overestimate the SIGNIFICANCE of our mistakes. When I go to a friend’s recital and I hear them play a wrong note, I may notice it at the time, but so long as the overall level of playing is strong, I tend to “let their mistake go” immediately and get swept back up in the flow of the music. After all, I’m there to enjoy myself, and a momentary blip in the music won’t ruin the whole concert for me.

    It can be so much harder to “let that mistake go” when you’re the one performing, and yet it’s so critically important to do just that.

    I think you’ve had some other great columns on the importance of “practicing performance” (i.e. practicing being in performance mode–where you’re mainly concerned with beauty and expression instead of just accuracy). I seem to remember you suggested recording yourself in “practice performances” and telling yourself to leave the critical evaluation for later, which seems like a very helpful approach.

    1. Ah yes, good point, Allan – thanks for weighing in!

      I do have to admit though that in my younger years, I was guilty of keeping score when listening to friends play. As in, just listening for mistakes and imperfections. Which is maybe a very human thing to do, but doesn’t really make for an enjoyable listening experience and is also kind of uncool when you think about it…

      1. Sadly, that’s true, too–and I’m sure that from time to time, I was probably guilty of that “mean” style of listening when I was a student, as well. But as you point out, “keeping score” of friends’ mistakes is something we tend to do a lot more in our younger years. Whatever age you do it, “keeping score” is an act of emotional immaturity and insecurity. People who feel comfortable with themselves and their own abilities don’t need to prop up their own egos by tearing others down. Hopefully, it’s a bad habit we start to outgrow as we develop more confidence, experience and maturity.

        And from the performer’s point of view (which is what your whole website is mainly concerned with), I think that real maturity includes learning NOT TO CARE so much about the opinions of “mean listeners.” It can be a hard lesson to learn, but I think it’s very important, too. Most people come to your concerts to enjoy the music. Even if there are a few “mean listeners” out there who are predisposed to be hypercritical, why should you attach any special importance to what they think? After all, “mean listening” is a sign of their immaturity–it’s their problem, not yours!

        Of course, the meanest listeners often play your instrument, and so would seem to be the most knowledgable, in certain ways. And auditions and competitions really do place a great deal of emphasis on technical perfection. But allowing ourselves to obsess about mean listeners can be incredibly inhibiting to our performance, and not likely to help us in the long run. To play our best, we need to get past that.

  2. As teachers, we spend a lot of time teaching students how to play correctly (practice). How much time do we spend teaching how to recover from mistakes (performance) without stopping, saying something, making a sound or a facial expression?

  3. This column is a keeper. A lot of us know subconsciously that practice is about honing our tools and performing is about expression but it’s helpful to read it right out in the open in black and white print. I’m going to keep this to re-read before my next concert. Thank you.

  4. This is quite interesting! I would be interested to see a similar study done with string players as I feel like (and my opinion is probably biased) their mistakes are a lot more noticeable as while a pianist may miss, or play wrong notes, they will never really be “out of tune” or have their bow going in the wrong direction in a group. Is it just me or are mistakes more noticeable on string instruments than others?

    1. As a pianist myself I’d say that mistakes on a piano are more noticeable than on strings. Gotta ask my oldest daughter (who plays both piano and violin) or my youngest one (who plays neither, while still being a very young musician: she plays clarinet). I will ask and report back if I learn anything that does not sound random thoughts. Yet, Noah has access to a larger pool to get this info…

  5. “. . . this hijacking of our attention is what gets in the way of our ability to play our best, and bring a little beauty into their world.” That’s SUCH a big issue for me. At home or wherever playing alone, it’s never a problem. I can continue on after a mistake and still play the rest of the piece well, including expression. But in performance it’s another story. I am capable of playing SO much better than the audience gets to hear, and that leaves me feeling any combination of embarrassed, sad, disappointed, angry, frustrated and more. Yet listeners tell me over and over how wonderful it was, how my music touches them, how there’s “something special” about the way I play. I wish I could feel I haven’t let them down, or walk away satisfied with my performance.

    1. Hi Kayla,

      That is a very frustrating experience to have in performances – but as I hope you’re finding from exploring sport psychology, performing up to our full potential on stage is something we can learn to get better at. But in the meantime, it might also help to remember that we tend to sound much worse to ourselves than we do to others. And this bias we have tends to be especially prevalent when we’re nervous.

  6. I always look at it like this. If my band plays a show and we do say an hour set, how many notes am I playing? Thousands. If I mess up a note here or there that’s a tiny, tiny percent.

  7. This article was really fascinating to me. As a performing guitarist and vocalist, I can say that I am constantly worried about how I sound to others. I am always worried that everyone will notice every single error in my performance. This article confirmed my theory that I am more concerned about it than anyone else. It is hard to understand that I am the only one who knows the minute details of how I should be playing a song. If I make a small mistake, I’m probably the only one who even knows. I shouldn’t expect my audience to know what note comes next. It all just relies on how well you can play off your mistakes. I’ve learned how to shake it off and pretend like nothing has happened. Usually when I ask my friends if they saw me mess up, they never say yes.

    1. Haley – For some things, a “don’t ask” policy is best. If you don’t tell them that you made an error, most of them won’t know. Fix the error in rehearsal. The best piece of advice I was given was “keep smiling and don’t make a face when you make a mistake.”

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