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Playing Music By Ear: The Hidden Problem (and what to do about it)


TheHomeSchoolMom Blog: The hidden problem of playing music by ear (and what to do about it)It’s a skill we’d all love to have – the ability to play music by ear, and not need the actual musical score.

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You know, sit down at the piano, and just start playing whatever tune is in your head. There are so many benefits to such a talent: the freedom to express oneself musically, versatility in being able to put one’s music to good use for economic or artistic purposes, the ability to entertain and please others…and if we see the talent of playing by ear in our children, we are usually thrilled.

And why wouldn’t we be?

While it is true that having an ear for music is a tremendous blessing that opens wide artistic doors of opportunity, believe it or not, there can be a down side – one that homeschoolers, particularly, encounter.

Those whose children take music lessons from a teacher outside the home are not as likely to struggle with this potential “problem” of being able to play by ear, because such issues are normally handled by others. But if you’re a homeschooler and you have any musical background, it’s likely that you’re including music education as part of your educational plan. And, when you do, if your child demonstrates a strong sense of pitch and can hear music and play it without the notes on the page…you’re likely to come face-to-face (or, shall we say, ear-to-ear) with the problem:

The ability to play by ear can hinder children’s progress in learning to read music.

The better the child’s ear, the more likely it is that he or she will play according to what he hears rather than what he sees on the page. It is not unusual to find that musically gifted children have years of musical instruction, and are able to play pieces beautifully, but that they struggle to sight read notes on a page.

How does this happen?

It is fairly simple, actually. The child struggles through the first time or two of playing a new piece, getting support and instruction from a teacher. Then, once he gets the melody in his head, he plays it from then on according to his memory, rather than from actually reading the musical score. His ability to hear the notes enables him to play pieces effectively even though he is not actually able to read the notes on the page, a fact that often leads teachers to think he is further along technically than he actually is. Consequently, the student moves forward in his instruction, never having actually learned the fundamentals.

Homeschoolers can change all that!

Identify the Problem

The key is to notice that your child is playing by ear rather than by the music. If the child struggles mightily to learn a new song, but then shortly thereafter is able to play it like a virtuoso, it is likely that he or she is playing by ear. An easy way to determine whether this is so is to point to a note in the middle of a song that the child knows and plays well, and ask the child to play only that note. Do this 8 or 10 times for different notes, randomly throughout the score (making sure the notes chosen are not next to each other or in any sequence). If the child correctly plays each note, it is highly likely that she is reading music. If she cannot identify some of the notes (unless she plays them in sequence) it is highly likely that she is playing by ear and not reading the music.

So, once you know your kid is playing by ear and not reading music, what do you do about it?

Fix the Problem

Fixing the problem is not particularly challenging, it just takes time, consistency, and patience. The strategy involves teaching children the notes carefully, and then making them use the written score rather than their memories when they play. Try these steps:

  1. Spend focused time at each music lesson working on music theory and technique. Get a theory and technique instruction book and have the child work through it, labeling the notes on the staff and actually physically writing in the notes him or herself. Focused study on the mechanics of music is important if these students are to be able to read music effectively and not simply rely on their ear.
  2. Use acronyms to help the student learn note names and positions. For the treble clef line notes (from bottom to top), use (E)very (G)ood (B)oy (D)eserves (F)udge, and FACE for the treble clef space notes. For the bass clef line notes (from bottom to top), use (G)ood (B)urritos (D)on’t (F)all (A)part and use (A)ll (C)ows (E)at (G)rass for the bass clef space notes.
  3. Get a sight reading music instruction book and have the child play a few new sections from the book only once. Sight reading instruction books offer short snippets of music for children to play, often just a few measures in length. The key is to do different snippets each day, playing each through only once, so that the child never memorizes the tune, and has to play only by reading the music.
  4. Have the child play through a well-known piece backwards. Doing so forces him or her to look at the individual notes and play what is written on the page, rather than play from memory.
  5. Periodically spot-check any piece that the child knows well by randomly choosing a note in the middle of the piece and having the student play it. This will help you track the child’s progress in learning note names.
  6. Separate “playing for practice” from “playing for pleasure”. Encourage the child to play by ear, but not to do so during focused practice time. When music instruction time is over, let the student play whatever he or she wants.
  7. Give incentives for learning to read music. When you spot check (according to the technique mentioned in the Identify the Problem section as well as #5), let the child earn a small something special (money, candy, etc.) for each note correctly played. Students can also earn incentives for each snippet of the sight reading instruction book snippet (as mentioned in #3) they play correctly. Another option, rather than the student earning an incentive for every note played correctly, is to keep a log of correct notes played and have the student earn something special after she obtains a certain number of correctly identified notes on the log.

