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View Full Version : Playing by ear vs. reading music?



Rory
01-16-2014, 12:23 AM
Thought this might make a fun topic for musicians, seeing as little how activity this subforum is getting! In my time in and out of music, there's been some pretty heavy opinions going both ways as to which is more beneficial. With many things, I think having skill in both is the best of both worlds, but for a lot of people it seems to be one or the other. What do you feel the pros and cons are of each way to learn and express our music? How do you go about learning new songs?

I'm without a question someone who plays by ear, as I find I get the most fun out of my music when I struggle to figure out a song that I can't find sheet music or tabs of anywhere. The satisfaction felt when I do figure it out is pretty amazing for me. I'm sure life would be easier if everything had sheet music and we all took the time to learn to read! I can read a bit of sheet music as well, but it's truly just the basics.

RainWizard
01-16-2014, 05:51 PM
I would love to be able to tab guitar by ear, I hate relying on sheet music for it. I play by ear for drums, and the ability to listen to a song, then play it back is much easier than reading something and trying to recreate it I find. Unfortunately, I can only guess at what note is being played in a song, and am often wrong. Maybe it's something I should work at, but I'm struggling to learn what i need to as it is...

Eggdodger
01-16-2014, 06:32 PM
I find a lot of fun in finally deciphering that tricky rhythm on a piece of sheet music as much as I do mastering a battering of notes up and down the scale from a music video that inspires me. I've noticed that while the notes themselves are easier to figure out on sheet music (mind those accidentals), rhythms become infinitely more accomplishable when I hear them played. For whatever reason, I also keep a more consistent tempo playing off of sheet music.

BlissfulOblivion
01-16-2014, 07:02 PM
I can sing fine by ear (I'm worse at reading music when singing, honestly ;m; ) but I cannot for the life of me play violin or piano by ear. Not well. I can kindasorta sound out a melody and it sounds right half the time?? But I'm just really bad at it. Much better at reading music. I wish I could play by ear though :c
Of all the things I can play by ear, I think the one I can play best is the original LoZ theme :3 Although I keep forgetting what key it's in :c I think it's E flat?

Rory
01-16-2014, 10:19 PM
I would love to be able to tab guitar by ear, I hate relying on sheet music for it. I play by ear for drums, and the ability to listen to a song, then play it back is much easier than reading something and trying to recreate it I find. Unfortunately, I can only guess at what note is being played in a song, and am often wrong. Maybe it's something I should work at, but I'm struggling to learn what i need to as it is...

I might be stating the obvious, but do you try and play along with the songs as well, matching the notes and tones? I generally strip down the chords from their base and work up from there, and if it's a chord structure I don't know, I use handy tools like http://www.chordbook.com/guitarchords.php. It's almost like counting with fingers, that's how I imagine it anyway. It's kinda slow yet deliberate.

Matt Conner
01-16-2014, 11:34 PM
I like to think that being skilled in both is the best way to be a skilled and well rounded musician. Reading sheet music gives you the technical know how and makes the underlying structure of music easier to understand, whereas playing and learning by ear develops your musical intuition. I wish I knew how to read sheet music, but I really don't have the time or discipline to pick it up these days.

Tica
01-17-2014, 08:15 AM
I chose the sheet music route, and played the (tenor, soprano, bari) saxophone in concert, jazz, and pep bands, as well as musical pit orchestras, all throughout high school and college. I also dabble in the tin whistle and LoZ-style ocarina.

I'm kind of ashamed at my lack of ability to play by ear. I can pick out a simple melody on the tin whistle with a lot of trial and error, but it doesn't come naturally to me. I would certainly love to be better at playing by ear and feel able and confident to improvise my own jazz solos on the sax. When I was in jazz band I missed the multi-week instruction on solo-ing and I was never really able to make up that instruction later on.

Reading sheet music is, I think, invaluable for playing in large group settings. Being able to sight-read a song in a group of 10, 20, even 100s of band members on the first try is a wonderful thing. From the sheet music you can refine your performance but you have something complete and reasonably solid (depending on the sight-reading skill of the group) from the get-go. My ability to sight-read sheet music has also come in handy when trying to teach other people melodies... just find the sheet music online and play it, no need to spend time learning/memorizing it first. People often express amazement at my ability to simply play a melody from a piece of sheet music I've never seen before, but that all came from years and years of practice and drills in school band settings.

TL;DR -- Being able to both read music and play by ear is ideal. If forced to choose between the two, I'd choose sheet music; however, playing by ear is invaluable to improvising solos.

Rory
01-17-2014, 02:06 PM
People often express amazement at my ability to simply play a melody from a piece of sheet music I've never seen before, but that all came from years and years of practice and drills in school band settings.

