When Do People Usually Start Playing by Ear?

Question: I know people usually say it depends on the person. Well, I want to know the average year of when a person who take lessons starts playing by ear. I know that some people don’t take lessons and play by ear.

– Mila (USA)

Albert’s reply: The unfortunate truth is that the most pianists never really develop their ear, regardless of how long they have been playing. The primary reason is that piano lessons today almost categorically ignore ear training and instead focus exclusively on training the eye.

Part of the problem is a false snobbery. While it is unconditionally true that learning to read music is the obligation of every student of music, most teachers now fail to teach aural skills altogether.

There are two primary goals of ear training. The first is “listening comprehension” – the ability to recognize as much as possible of what we hear. In tonal music, this means recognizing common chords and chord progressions as well as notes within the scale.

The second major goal of ear training is applied aural skills: Can you reproduce what you hear? If you hear a melody, can you play it? If so, can you do so quickly and without error? Note that fumbling around at the keyboard – merely guessing which keys to press and pressing keys until you find the right one – is both unprofessional and destructive to the learning process. True applied aural skills means knowing in advance exactly which keys you will play, and only then playing them.

Both of these goals require extensive knowledge of music theory. For example, if you truly know your scales and the triads within each scale, you will be able to reproduce the those triads upon hearing them in a given key.

Most people who learn to play piano by ear never learn proper music theory, and many do not even learn to read music. This is the reason why so many music teachers look down upon playing piano by ear, and in this respect they are right to do so. The truth is that musicians must learn how to read sheet music as well as learn music theory and train their ears.

The reason playing by ear alone is insufficient is that the keys are not the notes. F-sharp and G-flat, for example, are played by the same key on the piano, but they are different notes. Similarly, a German sixth chord may sound identical to a dominant seventh, but they are entirely different chords that are spelled differently. These chords are thus “musical homonyms,” each sounding the same but having a different meaning. (You can hear the difference in the examples on the Piano Theory page.) This is but one reason why learning music theory is so critical, and it is impossible to learn music theory without reading music as well.

The ability to play piano by ear does not occur by itself – you must train your ear step by step. One applied aural skills exercise I recommend is transposing music: Start with a simple melody and play it by memory in another key. This test will show you how well you really know the music! Afterwards you can progress to transposing chords to other keys as well.

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