The first step in developing a musical ear is listening to music. Think about it, if you wanted a child to develop a perfect French accent, you would surround them with sound of native-spoken French.
The accent of a language goes beyond vocabulary and pronunciation. Languages have an inflection and a flow that can not be captured on a page, and can only be learned by listening and imitating. For children to learn the “accent” of music, they need to hear it. That’s why listening to good music is an essential part of musical education. Just like a language immersion program allows children to pick up a foreign language, musical immersion helps children learn music in the same way.
Another key to developing a musical ear is singing. All children should be encouraged to sing, and imitation is the best form of teaching. Even if you don’t think you have a great voice, your child will benefit if you show the example and sing. You can also enroll your child in a choir or music program. Singing is especially beneficial to the musical ear because the pitch isn’t being produced by something you can touch or see. You can’t memorize a sequence of notes to type into a keyboard, all you have is your own throat and your only guide is your ear. It naturally engages the musical part of the brain in a way nothing else can.
Ask your piano student to sing along as they play songs on the piano. Often when students are struggling with a song they’re working on, all I need to do is have them sing while they play, and instantly they will play the song flawlessly. I believe this is because a student can be typing notes into the piano while the musical part of their brain is still turned off. They are trying to memorize a boring algorithm to produce a series of sounds. When a child sings while playing, the musical part of the brain must be switched on, and playing the song comes much more easily.
Once the musical ear has a good start from listening and singing, there are lots of games, exercises, and activities to strengthen it. Here are a few suggestions:
- Use the Listening Tracks: The Listening Tracks that go along with each unit of piano lessons provide a good model of playing each song with the correct rhythm, tempo, and musical nuance. These tracks are great for casual listening at home, in the car, while playing with toys, at breakfast, whatever works best for your family. We want children to “absorb” these songs the way they absorb their native language.
- Echo Games: Try singing a few notes of a simple tune and have your child sing back to you, or play a simple sequence of two or three notes on the piano and have your child try to repeat it. Keep this game very simple and fun to make sure it doesn’t become frustrating.
- Melodic Dictation: See Lesson 24 and Lesson 57 for a melodic dictation game.
- Playing By Ear: If your child has a favorite song, encourage them to sing along, then sing alone, and last of all, try to pick out the notes on the piano. Even if your child can only find a few notes of the song, that’s great a great start to learning to play “by ear”.
Playing by Ear vs. Sight Reading
Some parents may worry that if they let their children learn music by listening then their children will learn to play by ear and never learn to read music. They raise a good point, for there are some musicians who can only play by ear. But the best way to learn music is to develop both the ear and eye. There are separate strategies for learning to play by ear and learning to read music, just like there are separate strategies to teach young children spoken language and written language. Children learn to speak by hearing language long before they learn to read language, and learning to speak by listening does not hamper their ability to learn to read and write. Effective music learning can be the same way.