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  1. #1

    Playing by ear vs. reading music?

    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.

  2. #2
    Senior RainWizard's Avatar
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    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...
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  3. #3
    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.

  4. #4
    Senior BlissfulOblivion's Avatar
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    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?

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by RainWizard View Post
    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.

  6. #6
    Senior Matt Conner's Avatar
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    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.
    Yeah? well, y'know...that's just like, your opinion, man.

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    Regular Tica's Avatar
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    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.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Tica View Post
    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.

  9. #9
    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.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Tenaar Feiri View Post
    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.

 

 

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