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Ways of Learning Music: By Notation, By Ear, By Imitation

There are three ways to learn to play music on an instrument: by notation, by ear, and by imitation. In this article I will define these methods, explain the advantages and disadvantages of each, and provide details about when and how I use them in my teaching.

Let's begin with the concept of learning to play by notation. This is often referred to as “learning to read music,” and is, by far, the most popular and well-established method for learning an instrument in this country. Basically, written music is a code that, when deciphered properly, enables a person to produce a sequence of sounds on his/her instrument as designed by a composer. The code is the aggregate of all the various note shapes and signs/symbols placed on a grid (the staff), and serves as a visual representation of the desired sound. The relationship between notes/symbols and sounds in music is much like that between written words/punctuation and spoken words in a language. So learning to read music is very similar to learning how to read a language. For music students, the main advantage of learning this skill is that you gain a visual element to what would otherwise be a completely aural experience. If we use two of our senses to learn an instrument instead of just one, the process should be faster and more effective. This is one of the reasons why music reading is so heavily favored in our educational system. The only problem is that when we use two senses to do something, one of them will naturally be used less than if we were using it by itself. Unfortunately, in this case, that means we will be using our aural abilities less when we read music than when we play strictly “by ear.”

But what does it really mean to play “by ear?” Obviously, since music is sound, we can develop the ability to actively experience it simply by deciphering how the sound is organized, and then reproducing it on our instruments. This process of strictly aural learning is often nicknamed “playing by ear.” Partly because of the nickname, there are several common misconceptions about this process of learning. First of all, many people erroneously believe that it involves some kind of magical talent or special ability, reserved only for the “gifted.” I like to make it very clear to my students that learning to play purely by listening is a skill that can be developed over time, just like learning to read notation. Obviously, some individuals have a greater natural aptitude for aural learning than others, but that does not mean that someone with a lower degree of aptitude can't develop the skill and experience the joys and benefits it can bring. So even if you are more of a visual, analytical or tactile learner, you can certainly learn to play by ear!

Another misconception about aural learning is that the process involves the ability to hear specific pitches and know instinctively what they are without any point of reference. This is what is known as “perfect pitch,” and is not a skill that we are trying to develop when we play by ear. It is estimated that just one in ten thousand people have perfect pitch. Despite what you may have heard, it is not a skill that can be developed. Although pitch placement through tone recognition (which is not the same as perfect pitch) is a skill that is sometimes developed in musicians over time, that is also not something that should not be the focus of aural learning. What I teach with regard to playing by ear is how to develop good relative pitch. That means, if given knowledge about one pitch, a person will be able to hear the relationship of all the other pitches involved in the music. With the aid of analytical understanding, this skill can easily be developed over time. It can even be developed by an individual on his/her own, although the process will typically be much slower, less effective, and more fraught with errors than when an instructor is involved to provide the links between theory and practical application.

What are the advantages of learning to play by ear? First of all, I like to point out to students that, if music is indeed just organized sound, they should be able to deal with the sound itself, without any kind of visual or tactile aids, in order to truly feel successful as a musician. Indisputably, it is the most natural, universal and instinctive way to learn music. Secondly, once an individual is skillful with the process, it can be the fastest way to learn music, depending on the genre or style. If a truly skillful musician wanted to learn a relatively simple song, such as almost anything in the pop/rock or folk categories, he/she would most likely find it to be much faster to approach the sound itself without going through the hassle of trying to locate some written version of it. Not only that, but it is much more organic to the process to deal with sound without notation, as this is how music of simpler styles is usually transmitted among, and performed by, its musicians. More complex music, such as classical and jazz music, often benefits from the visual element, as far as the transmission and performance processes are concerned. It can be extremely time consuming to try to learn classical music, in particular, by ear. And, just like aural learning is generally more conducive to pop styles, visually aided learning is more conducive to classical music, as composers of that genre take great effort to document in great detail their work and want it to be accurately transmitted to, and produced by, its performers. Jazz music, while certainly complex, is usually most effectively learned through a combination of aural and visual skills, with a high priority given to the aural, as improvisation is involved.

