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.

Ear Comes First

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? By ear. They heard it until they were able to memorize a series of sounds, and then used their vocal chords to reproduce those sounds.

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, listening and imitating are the best way to acquire new songs.

Learning to Read Music

As a piano student becomes accustomed to the piano and learns their first songs, it is never too early to introduce them to the musical alphabet. This should be done in a fun and relaxed way, much like singing the ABC’s to a young child (see Lesson 3 for an introduction to the musical alphabet).

You probably already know that 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, then looking at the written notes to that song as they play. If they’re paying attention, their brain will begin matching up sounds to the symbols of written music. Singing letter names or solfege syllables is another great way to start connecting sounds to symbols.

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. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be talking about ways to develop both the ability to sight read music, and the ability to play by ear.

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