“I don’t need the written music – I can play it by ear!”

It is a wonderful skill to hear something and be able to play or sing it back. Many of us have this ability. But when we are supposed to be learning the skill of reading music we need to handle our memorising skill carefully.

In my beginner piano course: Headstart Piano, I seek to address this in a way that positively reinforces the skill to learn by ear, whilst teaching the more difficult skill to develop: that of reading music.

Those who lean towards playing by ear can adopt avoidance strategies when it comes to reading. Here are some “variations” I have observed on the “theme” of reading music:

  • Not reading the notes, but confidently playing with the use of finger numbers.
  • Looking at hands throughout, with complete memorisation of the piece from hearing it played for them.
  • Looking at the music but with glazed vision as they recall the sound of the piece from hearing it played for them.
  • Reading and playing the notes but not observing the correct rhythm.
  • Singing the song but not being able to identify the note names or rhythm.
  • Having to restart at the beginning whenever a mistake is made.

Notice how each of these observations relies on memorisation and actually works against learning the process of decoding the note length and/or pitch.

So much has to happen in the reading process. Here is a breakdown:

  • Hand is in position.
  • Eyes are looking at the written music.
  • There is recognition of the note on the stave as being “D”, or whatever.
  • Knowing which finger will play that note.
  • Knowing how long the note will be held for.
  • Knowing how to play that note in the flow of the music.

For all this to happen there first has to be the slow process of getting to know how to do it, such that we build up a vocabulary of notes and rhythms, increasing as we get more advanced. Conversely, if we go immediately to a complicated piece where the patterns can be memorised by ear, skipping these initial and intermediate steps, at some point we will need to come back to basics and learn the note reading skills. There are many different opinions as to how to do this. To some extent it will depend on the learning style of the pupil.

Next time I will cover some practical steps to help the learner who is better at memorising get more confident at reading.

3 thoughts on “Music Memoriser/ Music Reader – Part 1: the avoidance strategies

  1. This is a great breakdown of the skill needed to be able to read music. Most people don’t realize how involved it is… and how many hours of practise it will take before they become fluent at it.
    Will look forward to your next post.

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