A third advantage of learning to play by ear is that it actually helps improve music reading skills as the ability to audiate accurately increases. Audiation is the process by which we “play” music in our heads by imagining the sound. Any great musician will tell you that, when reading music, he/she can actually “hear” the music mentally before the physical sound is actually produced. Along with this concept, playing by ear naturally increases tonal memory, or the ability to store musical sounds, with understanding about them, in the brain. This also contributes greatly to music reading, particularly the memorization process. The only disadvantage, with regard to learning to play solely by ear, is that it needlessly eliminates one of your senses as a human being – the sense of sight. In my opinion, if we have eyes, we might as well use them! Certainly, the visual representation of sound through notation can help us better understand music theory, both in general and as it relates to any particular piece/song.

So what about learning by imitation? This process of learning is often referred to as playing “by rote,” although it can hardly be called a process because it simply involves watching somebody do something and then doing the same thing. I normally try to avoid the term “rote” because of its association in academic settings with aural learning. To be clear, learning by imitation has practically nothing to do with learning by ear, except in the fact that it involves the incidental hearing of the music. Although it can be combined with aural learning, it is most often just a visual process, whereby a skill is demonstrated and then physically reproduced by the learner. The best example of this, regarding music learning specifically, is when someone learns to play a song on the piano by watching a YouTube video. Interestingly enough, I sometimes get students wanting to learn music that have tried this approach on their own and were unsatisfied. What's the problem with it? Well, by its very nature, the process involves little to no actual understanding of what is happening in the song from a music theory standpoint. Without that understanding, a person that learns one song would have an equally difficult experience trying to learn any subsequent songs since no musical skills are being developed, just purely physical ones. It's like the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” When you learn by imitation, you learn to play one piece/song; then when you want to learn another song, you're in the exact same position as before, having to watch someone else do it in order to be able to do it yourself. And, while it may seem like it's an easy process, mainly because it is completely mindless, requiring no mental exertion whatsoever, it is a very long process. Although, admittedly, it does take a while to learn the skills of reading notation and playing by ear, once they are developed, the process of learning any piece of music becomes much, much faster. And the great thing about those skills is that they are completely translatable, which means whatever you learn to do in one piece of music will help you with every other piece of music in some manner. As I always tell my students, music is a subject (when learned properly) that is 100% cumulative. Of course, musical understanding (through study of music theory) has to accompany the aural and visual learning for this to be true. This rarely happens with rote learning, which by its very definition is “the use of memory with little intelligence; mechanical or unthinking routine or repetition.” My own definition for it as a musical process is a bit more simple: monkey see, monkey do!

Are there any merits to learning by imitation? First of all, I like to differentiate between the concepts of learning to play solely by imitation and benefiting from imitation used in limited ways and in certain situations by a teacher to aid aural and visual learning. From the latter perspective, imitation can be very helpful. I prefer to think of it as demonstration or modeling by the teacher, which happens very naturally in most personal instruction. In my own teaching, it is usually for the purpose of developing good physical technique on the instrument, and rarely has anything to do with purely musical concepts. For example, when trying to help a students understand proper fingering techniques on the piano, I will often demonstrate things so they can see them physically. Modeling is not only helpful, but often necessary for beginning students on an instrument. However, I make very limited and highly selective use of the broader concept of imitation in my teaching overall. Needless to say, I would never use it as a stand-alone technique for teaching an entire piece of music, unless I received a special request to do so. Even then, I probably could not resist the urge to remind the student about how much more quickly and easily the process would be if he/she learned to play by notation or by ear. Every once in a while, I will get a student (usually an adult) that just wants to learn how to play one song for an event like a wedding, with no interest in learning to do anything else on the instrument, in which case I will happily comply, as long as we both know that what we're doing is for a purpose which is not learning how to play music.

Now on to the questions of when and how I teach by notation and by ear...this depends on many factors, including, 1) the instrument being learned, 2) the style of music being learned, 3) the interests of the student and/or wishes of the parents, 4) the goals of the student, 5) the natural or favored learning method of the student, 6) the need or desire to strengthen a naturally weaker learning method in a student, 7) the level of the student, and 8) the age of the student. Not all of those factors need to be considered in every situation, and some certainly have a greater impact on my approach than others. However, I will briefly try to address each of them:

1) Since the physical aspects of playing the trumpet require so much attention, particularly with beginning students, I focus heavily on notation until pitch placement is well under control. The visual dimension of learning is a tremendous aid in this process. Since this is not an issue with piano students, anyone can begin learning with playing by ear or by notation, although age is sometimes a factor, as we will see in #8 of this list.

