There’s an ear verses eye phenomenon going on in the music world and I have been lucky enough to experience both. My ear is still developing and may never be as strong as the folk musicians I play with, but being a trained classical musician working with folk musicians has, I believe, made me a stronger musician and especially a stronger teacher. I’ve always been very observant with how my students’ brains develop through the stages of learning how to play the flute. There are stages they go through when reading music and similar stages they go through when learning how to play by ear but there are certain road blocks with each as well. Over the next week I hope to devote a lot of time to touching upon this subject and therefore enlightening my readers on this subject and as a result I’m hoping this will explain why they may be faced with certain roadblocks. I hope to also explain why we may have ended up with these two types of musicians and why one type should be more understanding of the other and to understand the limitations of each.
First let me explain the value in learning how to read music. Some of my students are naturally drawn to learning how to read music and some are more drawn to learning music with their ear. When I can tell they are more suited to reading music I have no trouble in teaching them this technique because it is very useful in many situations. When I teach a student to read I explain to them it’s like reading a manual for a project and if they don’t know how to follow the manual’s instructions then they won’t end up with the final results they were looking for. We’ve all been there, like when we buy a product at a store that needs assembling and if we think we know what we’re doing and don’t follow the instructions exactly then we’re not always happy with the results. There are a lot of details in reading music that have to be followed exactly, for example, writing the accidentals before the notes and not after. You have to be consistent with everything because eventually you want the brain to process what’s on the page very quickly; the job of a classical musician is to play many different performances in a year and to be able to put their part with everyone else’s part (everyone else can include hundreds of people) with as few rehearsals as possible and sometimes with no rehearsal. Learning how to read music is a very efficient way to be able to play anything at any given moment as long as what is to be played has been written on manuscript the way a classically trained musician has been trained to interpret it.
When you are taught to read music, your brain learns to use what the eyes sees on a page and connect it to what the fingers are doing on the instrument. The more you practice this technique the quicker this process becomes. I have seen some of the greatest musicians read extremely difficult music for the first time and make it sound like they have played it over and over. But just because you can read music doesn’t mean you can hear something and play it back. This style of learning a piece (learning by ear) has to be developed separately. It’s like if you always practiced hopping on the left foot your entire life and then you were expected to hop on the right just as well…. it won’t happen. Likewise, if you read a piece over and over and expect to eventually have it memorized by doing this, it won’t happen or if it does it’s only because your playing the piece as if you were reading the music which isn’t very reliable. To truly be able to memorize a piece without the fear of forgetting where you are in the piece or that you might play the wrong note somewhere, it’s best to develop a good ear that can hear a tune and repeat it.