TL;DR -- Being able to both read music and play by ear is ideal. If forced to choose between the two, I'd choose sheet music; however, playing by ear is invaluable to improvising solos.

I do find that amazing when I see someone sight read. It's just as impressive as soloing or playing by ear, because the ability to do so demonstrates your practiced understanding of music. That's also the great thing about music, is you don't have to particularly do it any one way; there are multiple paths to success, and therefore proper expression of what you want to play. I sometimes wish I could go down the sheet music route, so I could appeal to wider audiences with what I do.

Tenaar Feiri
01-17-2014, 06:23 PM
I actually learn a lot of the songs I know to play by ear. It takes a bit of work, but I get there in the end & it's always fun to figure out the fingering on the pianos for particularly awkward sections that are hard to translate. I've been taught sight-reading in school myself, but I am actually very near-sighted even with my glasses which makes it difficult for me to play anything just out of the blue on the piano like that. Couple that with a mild case of Tourette's that affects my hands & there's a fun little project for me to do over the next couple of weeks.
Now as far as actually reading sheet music on the fly goes, I'm pretty inexperienced...but I'm guessing that it has something to do with only being about five years into casual piano playing. About as long as I've been a composer actually; five years ago, I didn't even know how to read sheet music.

I've to agree with Tica though; sheet music is better than playing by ear in my opinion, even if hearing plays a huge part in the overall musical experience. Especially when it comes to improvising solos. They're apples & oranges, but it's good for you to have a little of both every day! At least that's how I see it.

Rory
01-17-2014, 06:34 PM
I actually learn a lot of the songs I know to play by ear. It takes a bit of work, but I get there in the end & it's always fun to figure out the fingering on the pianos for particularly awkward sections that are hard to translate.

I've to agree with Tica though; sheet music is better than playing by ear in my opinion, even if hearing plays a huge part in the overall musical experience. Especially when it comes to improvising solos. They're apples & oranges, but it's good for you to have a little of both every day! At least that's how I see it.

That's how I got my play-by-ear start, thanks to the piano. Used to sound out old-school videogame music. Apparently this is not an uncommon thing. xD

I do find myself envious of sheet readers. In your opinion, or anyone in general really, what's the best way you think to go about learning how to do so? I feel like there's much more of a structured regimen in place than there would be for someone trying to pick up playing by ear.

Tenaar Feiri
01-17-2014, 06:45 PM
That's how I got my play-by-ear start, thanks to the piano. Used to sound out old-school videogame music. Apparently this is not an uncommon thing. xD

I do find myself envious of sheet readers. In your opinion, or anyone in general really, what's the best way you think to go about learning how to do so? I feel like there's much more of a structured regimen in place than there would be for someone trying to pick up playing by ear.

The way I learned it was using the alphabet. We learned to associate A with being in the very middle of the bar, and then each line and space upwards is a subsequent letter in the alphabet. It took me maybe a couple of months to learn to tell what a note is at a glance, it's all in the alphabet. Once I had my ABCs properly worked in, then came practicing "moving" them up and down as needed, and that's some serious mental gymnastics! But I managed. Then I focused on learning the sharps & the bs, which came pretty easily to me as by then I was already very familiar with the position of each note. All I had to do was remember that sharps (#) are a half-tone up, & bs are a half-tone down. And that E# is the same as hitting F on the piano, Fb = same as hitting E, B# = C tangent, Cb = B tangent.

All in all, I think it just comes down to a combination of normal memory & muscle memory. It's really a lot easier than it sounds, it just takes a lot of practice. I'm sure others may have different ways of learning it too, that may be even easier.


Absolutely best way though, like Tica mentions below me (I'm tired x3), is to learn it from an instructor.

Tica
01-17-2014, 07:21 PM
That's how I got my play-by-ear start, thanks to the piano. Used to sound out old-school videogame music. Apparently this is not an uncommon thing. xD

I do find myself envious of sheet readers. In your opinion, or anyone in general really, what's the best way you think to go about learning how to do so? I feel like there's much more of a structured regimen in place than there would be for someone trying to pick up playing by ear.

The *best* way to learn how to read sheet music is to take classes with an instructor, wherein you either play an instrument or sing. (I did some sight-singing in college. It's awesome to be able to sing from nothing but a page of sheet music but it's generally much more difficult unless you have perfect pitch.) You can either take group classes--I did via concert band--or something like private lessons. A lot of people start with private piano lessons.

If you can't afford classes, the next best thing is buying the same textbooks that the classes/private lessons use and reading them and teaching yourself that way. A lot of the time you can go to a music store and go to the sheet music section. Then look for the books specific to your instrument (in your case the piano?). There should be beginner books with scales and technique instruction. These books pair learning sheet music together with learning to play the instrument and can definitely be helpful. Start with the one for beginners and work from there!

