For Parents

Reading Music vs Playing by Ear

By Hoffman Academy Team
Reading music vs. playing by ear

Which is more important for a piano student to learn, reading music or playing by ear? The answer is that both are an important part of being a good musician. In this article, we will define what it means to learn to play music by ear, or by listening and mimicking, and also what it means to read music, or to learn to play music by looking at written notes. 

The Hoffman Method uses the principle of “ear before eye” to teach musical language the way children learn their first language. Developmentally, children learn to listen and speak before learning to read written language. In the same way, Mr. Hoffman teaches young musicians to play by ear to create a foundation for learning to read music and play piano. 

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What does “playing by ear” mean?

Learning to play music by ear uses listening and observation to help students identify musical patterns and then match them by singing or playing. These are the same innate skills children use when they learn to speak their first language. Playing music by ear can help young pianists develop their understanding of music because it teaches young pianists to hear the foundations of musical language.

For most children, their first experience with music is singing a simple song, like “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” How did they learn this song? After listening to it multiple times and memorizing the sounds and patterns that they heard, they used their voice to reproduce those sounds. This process of listening and imitation is called learning music by ear. 

Learning to play piano by ear involves listening to a piece of music without looking at sheet music and then replicating the intervals and rhythms on the piano. Just like a child learning to sing a simple song listens to and internalizes patterns and notes before singing it back, playing piano by ear uses the same skills. Learning how to play by ear is an important skill for beginners, as it allows them to focus on the notes and rhythms of the music and make musical progress and play songs right away. By listening and observing, they build an innate knowledge of music that will help them become excellent sight readers later on. 

When a student begins to play the piano, there’s no need to ask them to memorize note names and positions on the staff before they learn to play any songs. That’s like asking a child to learn the alphabet and how to read before they learn to speak. For a beginning pianist, learning by ear is the best way to acquire new songs.

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Learning to Read Music

The Hoffman Method uses learning to play by ear as a pathway to teach students to learn to read music. Most children learn to speak before learning to read, so it makes sense to teach students by ear before teaching the written notation of music. To read sheet music fluently, a young pianist needs to learn the musical alphabet, the positions of notes on the staff, and different ways that time signatures and rhythms are written. That’s a lot of information! Making a child wait to enjoy playing music before they master all of that can lead to frustration. It’s best to introduce these skills in small steps, using songs learned by ear to illustrate each one.

As a piano student becomes accustomed to the piano and learns their first songs, it is important to introduce them to the musical alphabet. This is the next step in promoting excellent literacy in a young musician. Much like singing the ABC’s to a young child, this should be done in a fun and relaxed way (see Lesson 3 for an introduction to the musical alphabet). 

A good way to help young children learn to read words is to have an adult read aloud while the child looks at the words on the page. In the same way, beginning piano students can start learning to read music by learning a song by ear and matching the sounds to the written notes of the song as they play. Singing letter names or solfege syllables is a great way to start connecting sounds to symbols and to reinforce the material so that it is easier to recall in the future. It may take some time and effort to develop this skill, but it is an essential part of becoming a proficient pianist.

Developing Both Skills

In time, a piano student will usually choose a preferred method of learning new music. Some may come to rely so much on sight reading that they can’t play by ear. Others will struggle with sight reading so much that they have to hear and memorize a song in order to play it. Relying too heavily on one skill may prevent the other from developing. The key is to gently encourage the development of both skills, at the right stages, for well-rounded musicianship. 

Learning to play by ear can be a fun learning experience and can provide a young musician a way to learn some of their favorite melodies without needing to look at sheet music first. Check out these Hoffman Academy videos on Getting Started with Ear Training and What is Melodic Dictation

Developing sight reading can also be a fun learning experience. Imagine being able to look at a piece of music for the first time and play it confidently and musically without practicing! That is the joy of sight reading. Check out these Hoffman Academy blog articles that can help you in developing your sight reading: Sight Reading Practice Tips and Practice Sight Reading with Our 7 Steps to Super Sight Reading. Need more sight reading practice? Here is a resource for free beginning piano songs that are great for sight reading.

It is our hope that you enjoyed the information in this article and that you will continue to learn and make music for the rest of your life! If you haven’t started learning piano yet and are interested, sign up and try Premium today to start your piano learning journey!

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