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Playing by ear

Throughout history, people all over the world have learned and passed on their musical traditions without using written notation. Music is sound, and teaching and learning it by way of sound has many benefits, including:

  • The student naturally concentrates on imitating the teacher and producing a musical sound, rather than concentrating on the written music.
  • Some of the subtle qualities that define good musicianship are very difficult, even impossible, to notate.
  • The student who learns by ear can play by ear, a useful skill that many notation-reading musicians do not develop.

    Getting help from others

  • If you are taking music lessons, ask for help with ear-training. Mention the specific goals that you would like to reach. (For example: "I want to be able to improvise harmonies by ear.")
  • Playing by ear is often considered a less formal approach to music. Some music teachers have a preferred curriculum that does not include playing by ear. If you are looking for a music teacher, find one who is comfortable with teaching and learning by ear.
  • Sign up for lessons, ensembles, or classes, in music genres that feature playing by ear. This includes many kinds of jazz and traditional musics.

    Helping yourself: make these activities part of your regular practice routine

  • Play ear training games by yourself or with friends.
  • Pick a tune that you have heard many times but never seen, and try to play it.
  • Pick a tune that you have already learned how to play, and try to play it in a different key.
  • Play along with your favorite recordings. You can either try to play a part that you can hear, or try improvising your own additions to the music.


  • Ear training - refers to practices that are designed to help musicians develop aural skills. For example, a musician with a well-trained ear might be able to play an instrument by ear, sight-sing accurately, improvise a part, or name a note or chord after hearing it.
  • Ensemble - Any group of people playing music together. This is a general, catch-all term that refers to groups of any size (from duo to large orchestra), and any genre (popular, classical, folk, traditional), and also includes both temporary and permanent groups (from those assembled for a one-time-only event to groups that play together for many years).
  • Fingering - refers to the placement of the fingers to get a particular note, chord, or series of notes on an instrument. Two examples: The "fingering" for C sharp on a recorder involves covering specific holes with the fingers. If a piano student is struggling to play a difficult line, the teacher might suggest an "alternate fingering" - different choices for which finger to use for each note - that will make the line easier to play.
  • Independent parts - The "independence" of a part refers to how different it is from other parts that are being played or sung at the same time. There is a range from parts that are essentially the same (for example, everyone singing the melody of a song together), to parts that are somewhat independent (for example, a harmony part that has the same rhythm as the melody) to very independent parts (for example, the lone cymbal player in an orchestra, whose part is very different from all the others).
  • Lead sheet - (pronounced "LEED," not "LED") A highly simplified written version of a piece of music. The lead sheet typically includes only the written melody along with crucial information about the piece's style, chord progressions , and form .
  • Piano reduction - Can also be called a piano score or simply sheet music . A piano reduction condenses all of the important parts of the piece into one part that can be played on a piano. Sheet music of songs also typically includes the words and notes of the melody, and often includes chord symbols .
  • Playing by ear - refers to learning, performing, and understanding music by listening to it, rather than referring to written notations.
  • Section - In a large ensemble, a section is a group of people who are playing the same instrument (for example, the "trumpet section") or have the same voice range (for example "the alto section"). At any time, a section may all be singing or playing the same part, or may be divided and performing multiple parts. (If each part has more than one performer, you can also refer to the divided parts as sections, for example the "second clarinet" or "second alto" section.)
  • Sight-reading - refers to the first time someone tries to read an unfamiliar piece of written music and play it. Musicians who become very good at sight-reading can play a piece correctly the first time they see the written music, even if they have never heard the piece. Those who are not yet good at it can practice this skill (an excellent exercise that I highly recommend). Even if they make many mistakes, it is still considered sight-reading, with the goal of learning to produce the correct fingerings and rhythms more quickly.
  • Sight-singing - refers to singing an unfamiliar piece based solely on written music. For most musicians, sight-singing is more difficult than sight-reading with an instrument. Because vocalists have more trouble than instrumentalists in identifying and learning from their mistakes, the term "sight-singing" is typically only used when the vocalist is doing an adequate job of singing what is written. Sight-singing is vocal sight-reading and using the term "sight-reading" is also appropriate.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, Reading music: common notation. OpenStax CNX. Feb 08, 2012 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10209/1.10
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