I'm sure there's also plenty of resources online if you look hard enough. I'd be sure to use a resource that pairs sheet music with the use of a specific instrument rather than vague music theory kind of instruction. I took music theory too (just a touch as an elective in college) and that kind of thing is what you take to become a composer.

Rory
01-17-2014, 07:34 PM
The *best* way to learn how to read sheet music is to take classes with an instructor, wherein you either play an instrument or sing. (I did some sight-singing in college. It's awesome to be able to sing from nothing but a page of sheet music but it's generally much more difficult unless you have perfect pitch.) You can either take group classes--I did via concert band--or something like private lessons. A lot of people start with private piano lessons.

If you can't afford classes, the next best thing is buying the same textbooks that the classes/private lessons use and reading them and teaching yourself that way. A lot of the time you can go to a music store and go to the sheet music section. Then look for the books specific to your instrument (in your case the piano?). There should be beginner books with scales and technique instruction. These books pair learning sheet music together with learning to play the instrument and can definitely be helpful. Start with the one for beginners and work from there!

I'm sure there's also plenty of resources online if you look hard enough. I'd be sure to use a resource that pairs sheet music with the use of a specific instrument rather than vague music theory kind of instruction. I took music theory too (just a touch as an elective in college) and that kind of thing is what you take to become a composer.

Nah, piano's just what I started out with. I felt more comfortable with the acoustic guitar and went down that path. Unfortunately I missed out on music theory and lessons during my time in college, although I'm sure I could find an instructor eventually. That might be a bit too heavy on my pockets for this particular hobby (I have a lot of different, unfortunately expensive interests x_x), so I'll continue down my path of self-teaching and take a trip to the music store. First I'll do some research online, though, armed with this knowledge. Thank you for the advice, both you and Tenaar.

Willow
01-17-2014, 07:37 PM
I can kind of play by ear but it takes me awhile to figure out how to play a full song. I prefer reading sheet music simply because that's what I'm accustomed to.

Alternatively, I can play from memory too. But that's only after I've read through the sheet music enough times.



I do find myself envious of sheet readers. In your opinion, or anyone in general really, what's the best way you think to go about learning how to do so? I feel like there's much more of a structured regimen in place than there would be for someone trying to pick up playing by ear.
The best way in my opinion is through instruction.

But if you don't want to take lessons, it's like learning a new language. Start with basic scales and learn how to play them. And then you just kind of go from there.
You keep at it and eventually you memorize that say the note C correlates to a certain fingering, and pitch, and position on the scale.

Thankfully there's no shortage of resources for people looking to learn on their own. Hell, you could go to your local music store and find lesson books to help.

Zack Valence
01-21-2014, 05:03 AM
I've always played by ear.
I still can't read sheet music now, in fact.
I guess for me, playing was more about memory. My fingers have become so accustomed to some songs that I can play them with my eyes closed and wearing heavy duty ear defenders.

JiJi
01-21-2014, 11:34 AM
The first three years of my guitar tuition was from stave reading and books etc. I then moved onto tabs and ear, but everynow and then I'll look at stave work. I have a skill level of Grade 5 theory (just never took the test, but did the uni admission tests etc.)
I tend to go by ear or tab when I'm too lazy to sit and work something out.
Singing wise, I sing by ear, but I can sing standard major and minor scale I realised yesterday so I'm not too bad there.

Rory
01-21-2014, 03:28 PM
I guess for me, playing was more about memory. My fingers have become so accustomed to some songs that I can play them with my eyes closed and wearing heavy duty ear defenders.

When I was first learning, I'd challenge myself a lot by playing in pitch darkness, or even while sitting in different positions so I could get to know the neck of my guitar in and out. Nowadays, I just practice while watching Netflix or something, which gives the same effect more or less. The muscle memory is important to all music, for sure. Playing in the dark or with your eyes closed is a great test to see how well you know what you're doing!

Tiido
01-23-2014, 06:34 PM
I do all by ear and cannot really read the sheet music (but with some effort I will be able to).

This kind of stuff does work for me (https://www.weasyl.com/submission/312006/wavemelon-tr-kker-0-18)

Playing in the dark is cool, I have experimented with that in past :)

Sutekh_the_Steak
01-23-2014, 06:57 PM
I can do both. Usually it's sheet music for drums, but when I'm bored at school and in music class I like to try and work out a few tunes by ear on the keyboard (only on the right hand though - I'm too lazy to try and work out the left hand. I'd need sheet music for for the left hand).

Sammacha
01-24-2014, 03:07 AM
Hmm well I'm not much of a musician but I do play the keyboard when Im not doing on of my way too many other hobbies lol. Also I used to play the clarinet, and lol the ukelele in school. Some other things randomly but not much.

