The ear versus read debate around piano learning strategies encompasses all instruments ranging from the guitar and drums, to the piano and keyboard. Those who have been playing the piano for a while say that both methods of learning to play are essential, but in the end a performer generally adapts to what suits him or her best.

While the methods to learn playing are surely a matter of individual preference, experts say that you should have working knowledge of both to be able to make progress in the initial days. After all, you should know the rules of the game if you intend to bend them!

Learning to Read Music

Reading music means to be able to read musical notes, dynamics, and rhythms that are written down on paper, and play a tune accordingly.

Sheet music, that is musical notes written down on paper, is generally used by classical pianists who most often play as part of a group – say an orchestra. This is because there is not much scope for improvisation in orchestras as you cannot go beyond what the rest of the group is playing. Thus, sheet music helps you play the piano within a certain set structure decided by the composer and does not offer much scope for flexibility and improvisation.

a piano with music sheet
Image Courtesy of Flickr

Having said that, it is important to mention that if you learn to read sheet music, you will also become technically sound at playing the piano. Most classical pianists who follow sheet music play their notes in a certain manner – they do not just aimlessly bang their fingers on the keys. And if trends are to be observed, pianists with strong grounding in sheet music and a classical background have gone on to make some great jazz musicians.

However, it might pose a problem if you are entirely dependent on written notes to play the piano because in such a situation it is challenging to learn to play a new song or composition. There have been instances where pianists who count a lot on sheet music have been unable to play simple melodies like ‘Happy Birthday’ without the notes placed in front of them.

Playing by Ear

man playing piano as he listens
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia

Playing by ear means to be able to play music just by listening to it. Those of you who can perform this particular feat, know that you have already won the half the battle of learning to play the piano. But you should remember that we are just talking of the basics here.

That is, playing by ear may help you pick up popular songs faster and be able to key along on a casual singing spree, but it is not going to suffice for the long haul. As the pieces you learn get more complex, knowing how to read sheet music is going to come in handy.

In fact, in a research paper titled ‘Playing by Ear – Foundation or Frill?’, Robert H Woody, who is an associate music education professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, it is stated that music teachers have described the technique of ear playing as an extremely necessary precursor to the process of becoming a fluent sheet music reader.

Research also supports the theory that playing any musical instrument by ear is a necessary foundational skill that contributes a lot to other aspects of musicianship.

Should I be good at both?

When you start playing the piano, there is a long way you have to travel before you can play the best compositions ever created. There are people who will be comfortable learning both methods, and there will be instructors who will teach both as well. But how you choose to progress will depend upon your comfort levels with the two methods, your aptitude and what you aspire to do after learning to play the piano.

part of a piano
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

But, irrespective of where you see yourself as a musician a few years from now, being able to play by ear as well as by reading sheet music will ensure that you become a well-rounded pianist who is able to play any composition they want. If not anything else, it will let you play the instrument whenever and wherever you want whether or not you have your music written down in front of you.

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