2 reasons why studio recordings sound different than live performances

As a performing musician, I’ve always been interested in why many musicians play so differently live than they do in the recording studio. This is as true in classical and jazz as it is in contemporary rock. (It’s true in pop music too, unless of course the “live” performance is canned or rehearsed to sound exactly like the recording.)

There are many sides to this topic, but records are meant to sound one of 2 ways (or both):

  1. They are meant to be “note-perfect” so a listener doesn’t hear the same mistake played every time they listen to it.


  1. They are meant to create a very specific mood, for a listener to experience at home (or hear on the radio).

I hear about this anecdotally all the time:

Some of my teenage piano students tell me they prefer to hear Katy Perry sing live, because she sings more expressively than she does on her recordings.

In the early 1990s, I heard the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter play a burning live set with his quartet at NYC’s Blue Note jazz club. Later, in his dressing room, I asked him if he had plans to record with this group. Wayne just shook his head and said, “Nah, that’s a different thing.” (Years later he decided to only release live records, which sounded much different than his earlier studio work. Maybe he took my hint. lol)

This is even true of an improvisatory music like jazz. A lot of the time you’ll hear that studio recordings sound “tame” when compared to the same musicians playing live. It’s not that they couldn’t give a live performance in the studio, it’s that they wanted the music to sound a certain way when listened to at home. And “home” is different than a club or concert hall.

The jazz great Gerry Mulligan, who could play very exciting music live, once told me that his recordings were meant to be “pipe and slipper music.” (Relaxed and laid-back.)

The classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz approached recordings and performances differently too. He didn’t mind playing wrong notes live, but when recording he would go back and fix all his mistakes. His stated reason was that he didn’t want his listeners to have to hear the same wrong note over and over. He was fine with this in performance, though, because he liked taking risks and knew the audience would only hear his mistakes once.

So what does this mean for you, as a musician? It means that yes, by all means enjoy listening to your favorite studio recordings. Enjoy them, absorb them, learn from them and analyze them. But don’t think this is how the same musicians necessarily play live. Listen to their live recordings too, and notice the differences when they appear. You’ll get farther as a musician if you do this.

I’ve made my piano improv video course so that you become able to sit down at the piano and play great music effortlessly, without struggling.

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