Back when I was fifteen, and my best friend Lisa was in my music class at school, we found out that we both liked writing songs. Both of us had learned to read music and play piano formally, but playing by ear and coming up with new songs was the fun stuff.

One of the songs Lisa wrote (and the sentiment of which I concurred with) was called “I Want a Man with a Moustache”.  With great hilarity and teenage enthusiasm we got two pianos together in my parent’s music studio and practised singing it together. Along with that we swapped ideas and other songs we had written. It was a memorable weekend.

I’m grateful that I was raised to read music, but I enjoyed experimenting with playing by ear too. I believe strongly that you need both skills to fully develop as a musician, but you have to manage both skills carefully for it to work to full advantage.

Let me explain. Playing by ear is the development of a natural skill. Reading music notation is a learning process and an acquired skill.

Someone who plays by ear can hear a tune and copy it fairly easily. Such students will want the teacher to play the piece for them so they don’t have to bother to read the music. (You know who you are!) If they have an obliging teacher this works very well at the beginning, and it looks as though the student is off to a terrific start. Then they come across music that is more tricky where they need to have music reading skills to go further. By this stage it is expected that they actually know how to read the notes. But there will be limitations if they have been depending on hearing the music to learn it. This is the brick wall where some very capable people give up because what seemed like an easy skill to develop has become slow and hard.

You see, reading music is an acquired skill and does take time and effort to get into the right habits. Without right habits, learning to read music will be sporadic and difficult to master. If these habits are worked on from the start, though, when enthusiasm is at its peak, anyone can easily develop the reading skills. And playing by ear skills can also be developed along the way as a parallel positive in the learning process.

We all like to start with the familiar, so many people choose books with familiar tunes from which to start learning to read music. I understand this thinking, but it can be helpful to save the familiar ones to play by ear. A system that effectively teaches someone to read music will mostly have unfamiliar music. This encourages the student to actually read the notes.

In my course, Headstart Piano (for beginners) I have composed a number of new pieces. These are to be read by the pupil, as he or she will not quickly recognise them and lapse into playing by ear. But alongside these I have what I call ‘Pattern Pieces’. These are pieces that may be well known or, if not, they at least have an easy pattern to copy. Pattern Pieces don’t have written music to read and so are quick to pick up by ear. Through them I want the pupil to develop an awareness of the sounds they are making without the distraction of the note reading process. These work well for the pupil who wants the quick satisfaction of playing by ear and also for the expert reader who needs more help with the aural side of things.

Blending the acquired skill of reading music with the natural skill of playing by ear is going to be the most balanced, and interesting way to get started at the piano.

It is not a boxing match between the two skills (playing by eye and playing by ear) – we need both on the same team.

Oh, and by the way – I did get my man with a moustache!

(These days, however, I prefer him clean shaven.)


6 thoughts on “Playing by Eye vs Playing by Ear – Reading & Listening Skills in Music

  1. I concur with your thoughts Delwyn. So pleased to have both skills, although more practice at sight reading music is a skill that is needing more practice on my part. Time for a visit to the local Op Shop for some old, unfamiliar music, perhaps.

    • Thanks for this Julie – I need to work at reading more too. I get lazy at reading when the chord symbols are over the music.
      Have you come across ?
      There is a whole range of music (including older sorts of editions) there you can read without having to print it off or download it. Admittedly easier if you have an ipad or a surface. For what it is worth here’s a link to some short easy classics

      Once you click on the link go to the view button and it will come up.
      Here is a link to Grieg’s Pier Gynt suite for piano,_Op.46_(Grieg,_Edvard)
      For this you need to scroll to the blue section, and scroll down various instruments until you see a piano solo version. I’m not a fan of the first line of “The Hall of the mountain King” in this version as it has way too many leger lines but the other pieces look ok.
      I don’t know if any of that interests you but looking on line for music might be fun and could save you a trip to the op shop 🙂

  2. Nancy Peckham says:

    Hi Delwyn,

    I would really like to learn to play by ear. I am grateful that I do know how to read music, although not fluently. Where would you suggest I start? Is there an online site for playing by ear? Your book?


    • Hi Nancy,
      Thanks so much for your comment. Really glad you asked about this. I’ve been thinking about giving some ideas about how to get started for those who need some help as it seems there was a lot of interest from this blog. I will email you separately what I have as a starter for Beginner and Intermediate levels and you can let me know what works best for you. Hopefully it will help others get started too!

  3. Hi Mum,

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I particularly enjoyed the distinction between ear being a natural ability to be developed, and sight reading be an acquired ability. I certainly need to spend more time on the latter! Do you think there is a sense that in developing mastery in both skills, they begin to join up? What I mean is, do you think that if your ear training is developed enough, that in the process of sight reading a tune, your aural imagination will be able to preemptively ascribe the notes on the page to known sounds? I’m sure this must play into discussions on sight singing! I will have to get back into the sight reading practice 🙂

    • Hi Isaac,
      Thanks so much for your terrific comment on this subject. I am sure those with perfect pitch should be able to “ascribe the notes on the page to known sounds” as they sight read. Certainly with a single line of music it is doable. I’d be really interested in your own experiments on it as you get back to more sight reading. Let me know how you get on.

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