Having an ear to be able to play music from simply hearing it is truly a gift, and one we want to nurture in our children. But it also can be problematic when it prevents students from learning their music fundamentals. Taking a conscientious approach to teach these children music theory, and then using techniques to force them to use this knowledge rather than rely on their ear and memory, can help musically gifted students get the best of both worlds: the ability to hear and play tunes without music, and the knowledge and discipline to sight read and play from a musical score as well.

Such a win-win is enough to fill any homeschool mama’s heart full of music.

Rebecca Capuano

Rebecca Capuano is the stay-at-home mom of three children (one of whom is in heaven) who also makes attempts at being a homeschooler, writer, photographer, scrapbooker, and truth-seeker. She earned her Master of Social Work degree from East Carolina University, and has worked in a variety of capacities (including group homes, day treatment centers, and public schools) with at-risk children and staff, including developing a therapeutic and educational day treatment center for delinquent youth in Wilmington, North Carolina. She currently resides in Virginia, and has written on a variety of topics for both and Home Educators Association of Virginia. Rebecca believes that family is created by God as the most fundamental institution in society, and she is dedicated to helping families nurture their children to become responsible persons of character and integrity.

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  1. Billy Blaze

    I was actually put in this situation as a child, unfortunately my talent wasn’t recognized or cultivated.
    My one and only guitar lesson was a failure as the teacher attempted to teach me an F chord which my 11 year old hands couldn’t do, then I was in band and didn’t have proper instruction so I devised my own way to write the music I heard and made sense to me, that got me bused from the jr high to the high school band to be first trumpet.

    As an adult, I do not know how to read music yet I play by ear Bass, electric and acoustic guitar and drums, I also produce, compose, write my own lyrics and sing, voice is my main instrument.

    I have had my music played on radio globally without the benefit of knowing how to read music. It is not necessary, what IS, is to cultivate the desire in a child with encouragement and praise and providing them with a quality instrument and corresponding items to help them learn.

    Musicians do not care if they can read music, musicians care if the can create music.

    I hope this helps someone save a young gifted musician.

    On a side note, people who play by ear, hear things much differently that people who do not, protect their hearing at all costs.

    • Devising your own way to write music is pretty incredible, Billy. Basically, you created your own music theory! I can see why you were first trumpet.

      This debate reminds me of the “phonics” or “whole language” debate around reading. Some people contend that kids will never become good readers without explicit instruction in phonics, even as many kids merrily learn to read fluently and spell accurately without a single phonics lesson—ever! Meanwhile, other kids do struggle with reading until explicit phonics lessons are offered. Those kids feel relief because of the chance to crack the code.

      I believe you hit the nail on the head: the key is to cultivate the desire in a child with encouragement, providing them with a quality instrument, and help learning. Many successful musicians play by ear; others read music. Kids who are encouraged and provided opportunities to learn can be offered multiple ways “in” to music. Discounting learning by ear may discount kids for whom autonomy is extremely important.

      You can see my experience with my own son (also a professional musicians) elsewhere in this comment thread.

      Thanks so much for your comments!

