Learning to Play: By Ear Vs Sight Reading

No one who has ever played music has claimed that it was an exact science. No, it is an art through and through. And as such, there are different ways to achieve almost any goal you set for yourself in the wide world of music. This is even true of the most basic principles of learning music. In fact, this week we’re going to take a brief look at the very first step in learning to play (after you’ve chosen your instrument, of course), and the pros and cons of two very different styles of learning. That’s right, this week we’re going to take a look at the earliest stages of learning to play music: learning to play by ear versus learning how to read sheet music.

Playing by Ear

There are countless musicians out there who feel that the very best way to learn to play an instrument, any instrument, is by listening to the music, and repeating it back by ear. This attitude usually goes hand in hand with the belief that musical theory isn’t particularly important, and can even hinder music with its limits. This, unfortunately, misses the point that music theory is much more than just a set of rules to write and play music by.

That being said, learning to play music by ear is a very helpful, some would even say essential, skill. So let’s get into the pros and cons of learning to play with this method.

Pros:

First and foremost, learning to play by ear can help you create new ideas and improve your technique in a trial by error sort of way. With it’s more lose, improvisation style, learning to play by ear allows you to find your technique.

Secondly, most people master individual songs much faster by learning to play by ear. There’s no theory to slog through, which means you will be able to get right to it and play your favourite songs out right away. And you can even play them if you can’t find or afford the sheet music!

Lastly, playing by ear can help to stimulate creativity. When you start to play music by ear, you also start to think about how the notes go together, and may even develop an interest in writing your own music. This, in turn, will encourage you to explore more of your music, pushing your creativity to the limit!

Cons:

The first, and arguably the biggest con of learning to play music by ear is that all you’re really doing is repeating what you’ve heard. You don’t really learn why you did what you did, only that the original musician did it, so you should too. Many successful musicians see this as nothing more than imitation.

Next, and somewhat connected, is the issue that learning to play by ear teaches you good technique, and how to play the music of others, but it doesn’t teach you how to combine techniques and create something new. You’ll always be imitating others, with little development of your own sound.

Lastly, a beginner musician that sets out to learn to play by ear, without any formal training, might choose the wrong notes or learn an incorrect technique. They might not even realize what they’re doing in wrong, and simply continue with their bad habit as though they’re on the right track. This ends up being nothing more than a waste of time once they learn the correct technique.

Reading Sheet Music

Learning to read sheet music, also called sight reading, is another way to learn to play an instrument. This method is more intensive, as the student must learn a bit theory along with the song they’re learning. They learn the names of the notes, how to read the notes on the pages, as well as what all the notations mean regarding tempo, volume, and other components of making music.

Pros:

Probably the biggest advantage to learning to sight read is the simple fact that you’ll be able to play literally anything you can get your hands on. Once you understand how to read music, you can read pretty much any piece just like reading a book. Your fingers will know just where to go, and when, and you can pick up any song in a matter of minutes!

Another advantage to sight reading over learning by ear is all the information contained on the page of music. Sheet music doesn’t just tell you what note to play; it also tells you when to play them, when not to play, when you should get louder, or softer, it even tells you the rhythm. The sheet music can even give you some emotional context, if the composer has been thoughtful enough to include it.

Lastly, learning to read music can help you become amazing at improvisation. It sounds backwards, but if you can read and understand complex music, you will have an innate understanding of the basics of music theory, without even realizing it. With all your knowledge of chord progressions and song structure, you’ll have a solid foundation for improvisation.

Cons:

There really aren’t a lot of disadvantages to learning to read sheet music. However, the process of learning to read music can be fairly slow, and definitely takes much longer than learning by ear to reach the point where you’re playing recognizable songs.

Another disadvantage comes when preparing for a performance. It takes a lot of preparation and practice to get ready for a performance where you have been learning a new piece from sheet music. The small, but important differences between crescendo and ritardando, for example,┬ácan take a long time, and a lot of coaching to get down pat. But in the end it’s worth it!

Which is Better?

So now we’ve come to the point where you’re expecting an answer to the question, which technique is better for learning? And as I’m sure you’ve guess by now, the answer is both! The be the best, well rounded musician you can be, it’s well worth it to hone both of these skills. Being able to do both will open your playing to an enormous world of musical possibilities!