2) As previously mentioned, certain musical genres/styles are more conducive (by their very nature) to learning by notation, while others are more easily and effectively learned by ear. I like to think of all music in the Western world as falling into three general categories: classical, jazz and popular/folk. My normal preferences (in most situations) are to teach classical music by notation, popular styles by ear, and jazz both by ear and by “lead sheet” notation, with an emphasis on theory concepts and improvisation.

3) If a school-age student (especially a teenager) expresses more or less interest in playing by notation or by ear, I will certainly take that into consideration. Also, if a parent wants his/her child to focus more or less on a particular method, I will certainly follow that directive. As for adults, I will teach whatever they want to learn, using whatever manner they choose!

4) If a student has a particular goal, especially one that is time-sensitive, such as learning a written piece of music for an audition, we may temporarily focus exclusively on the learning method that will help us accomplish that goal most effectively.

5) If the comfort level or confidence level of a student in lessons is an issue, we may temporarily favor one learning method over another.

6) If a student needs or wants extra help with a learning method, we may focus on one over another temporarily.

7) With beginning students, I typically focus on teaching notation, mostly because there is so much information that needs to be covered, but also because it is much more easily learned independently at first. In learning to play by ear, most students need a significant amount of guidance in lessons before they're able to really be successful with practice on their own. Also, the more a student understands about notation, the more he/she will be able to use those visual cues mentally when trying to figure things out by ear.

8) With very young students (ages 6-8) I usually favor notation, mostly for practical reasons. I've found that young students normally will not take the initiative to go through the process that is necessary to learn by ear when practicing at home. As they progress through school and develop more independent learning skills (especially through homework requirements), they become increasingly willing and able to take on the challenges of independent aural learning. Of course, in situations where parents are actively involved in their child's practice routine and understand the process of learning by ear, very young students can have a great deal of success.

It should be noted that the methods of learning by ear and by notation are by no means mutually exclusively. To the contrary, they can and should (in my opinion) work together to contribute to the skills of a complete musician. Anyone that attends a college of music or conservatory knows that multiple years of aural skills classes are a requirement for a degree in music, with music reading skills normally being a basic requirement for acceptance in the first place. Therefore, anyone that studies music at any level should want to develop both skills. Obviously, there is naturally going to be a certain level of development of aural skills when a person learns to play written music, regardless of whether or not that person is concentrating on it or even noticing it. However, the better a person's audiation abilities are, the better his/her reading abilities will be. That means he/she will be able to read the music faster and more easily, and will have a much greater understanding of its theoretical aspects, making the processes of retention and memorization more effective and secure. Similarly, the better a person's reading skills are, the better his/her ability to play by ear will be. When an individual has a visual element, either physically or mentally, to attach to the sounds that are being deciphered, the process become much quicker and easier. There are also great benefits to theoretical understanding that come from visual learning, which can impact aural learning.

How do I practically incorporate these two learning methods in my teaching? Well, instruction on music notation is pretty simple. Any student learning to read music must learn the “code.” That is done by first learning the basics and then gradually adding musical concepts and increasing the difficulty level. Virtually any method book will provide the means to accomplish this, although some are better than others in my opinion. For piano students, the ones that focus on intervallic reading (the directional and spatial relationship between notes/pitches) are vastly superior from a pedagogical standpoint. Of course, an individual may choose to just dive right into any piece of music, even a relatively difficult one, and try to figure out the code along the way, although I generally do not recommend that approach, as it is usually much too difficult, confusing, time consuming and frustrating for most people, especially children.

As for instruction in playing by ear, I normally take a very practical approach. For very young students, we may learn simple songs or just parts of songs, even ones from the method books they are using (which helps with the connection between aural and visual learning), purely by sound. I will play a short section and have them try to figure it out, providing details about what to listen for along the way. For older children and adults, I usually have them pick out one of their favorite pop songs (or folk song, traditional song, hymn, etc.), find it on YouTube or any music listening platform, and guide them through a process that involves first learning the melody, and then learning the harmony (chords). That takes care of most of the real aural learning, although there will be some other elements that require in-depth listening skills as we work on creating an arrangement -- a process specifically for piano students. Regarding trumpet students, I like to have them learn how to improvise with the music, as there really is no “arranging” process for monophonic instruments.

With professionally bound music students (i.e. those in pursuit of a career in music), I will sometimes work on independent aural skills exercises, such as interval and chord recognition, harmonic sequences, melodic/rhythmic dictation, etc. However, the more practical approach I described, aided by plenty of theory instruction along the way, is much more fun for most students and gets them playing the songs they love right away!


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