  2. Mary Lockwood

    If there’s help out there, please, please reply to my situation. My husband played both piano and organ by ear and beautifully. Last Christmas he had a stroke that took the vision on the left side of each eye. It also affected his ability to transfer his wonderful talent from his brain to the piano. The fingers don’t want to hit the right keys and the “catty-whompjs vision” makes it worse. He’s currently in a nursing home and I’ve taken him to an empty room that has a piano in it. He tries the keys and a few chords, but is getting very depressed. And yes,, he’s elderly. Is there anything I can do, have him repeatedly practice? This is so sad. Please reply if you have any ideas. Mary

    • Mary,

      So sorry to hear of your husband’s loss of ability to play the piano. I’m sure music has brought the two of you much enjoyment, and it’s been a big part of who he is. This sounds like one or more “disconnects” that have happened as a result of the stroke. Ask your husband’s physician about this. If the nursing home has a music therapist, see if he or she can help. You may even be able to hire a private music therapist to come in and work with him. If outside help is not possible, I’d try making sure he has recorded piano music to listen to (unless this causes him distress). Also find out if you can bring in a very small keyboard that you could leave in the room. I am not an expert on stroke recovery, but as a layperson, I know that some skills can be rebuilt after stroke. It does take repeated and ongoing effort. Having a portable keyboard nearby would help. If your husband is getting any therapy, explain the importance of piano playing in is life, and see if it can be incorporated into his therapy. You might also try a keyboard app on an iPad. The iPad keyboards don’t have raised keys, of course, so there is no tactile aspect to guide him, and it may be frustrating depending on how bad his sight is. However, it might be so accessible that it would hold his interest for a few minutes to begin providing some use of the music connections in his brain.

      Thinking of you,

  3. Lara Thompson

    Thank you all for your comments. My son is very musically talented but he has severe dyslexia. We tried piano lessons which just frustrated him. He asked me to sell his piano. I kept the piano but stopped forcing the lessons. He since has flourished musically and plays several instruments “by ear”. And he plays well. I think he could make a living with music.

    He has learned some notes and chord progress by default but does not read music. He would like to study music in college. Are there schools of music out there for musically talented kids who do not read music?

  4. JB

    Even though this article and comments are from a year or more ago, I feel I must comment and agree with Rebecca. As a private piano teacher who has taught many students for many years, the only students who have actually used their skills are those who learned to read the music. Good accompanists are few and far between and that’s really what many want to do. Too late, they and their parents, realize that playing by ear does not allow that. Why? Because in order to play by ear, someone (who could read the music) must play it for you first.

    While there may be many famous musicians who never learned to read music, I imagine that somewhere along the way, a person might find out that those musicians discovered that they needed some knowledge and actually got some training. Otherwise, they could only play what someone who knew music played for them first.

    Why limit a child to only playing by ear? Is it hard work to learn to read music? Yes. But, it’s hard work to learn to read or do math, yet we know how important and enjoyable that can be once learned.

    • Billy Blaze

      so so very wrong.

      I never learned how to read music and I have accomplished great success.
      I compose my own music, write my own lyrics, sing my songs, produce my music, and play guitar, bass, and drums, learning piano now. 😉

      • If you read the comments below, Billy, I think you’ll see that many readers at TheHomeSchoolMom agree with you! One of the things we always find on the internet is people with different experiences, right? So glad you have been successful.

  5. Yes, it can indeed be an issue for children to memorize the music and stop looking at the score for they may memorize incorrectly and it is a great skill to be able to sight read sheet music and adhere to all the direction on the page.

    I agree with other commenters that the bigger challenge is the other way around – getting kids to not be bound or limited by a piece of sheet music, which offers a rough symbol of music itself. As a professional musician, you have to be able to read the music sheet AND transcend it.

    Ear training is essentially building the skill of note, chord, and rhythm recognition so that the aspiring student can recognize melodies and chord progressions and quickly understand and replicate them on their instrument. This is very important and makes sure the student is really playing on their instrument what they hear. This can only be developed away from reading but will really help with sight reading for they can already hear what’s on the page with their inner ear. I would encourage parents to help their children with these kinds of ear training exercises and note dictation, rather than simply reading notes on a page.

