Some Thoughts on Ear Training


Most people are familiar with the concept of “playing by ear,” which refers to the ability to pick out a tune or learn a song without needing to read sheet music. It is a common misconception that being able to play by ear is an ability that only musically talented people have. I’ve heard many people say things like, “I know how to read music, but I could never play by ear…” or, “I love music but I was never talented enough to just sit down and play.” On the contrary, a strong musical ear is a teachable skill that anyone can learn.

In my experience, the ability to learn music completely by ear without using sheet music is one of the best predictors of a student’s overall enjoyment and success with music. Learning to use one’s ears effectively unlocks tremendous creative potential. A trained ear is the gateway to other types of creative musical expression such as composition, songwriting, and improvisation. Ear training helps students learn faster, stay engaged, and remain curious about music for the rest of their lives. For these reasons, ear training continues to be the foundation of my teaching for students of all ages, instruments, and abilities.

I was fortunate at an early age to study music with an excellent piano teacher who emphasized ear training. Some of the most important advances in my musical life came from using aural skills to learn songs on my own. My parents could never get me to practice classical music for more than a few minutes at a time, but when it came to music I loved, I was enthralled. Like many children born in the 90s, I was raised on a steady diet of video games and completely obsessed with the soundtrack from Legend of Zelda. I sat at the piano for hours picking out the notes and chords to Koji Kondo’s music, which became my introduction to jazz harmony. Kondo taught me to love and appreciate simple seventh chords and inspired my early forays into composition and arranging. Without the strong ear training foundation that my piano teacher provided, I would not have learned the skills that enabled me to explore music independently as a creative outlet. 

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In my teaching, I have beginners using their ears from the first lesson, before even introducing the concept of reading music. After learning the first few notes on their instruments, I have students learn simple songs completely by ear, without sheet music. The basics of melody, rhythm, and harmony are best learned intuitively through imitation. When I finally introduce sheet music after several lessons, the importance of the ear has been established, and reading ability is more easily acquired. Reading music is an essential skill, and one that gets plenty of attention in my lessons, but ultimately it is only a visual representation of what must be heard to be understood.

For advanced students studying jazz improvisation, the strength of one’s ears can be a limiting factor in one’s ability to acquire and synthesize new musical language. While scales and theory are important and necessary components of jazz education, learning these before learning tunes and jazz solos by ear is akin to learning the grammar of a foreign language before learning to speak it. Knowing how a language functions is not the same as knowing how to communicate with it, and the language of music is no different. Thus, advanced melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ear training is a regular part of my teaching practice. I am constantly searching for new ways to challenge my students’ ears and help them reach their maximum aural potential. 

Prioritizing reading music over ear training, as is common practice in school band and orchestra programs, potentially limits creative agency. This model contributes to the mentality that the skills required to play music are somehow separate from the joy of listening to music. A reading-centered model of music education presents music as a task that must be performed correctly, rather than a means of creative expression. What does this model do for students who love music, but are bored by standard repertoire? Does it encourage the creative potential of students who have innate musical talent, but struggle with reading notes on a page? How does a reading-centered model help students learn music they love for which no sheet music exists? Should playing by ear be an activity reserved for “talented” students only? Of course not. While some students learning to read music in a school curriculum will end up exploring music on their own, formal music education should foster independent creativity, not stifle it. 

To be clear, I consider the skills of reading and interpreting music to be critical in one’s overall musical development. Certainly, if I couldn’t read music at a high level, I wouldn’t have any gigs! Classical musicians who read music from a page rather than learning by ear are still creative in their interpretation of what is written. However, no matter the style of music, learning and performing must never be divorced from the ears, and I take this very seriously in my teaching. 

A complete musical education begins and ends with the ear. Ear training provides the foundation for a rich musical life and gives students the most essential tool for individual creative expression.

Nathan ReisingComment