Friends, Romans, countrymen (and women) and piano players of all levels—do lend me your ears!
No, I really mean it. I want your ears.
Not like in a Hannibal-Lecter-kind-of-way.
I am an advocate of learning to play the piano by ear. Having had the experiences of teaching myself how to play by ear as well as several years of formal lessons, I find value in both styles of learning. However, there are some things that you will gain in musicianship from ear training that you won’t always get from every formal lesson or method book. Listen to some of these advantages:
When you already know how a song sounds, you understand what comes next (go up? go down?), you will be a step ahead of yourself. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you can sing along with a song, you understand the pattern: the verse comes, then the bridge, then the chorus. Your ear has an understanding of what to expect, what to anticipate. What this means for you as you learn to play by ear is that you can sound out what will come next in the song.
Gain bragging rights
Have you ever seen a small child beam with pride at doing something for themselves for the very first time, like helping make a sandwich or climbing up on the couch? They could not be more pleased with themselves. We don’t get those moments very frequently as adults, but they come a-plenty when you learn to play by ear. It’s almost as good as getting the final question correct on Jeopardy! Almost.
Seriously, for some reason the general public is just amazed when they hear that someone is self-taught. I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that their boyfriend, grandchild, or church pianist “can’t read a lick of music, but they can play by ear. They’re self-taught,” with a smug smile on their faces.
It might sound counterintuitive, but if you already know how to play the piano and understand how songs are structured, you’ll have a one-up on learning how to read music, if and when you choose to do so. You’ll have that base understanding of how a song works and where to move your hands. Reading music will essentially be just like giving a name to something you already know.
Students who learn to play by ear have taught their ears to recognize how music goes and how things should sound. They then go on to re-create that at the keyboard. Training your ears teaches you to listen to music in a different way. Becoming a critical listener turns you into a player who pays attention to how things should sound, and this always makes you sound better.
Thanks for lending me your ears—now go put yours to good use, sit down at your keyboard, and figure out your first song.
A quick note:
While I give high praise to self-taught musicians—I am one, after all—I think the best combination of skills a musician can have is to learn by ear, and then learn to read music and develop techniques. It’s the best of both worlds—again, I’m biased, because this is precisely what I did. However, I can say from experience that it works. I, an English major in college, always had more paying gigs then all of the music majors had. That says something!