  6. My early childhood music experience differs, somewhat, from your
    I began vocalizing music at the age of 2…and subsequently did not
    receive the opportunity of reading music for about 10 years, when at
    12, I began to play an instrument, baritone horn (and trombone shortly
    thereafter) I recall instantly becoming an excellent reader!
    A wonderful teacher certainly didn’t hurt!
    Where I did notice some ‘interesting’ developments, was in the area of
    Prior to learning harmony, which included fluency in chord changes and
    all of the different scales, etc, my ear carried me to wonderful improvisational
    After absorbing all of the great theoretical information, which eventually led to
    my becoming a writer of repute, I’d say that my jazz (improvising) skills diminished
    from the point when I relied solely on my evidently wonderful ear…
    This was how I was affected….still, always a dependable jazz soloist, but missing
    those little strokes of ‘genius’ that I was told that I exhibited in the earlier days…

  7. Eva Moos

    HI Rebecca,

    I am a teacher of music and a mother of 5. I understand that you would like your children to be able to read the notes but if you do some exploring you will find that most modern teachers want students to learn the experience of music first, and then learn the how and why of notation. Certainly, your children were given the experience of language before learning to read. I don’t think you would tell a child not to repeat what you said until he could read the words, would you? If you have a child who plays music he has heard by ear, this is cause for celebration, as you said. While it does no harm to play games and encourage a child to follow notation exactly, it sounds to me that you think that skill is more important than the music itself. To put this in perspective, let me tell you that I am the mother of a deaf child. Years ago, deaf children were forbidden to sign, lest they not learn to speak. Then they were taught to make sounds, without any appreciation for language or story-telling. In this century, teachers know that the primary thing is to understand language, then speech can be taught. It is the same with music. Music is a beautiful language and a gift. The note reading is a tool. It is secondary. It has no use until you understand music. Pay attention to the work of Suzuki and the work of Francis Clark and Louise Goss who wrote ‘The Music Tree”. Do not let the teaching of notes interfere with the teaching of music. Be mindful that music notation was invented in order to share music when there was no other way to do so but paper and pen. It may become as obsolete as old English in your lifetime. In addition, while it may be imperative to read music to join a symphony orchestra, it will be imperative to play by ear to join the jazz band or the local rock band. To sum up: I am all for learning music theory and notation, but it’s the expression of music that is important. (p.s. You might want to check how many time you used the word ‘force”. It’s a bit jarring in the context of music education)

  8. Hi Rebecca,

    Learning to “read music” is not a requirement in order to live a fruitful and creative life as a musician.
    It is a “nice to have” not a “must have” (unless you intend to be a certain type of professional, in which case it is already a solved learning problem).

    “The ability to play by ear can hinder children’s progress in learning to read music ”

    Actually it’s the other way round.

    Learning to read music before learning to play by ear WILL hinder your child’s ability to fully understand and create music, especially in the holy grail of musical skills – improvisation.

    I’m just going to quote from Professor Edwin Gordon’s audiation skills page:

    “Audiation is the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. One may audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music (see types of audiation).

    Through development of audiation students learn to understand music. Understanding is the foundation of music appreciation, the ultimate goal of music teaching.”

    Gordon’s Music Learning is implemented by such organsations as the Peabody Institute’s Early Childhood Program at John’s Hopkins University @

    Sight reading is a part of Gordon’s program but it is introduced at the correct stage.

    You say:
    “The better the child’s ear, the more likely it is that he or she will play according to what he hears rather than what he sees on the page. It is not unusual to find that musically gifted children have years of musical instruction, and are able to play pieces beautifully, but that they struggle to sight read notes on a page”

    There are many cases of classically trained sight readers who can technically play perfect pieces by sight yet have zero improvisation skills due to having been trained at an early age to believe the score is the music, not the skills + heart that plays it.
    For more info on this you can google it but the following have some info:

    If there is any “problem” at all it’s the reverse of what you say. It’s getting kids (and even adult beginners) to play by ear first before attempting to sight read. Common Practice Notation, by the way, is just ONE method of visually notating music among many.
    Apart from CPN, we have everything from tablature to advanced music visualisation methods now being explored.

    Finally, the map is not the territory – ie: the score is not the music, it’s just the bare bones of the music.

