Students who play by ear

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    Awhile back I had a student for a short time that played another instrument by ear (I think it was piano). Anyway, I tried having him learn to read a little bit of music but mostly worked on simple exercises for technique that really didn’t require a lot of reading. Well, I am going to be starting someone else soon and he already plays piano and guitar by ear. I’m just curious about other’s experiences and suggestions with students like this. Would you have him learn to read music or just work on technique and begin to teach some simple chords? I don’t play by ear and am not quite sure how to approach this. By the way, he is an adult student that just wants to try harp for fun.


    It basically depends on the student’s goal. Overall I find it important to learn to play from sheet music. It is just a part of being a well rounded musician and it allows you to play things you haven’t actually heard before.

    But if they really just want to play around and have fun and they don’t care then it is their decision. But to me that is the musical equivalent of being illiterate. If you want to learn about the works of Shakespeare you could do it by going to performances of his plays, but if you are serious you read the plays. If you want to learn about music you could do it by just listening to it, but if you are at all serious about it you read it too.

    I personally couldn’t imagine not wanting to read music notation

    Jessica Frost

    I have a few students who relied mostly on their ear for harp (and piano) before coming to me.


    Lydia- I think that most people, when starting an instrument, begin by playing mostly by ear, even without realizing it, or without the teacher realizing it. That’s because, at the beginer level, the music is very simple and melodic. It’s later on, as the student tries to move into harder, and therefore more complex music that the you-know-what hits the fan. Suddenly they have a very hard time and get discouraged because their ability to play the instrument is way ahead of their ability to read music. So the consciencious teacher has to make an effort to keep the theory and reading ability developing along with the technical ability. Watch the student very carefully as he/she plays and make sure that he/she is looking at the music. Quiz the student about the notes, rhythm, key, meter, etc. on each piece to make sure that the student is absorbing what is on the page. The ability to play by ear is wonderful, and frankly, I wish I could do it. But I don’t think it has to be an either/or situation. A good musician ought to be able to do both.


    As your student is an adult and has mentioned his goal is to learn and have fun, I think its reasonable to introduce music reading


    (I hit post before I finished my thought)

    Besides excercises, assigning him to arrange a tune he could already


    As a beginner myself


    Hello Lydia and Teachers,

    When I first saw this topic I quickly scrolled down the page to see if my teacher was among the commentators! But she isn’t.

    I am a student who plays by ear a lot. I played the vioin for five years without being able to read a single note. I started playing the piano (and still do) a year before


    I have just bought Volumes 1 and 2 of progressive sight-reading exercises by Anna Dunwoodie and Lisa Williamson in New Zealand. My students with the wonderful ears have really enjoyed working with these, and it has brought their eyes back to the page! They have no fingerings, so the student has to think before they start.


    I am an adult who began harp in my mid 30’s after playing piano and organ my whole life.


    I forgot to include Anna Dunwoodie’s contact information for any of you who wish to get these sight-reading books. It is anna.d at


    I think I have mentioned before that I am a poor sightreader.


    +++Another plus–again like many poor readers, I can improvise easily.


    This is an interesting question and one that I have thought a lot about! I am a pretty good reader, while my husband plays very well by ear. We are both weaker in the opposite skill, yet we are both competent musicians. He plays mostly jazz, which as has been pointed out (along with folk music), is a genre where playing by ear is the culture and is encouraged and desired. I play mostly classical, where I don’t usually have a need to play “by ear” although memorization skills are important, which are similar to playing by ear. In classical music notereading is the culture and is a desired skill.

    I find that people fall into either the “note reading” category or the “playing by ear/playing from memory” category, based both on early experiences learning music or just having a predisposition towards one way or the other. (Similarly to how people tend to be “right brained” or “left brained.”). Obviously in order to be a well rounded musician having both skills is important. I think most serious musicians recognize and try to improve on their weaker area, although one usually remains dominant.

    Now for the point of my post: with young students, I think it does an extreme dis-service to them not to introduce both ways of learning. You have no way of knowing what kind of music that young child will eventually want to play, so teaching them both note-reading and aural skills is important. And if you recognize that one area is dominant, it makes sense to help them develop the other skill early on. I have encountered so many students who insist the “can’t” play from memory or “can’t” sight-read, when really they have just never learned or spent time on the other approach. They just get stuck on the way they initally learned because that’s the easiest way.

    So, that’s my soapbox for the day!!! Both skills are important, and especially so with younger students.



    Very interesting point. As a small child and until HS I was a quick, very accurate memorizer. When I got to my junior year in HS I realized that I had to learn how to figure out the black things and squiggles and how they worked, so I did and became a very strong music reader, but simultaneously, began to lose my photographic memory for music.

    Currently I am very “paper dependent” and am trying to spend part of every practice session improvising, in hopes of regaining that skill.

    There was a time when I felt that I had pretty much balanced ear playing/singing and note playing/singing, but it’s not a balanced skill now. I ABSOLUTELY agree with KIM about teaching, but many if not most teachers in the US are not really comfortable teaching sight reading, so they don’t teach it. I was one, but after Kodaly I know what I was missing.

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