I think that playing by ear is the best way to learn. In my opinion it gives you a better... Feel to how each note sounds, how its created and how different sounds can be made by using a different technique, moving your hand another way etc. of course it depends what instrument you are playing but I think playing by ear, and learning to recognize how to re-create a sound just by listening takes you farther then simply doing what is told to you. I feel like the way I played was, learn the note and listen to what you are playing, then listen to someone else play it, how or why is it different and how do you want your piece of music to sound? Of course having note to follow can be vey very helpful, but things written on paper, like speech can be made to sound so different.

Rory
01-24-2014, 12:32 PM
Playing in the dark is cool, I have experimented with that in past :)

It is! If all the lights ever go out, I can just sit and play guitar all night~



I think that playing by ear is the best way to learn. In my opinion it gives you a better... Feel to how each note sounds, how its created and how different sounds can be made by using a different technique, moving your hand another way etc. of course it depends what instrument you are playing but I think playing by ear, and learning to recognize how to re-create a sound just by listening takes you farther then simply doing what is told to you. I feel like the way I played was, learn the note and listen to what you are playing, then listen to someone else play it, how or why is it different and how do you want your piece of music to sound? Of course having note to follow can be vey very helpful, but things written on paper, like speech can be made to sound so different.

Interesting to get a perspective from the other side, here. You're completely right. Someone can easily play a string of complex notes, but they'll feel dead. A great example of this is the song La Valse d'Amelie, which has an unbelievable amount of covers and stuff on Youtube. Look at a few; I really enjoy the accordion ones. Some of them just sound dead, even though they're playing the notes correctly. Others sound magical. You can see it in body movement, finger movements, even expression. You can't learn everything through a book or instructor, just as you can't always be taught feeling. Having both that technical base and a knack for feeling the notes is what makes the best musicians who they are, usually.

Namba
01-24-2014, 01:01 PM
I play by ear... most of the time. Sometimes I need to look at some tabs to see how other people do it, and if I need to change what I'm doing.

Sammacha
01-24-2014, 10:09 PM
Interesting to get a perspective from the other side, here. You're completely right. Someone can easily play a string of complex notes, but they'll feel dead. A great example of this is the song La Valse d'Amelie, which has an unbelievable amount of covers and stuff on Youtube. Look at a few; I really enjoy the accordion ones. Some of them just sound dead, even though they're playing the notes correctly. Others sound magical. You can see it in body movement, finger movements, even expression. You can't learn everything through a book or instructor, just as you can't always be taught feeling. Having both that technical base and a knack for feeling the notes is what makes the best musicians who they are, usually.

Yes, thats pretty much what I was getting at. Well said.
Though I feel that it's like this with most things which require any kind of personality (mainly any form of art lol)

BlackStatic
03-18-2014, 11:42 PM
I've always been the kind of person to learn by ear, but I do believe that having at least some knowledge of music theory is never a bad thing.

I always try to exercise different patterns in music; usually in my case this is visually - which dots go where on a manuscript/piano roll/midi mapping, how many blank lines there are between notes on a tracker, even going so far as to "how many rises and falls should be in this square wave and where to make the sample loop without clipping".

I sometimes worry that a lot of musicians don't recognise the fact that music is essentially just another language with its own alphabet (ABCDEFG), punctuation and grammar (quavers, semiquavers, rests, time signatures etc.), vowels (minors, sharps, flats etc.) and this is only looking at western music! It's a mathematical language, really.

Tiido
03-19-2014, 12:18 PM
Knowing some of the theory certainly helps - you don't have to figure that stuff out on your own (though it is all really fun), most/all has been figured out by someone else already long ago.

Rory
03-19-2014, 02:18 PM
I sometimes worry that a lot of musicians don't recognise the fact that music is essentially just another language with its own alphabet (ABCDEFG), punctuation and grammar (quavers, semiquavers, rests, time signatures etc.), vowels (minors, sharps, flats etc.) and this is only looking at western music! It's a mathematical language, really.

How does that worry manifest in a musician, if I may ask? Like, what do you see that causes that worry? And yeah, it's a mathematical language but with lots of amazing accents.


Knowing some of the theory certainly helps - you don't have to figure that stuff out on your own (though it is all really fun), most/all has been figured out by someone else already long ago.

Figuring out things on my own has always been the most fun part. Experiencing life through someone else's discoveries gets boring sometimes.

Therval
09-24-2016, 08:10 AM
i play music by ear...

crazyprice
04-27-2017, 06:27 PM
I play by ear as well :)

SaulGoodman91
05-29-2017, 08:15 AM
It obviously takes more practice and skill to play by ear, but its much funner:)