There tend to be two kinds of musicians in the world: those who teach themselves to play by ear and those who learn to play through formal lessons.
Teachers typically include forms of ear training as part of the formal lessons. Instructors recognize the benefits of developing your ear: they know that students who have a good ear tend to play more musically.
Considering my own experiences as a professional pianist in contrast with my work as a piano teacher, I would argue that it is more beneficial in the long run to learn to play by ear first – before beginning any other kind of musical training.
Benefit #1: You will be more inclined to stick with your instrument
When you make up your mind that you are going to figure out how to play a song on the piano, or guitar, or whatever instrument you play, you have already set a goal for yourself.
When you realize you’ve managed to learn how to play that song, you feel accomplished. You feel talented and intelligent. Ultimately you feel proud of yourself and in the knowledge that you can indeed play music.
I notice this with my adult students and my young beginners alike: when someone comes to me with a song that they’ve taught themselves how to play, they’re beaming! They’re excited. They want to learn more.
Ultimately you feel proud of yourself and in the knowledge that you can indeed play music.
What it boils down to is this: we’re addicted to success, to experiencing positive feelings such as achievement and pride in ourselves. We feel confident. We are encouraged by this combination of emotions and will generally perform at a higher level, compelling us to learn more on our given instruments.
Benefit #2: You will learn faster
The student who learns to play by ear first has already made numerous auditory connections, which will then help them learn faster.
Whether they realize it or not, the by-ear students have trained themselves to anticipate song melodies and recognize various structures in musical composition. This makes learning songs much easier.
A student who can walk into a lesson with some background knowledge of how to play will also have an easier time learning to read music.
If you start off with ear training, you can already play a little (or a lot) on your instrument and have some kind of understanding of how the notes and keys work together. Learning to read sheet music becomes a simple matter of labeling the notes on the staff in relation to the location and names of the notes on the instrument so it isn’t as challenging for the self-taught, ear-trained student, as for the student who has to learn it all brand-new and at once.
Spend some time on 4 chords keyboard practice (or playing 3 chord guitar songs) and when you come to reading sheet music you’ll find it has far more meaning than if you didn’t understand those popular chord progressions: you’ll immediately know why each chord follows the last one.
Practice playing broken chords by ear and all those notes on the staff won’t just seem random – you’ll see them as the chord arpeggios they are.
Do scale ear training to appreciate the sounds of scale degrees and use them in your improvisation or solos, and you’ll see a meaningful context around the notes on the page.
Students who develop their play-by-ear skills will enter formal training ahead of the game.
Benefit #3: You will play more musically.
The phrase “playing musically” has always sounded so ironic and strange to me, and maybe it sounds strange to you, too.
After all, if you’re playing melodies and rhythms, aren’t you playing music? One would think (and hope) so.
But the more you listen to tunes and the more you get into playing your instrument the more you notice the nuances that make a piece of music sound excellent. The key here is listening. That can only be done with your ears.
Hearing dynamic changes, bass lines, subtle harmonies, tempo changes, and dissonance — all of these musical values contribute to a higher level of playing and musicianship.
I tell my students: it’s the difference between sounding like a piano student versus sounding like a piano player.
Example of student vs player: We Wish You A Merry Christmas
A lot of people wonder how to develop natural musicianship. Top tip: spend time really listening and playing by ear.
Benefit #4: You will save money.
Sure, it’s a practical benefit that may not necessarily have anything to do with how well you wind up playing or not, but it’s still a benefit.
I’m not talking about saving money on books and sheet music here (although yes, you will save money on those if you start off playing by ear first!)
Private lessons aren’t cheap. Most teachers nowadays have you pay up front, commit to a certain number of lessons, and don’t always offer make-up lessons if you miss one. You can wind up losing quite a bit of cash. By learning how to play by ear first you can gauge your interest level in your instrument, determine how dedicated you want to be, and decide how far you’d like to go with your musical goals.
That way you’ll be better prepared to seek out the right teacher who matches your abilities and can take you where you want to go with your music before you drop a bunch of dough on lessons!
If you’ve been tinkering around with your instrument here and there and have given thought to signing up for a few formal lessons, I would recommend that you keep tinkering until your progress slows down.
There is so much you can learn on your own.
More than that though, there’s so much musicianship that will bless your future as a musician, when you develop your ear early on.
Want to become more musical?
Whether you want to sing in tune, play by ear, improvise, write your own songs, perform more confidently or just make faster progress, first you need to know where you’re starting from.
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