As a Pianist, Should I Learn to Read Music or Play by Ear?

As a piano beginner, should you learn to read music or play by ear? Is one method better than the other? Read on to find out.

 

sheet music or by ear

 

These days, it seems that more and more people are learning to play the piano on their own – this growing trend could have something to do with the global pandemic and the difficulty of getting “live” lessons.

 

If you happen to be one of these people, you may be wondering: how should I learn to play the piano? Should I learn to read music first or should I pick pieces I like and learn by ear? Which is better?

 

Musicians will usually fall in either one of these two categories. They will either learn pieces from sheet music or play by ear. But this doesn’t mean that you can only learn one way. There may be times when learning by ear might be better than from the sheet music, and vice versa.

 

In this article, I’m going to explore the pros and cons of both approaches and hopefully help you choose the path that’s best suited to you.

 

Learning the piano

At the beginning…

 

Whether you choose to learn with music or by ear, it will take you time.

 

Any new skill takes time. Music is no different.

 

If you learn a piece with sheet music, you will need to learn the notes and which keys they correspond to as well as the rhythm. So your time will be spent on translating the symbols on the page to the movements required to play the piece.

 

If you were to learn this same piece by ear, you’d have to find a recording, slow it down (if possible) and listen carefully to each note, working out the starting point, the rhythm and what each hand is doing. You wouldn’t need to spend time translating symbols on a page but you would have to spend time figuring out every note, which is not easy, especially if you no musical training.

 

So in short, either approach is challenging at the start.

 

But…

 

Down the track

As the level of complexity increases in the music, things start to shift.

 

Playing by ear becomes increasingly difficult due to the sheer amount of information to figure out and retain.

 

Using sheet music, however, does not get any harder. You just have more information to process on the page. (Just like reading a novel is not more difficult than reading a sentence.)

 

The beauty in learning how to read music is that once you know how to read music, you no longer have to spend time decoding the music. You can simply read it like you would a novel. You can pick up any book you like and just read.

 

The same cannot be said of playing by ear because for every single piece you want to play, you would have to go through the same process of figuring out each note and rhythm (not to mention all the other details)! You may get better at playing by ear over time but it would still require a lot of time. And even after learning the piece by ear, you may still have errors in your playing and you wouldn’t even know.

 

Music is a very simple language

While learning how to read music seems like a complicated thing to do, it is actually quite simple and logical once you understand the logic behind it. Music is akin to a language but a very organised one (it doesn’t have any inconsistencies like the English language!). While the interpretation will vary from player to player, the notated information will always translate to the same sounds (unlike English spelling) so music is in fact a very simple language to learn.

 

And once you can “speak” the language, you are free to do what you like with it – whether it is to learn pieces on the piano, compose, communicate with your piano teacher or other fellow musicians, or learn another instrument!

 

Sheet music helps you practise more effectively

The sheet music is essentially a visual aid and a reference. You can do so much more when you have the music in front of you.

You can analyse the music to better understand it or memorise it, you can isolate a bar or several bars at a time and practise these, you can add annotations to the music such as fingering, reminders, expressive markings, etc.

 

Without sheet music, you wouldn’t be able to do any of these things. You would have no visual aid or reference. Instead, your practice sessions would mostly consist of memorising the music by playing the piece from the start over and over again, which is not a very effective way of practising.

 

Music notation exists for a reason

The danger in learning by ear is that you’re bound to learn mistakes or omit certain details.

 

It’s like the game Chinese whispers. A short sentence is passed around and gets modified until it becomes something totally different by the time it reaches the last person of the chain. The same can happen with music. If you sang a tune to someone and had it passed on, it would inevitably change.

 

That is why composers write down their music – so that it gets passed on without any alterations.

 

Reading music VS playing by ear

Here is a recap of all the things I’ve mentioned in this article.

 

Pros

Reading MusicPlaying by Ear
Can play any piece instantlyCan be more fun at first
Visual aidCan seem easier than reading music at first
Can annotate the scoreDevelops your ear
You get a deeper understanding of the musicAllows you to play from memory
Helps you learn other instruments
Allows you to compose
Allows you to communicate with other musicians
High on investment
Better for effective practice
Can use different editions
Saves a lot of time
More accurate

 

Cons

Reading MusicPlaying by ear
Can stop you from listening to yourselfNo visual aid
Not the most inspiring way to start learning an instrumentNo way of annotating
Hard to communicate with other musicians
Can be unreliable
Can be prone to errors
Limits you on what you can learn
Takes a long time
Less accurate

 

In conclusion, is it better to read music or play by ear?

If you had to pick one method, I would go with reading music because it will help you in so many ways. But as you are not tied to any one method, I would recommend learning to read music AND playing by ear so that you get the best of both worlds.

 

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    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny

    Emmanuelle Fonsny, or Manu, is a piano and violin teacher, composer and accompanist based in Sydney, Australia. She is passionate about sharing her love of music and her sight-reading and practice tips to help other pianists become more confident sight-readers.

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