Playing by Ear and Sight Reading

Question: When I was 8, in 1974, my mother sent my to the Cleveland Music School Settlement, in hopes I would learn to read notes to play the piano. I never could catch on. However, I can play be ear. If, someone can play by ear, does this make it any easier to learn to read notes?

– Laura Scott (Las Vegas, Nevada, USA)

Albert’s reply: Many piano students assume that they’re either a sight reader or they play by ear, yet the two are by no means mutually exclusive. Both are necessary for good musicianship, and the ability to play piano by ear should really be favored by piano teachers since it reveals good aural skills. If music teachers would place as much emphasis on ear training as they do on reading music we would have better musicians overall.

Playing piano by ear makes it easier to learn to read music because you can often anticipate what comes next in the music. If you know your harmony and have common chord progressions in your fingers, it’s possible to improvise where you’re unable to read each note. Further, once you learn to recognize harmonies by sight, you can immediately jump to that harmony without having literally to read each note and find it on the keyboard.

This requires good proprioception. This means the ability to find your way around the keyboard without depending on your eyes. Practice playing by ear with your eyes closed and see if you can do it just as well. It may seem paradoxical that closing your eyes can make you a better sight reader, but it can! In my experience, those who play by ear tend to rely on looking at the keys. If you can break this habit, you’ll be much better at reading piano music.

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