    To sum up:

    Ear skills – required to live a fully creative music life and can be acquired/polished with training
    Sight reading: nice to have but not required to live a fruitful music life, and best acquired at the proper stage

    Above all music should be fun.
    There are so many people who have had the fun of music drummed out of them by overly forceful music instruction as a child and no longer play as an adult. To me that is one of the saddest things ever.

    • Dr. Eric

      Dead on, Paul. As a PhD in music education and early childhood music development specialist, I can only deplore most of the techniques we use to teach children to read what’s on the page. What’s important, buy a overwhelming percentage, is the 80 to 90% that is not, not, not possible to put into music notation. Go to YouTube and search for Erroll Garner, and then tell me that it is important that he cannot read music and why that’s a problem for anyone listening to him. He’s one of many. Many music educators will argue that teaching notation is indispensable and they are correct if you want to play in school band or the symphony orchestra,but I’ll tell you that I’d trade a jazz musician any day, or a composer, or any style improviser, for a musician who can only decipher the code of music notation. Just as you are not reading letters, but rather hearing meaning, and understanding the implications of what I’m saying, will you begin to have some comprehension of the problem. [Bad sentence] None of this is to say that notation reading is unimportant. It’s just not always necessary. To show you that I mean what I say about notation, please watch a YouTube video of a kindergarten child at a title I school from West Baltimore where I’ve been teaching for seven years. So you know that I value notational audiatio–which is quite different from deciphering the code of music (that is, like sounding out letters to understand the meaning in language). One is based in comprehension and the other is based in theory. There is no meaning in the alphabet. There is no meaning in notation except if it is brought TO the page rather than taking from it. See the link here:

      I sincerely hope this comment makes a difference in your thinking. I’ve met brilliant people who are not literate. I’ve also met many people who have wasted my time who read and write quite well but yet contribute little to my understanding of the world.

      Had I had more time, I would have written in a shorter response. I apologize for the redundancy. Please respond to any points that are not clear or to anything that I said with which you disagree. I love the professional banter.

      Peace, Dr. Eric

      • Hello Dr. Eric. I agree with you and several others here. I’m a piano teacher and I believe that there are many different ways to approach playing the piano. Strict reliance on sheet music is something that I think should be avoided. Here’s my way of summing it up: I think some people are teaching sheet music, rather than teaching music. I often tell my students: learn the sheet music as it’s written, and then you can make your own way of playing it if you want. Some students prefer the structure of the sheet music, and some prefer the freedom of a looser interpretation. Both types of students can be accommodated. I also have assisted-reading notation I can give students to help them along the way. Etc. There are many materials to accommodate the great variety of students. Traditional sheet music is just one resource.

        • We’ve had so many great comments on this post with a variety of opinions. I’m a mom who reads music, which I did use for high school band, piano lessons, and singing parts in choir and quartets. However, one of my sons is a talented professional musician (who was homeschooled his whole life prior to that) who learned to play mostly by ear. He is by far the more skilled musician, and he has been able to learn music theory “backwards” from his ability to improvise and play well. And he’s the one who is making a living with music: performing, writing songs, and recording. It is literally his full-time job.

          Rebecca’s post represents one school of thought; my experience represents another.

          I love your comment, Beverly, that both types of students can be accommodated. As I always tell people about homeschooling: Do what works, and stop doing what doesn’t work.

          In the case of music, it’s clear to me that people have made different approaches to learning work well.

          Thanks to everyone who has commented on this post. I think I’ll write about my son’s musical education in the future!

    • Mike Murphy

      I’m relieved to see your post. I ran a revolutionary school in Austin, Texas called Natural Ear Music for twenty years, where NO sheet music was allowed. I thought ignorance like that presented in this article was dead for good. Apparently, the water closed behind me….
      Paul McCartney can’t read music. Chet Atkins replied to the question of whether he could read music with the crack, ‘not enough to hurt my playing’. For more about Natural Ear, go to youtube and look for videos (before 2011, when I sold the school). Also, look for my book, A Natural Ear, which will be out at the end of the summer.

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