“Oh, I’m not very musically talented. I can’t even read notes!”
When I tell people I’m a musician, this is a reply I hear often. It always surprises me. The first thing that comes to mind when people think about playing music is the ability to read music. It shows how ingrained notation is in music education. For centuries, classical music education has been taught through sheet music. And many teachers of popular music have adopted the same approach.
I learned to play the guitar using notation as well. And like many teachers, I just copied the way I was taught when I started giving lessons. But over the past couple of years, I’ve been moving away from using notation more and more, in favour of teaching my students by ear. It’s an approach that’s not without its challenges, but has a number of important advantages, especially when it comes to learning popular music. In this article, I’ll share how I work, what makes it great and what makes it difficult.
The starting point for my approach is Edwin E. Gordon’s theory that how we learn music is a lot like how we learn a language. In short, babies spend the first six months of their lives listening to people around them. They then engage in speech babble, trying to reproduce the things they’ve heard. It’s only after they learn to speak that we teach them the alphabet and how to read and write.
According to Gordon, it makes sense to learn music the same way. That means we should start with the musical equivalent of listening and speaking: listening to music, hearing it in our minds and then getting that sound we hear ‘internally’ out of our instrument.
Gordon calls this ability to hear music in our head ‘audiation’ and views it as the foundation of musicianship. In his words: ‘Audiation is to music what thought is to speech.’ Audiation is an important reason I prefer to teach by ear. It teaches students to play from their ‘musical thoughts’. Instead of following the ‘instructions’ of notation, they get in the habit of listening to the sound in their heads anytime they play music.
So how do students learn to listen, ‘audiate’ and reproduce what they hear? I always try to keep things as practical as possible and focus on learning songs by ear.
I’m a big believer in teaching students songs they like. When you can play the music you love to listen to, learning music is more fun, motivating and meaningful. So ideally, a lesson starts with a student coming in with a song she’s excited to learn. We’ll then look for what part exactly she wants to play. It can be a guitar line, but also a vocal melody, a trumpet part or anything else they want to learn.
For beginners, it’s a good idea to stick to things that are easy to hear and have a prominent place in the mix. It can be surprising though what students pick out as the most prominent thing they hear, so I tend to ask them what they hear the most clearly.
In the past, when a student came in with a song, I would quickly figure out the part, write it down and then explain how to play it using the notated music (usually tablature a.k.a. ‘tab’, an easy notation system for guitar).
But now, I include the student in that process of figuring out the song by ear. This starts with listening closely to the music. I’ll ask the student to sing or hum the melody, just to see if they have a rough idea of what it sounds like. (It doesn’t have to be completely accurate – not yet.)
Of course, when it’s a song a student brought into class, this is usually not a problem, because they’ve already listened to it at least a couple of times. But if a student doesn’t have the melody memorised yet, I’ll play the recording again. I like to think of audio recordings as the sheet music of popular music, so that’s always the source I refer back to.
Next, I simply ask them to find the first note on the fretboard/keyboard. Some students will get it within a couple of seconds, others will be completely stumped. To guide them, you can play the music again, pause right after the first note and ask them to sing or hum that note.
Then ask them to play a note on their instrument. Is it higher or lower? To make things easier, you can also play that first note yourself (without your student allowing to cheat by looking at your hands) instead of having her sing the note. These are just a couple of ways to guide students through this process. Your exact approach will of course depend on each student.
Once students find the first note, it’s just a matter of repeating the process one note a time. This keeps things from being overwhelming. As students become more experienced, this process will speed up and you’ll be able to tackle a song or solo phrase by phrase.
So when do I discuss technical challenges, fingerings, what’s going on from a theoretical perspective etc.?
This really depends on the student. If they’re beginners, I try to hold off on discussing all these things until after we’re done figuring out the notes. This keeps the lesson from becoming fragmented and unfocused. But with more advanced students, it makes sense to discuss fingerings and theory while figuring out the music, just like I do when I learn a song myself. The goal is to show them how they can do this on their own in the future, as I’ll discuss in the next section.
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Relying on your ears is a crucial ingredient to what I believe is the ultimate goal of music lessons: learning how to learn. I don’t want students to depend on me for learning a new song. I want them to learn all the necessary skills to do that themselves. By including a student in the process of figuring out a song, they become more and more familiar with the process of learning music by ear. It gives them more insight into what it requires and how they can get better at it.
It all starts with the ability to listen in great detail. Many (pop) productions make it hard to hear what all the separate instruments are doing. It takes practice to be able to pick out what’s going in all the layers of a recording. For example, it can be really tricky for students to tune in to the sound of a bass guitar (or any bass instrument for that matter). Those lower frequencies simply don’t attract immediate attention. But when you play a bass part for them on your instrument, they’ll know what to listen for and grow their ability to dial into certain frequencies.
Once students can hear what’s going on, they just need to find those notes on their instrument. This is usually not the hard part. In my experience, students are generally shocked at how good they get at this within a couple of weeks. It might be a matter of trial and error, but as long as they can hear the music in their mind, they will be able to find the right notes on the instrument. After a while, many students even feel it’s cheating to listen to me playing a part, instead of listening to the part as played on the recording.
Growing these skills makes that students don’t have to rely on teachers, YouTube videos or notation to learn a song. It may not always be easy, but as you get better at learning by ear, you can learn whatever you like. It gives you the freedom to explore your own taste, musical interests and favourite songs on your own, instead of being limited to what the teacher provides or whatever tabs or sheet music you can find.
Teaching students the skills to learn themselves plays into two major drivers of intrinsic motivation: competence and autonomy. Learning to figure out a song by ear is very rewarding process that provides a sense of control over music. It also makes students more independent by giving them more control over their learning process.
Of course, teaching by ear has its challenges. For one, many students (or parents) think that the ability to read music is essential to playing music. So you might need to explain that while the ability to read music is certainly a useful skill, it does not outweigh the benefits of developing your ears.
Learning music by ear can also seem daunting. I find that students often think that it’s an ability that you either have or don’t have, perhaps because playing by ear looks so easy and natural for practised musicians. But like any musical skill, it of course simply requires practice. By going through the process of figuring something out in the lesson you can show them that they can learn how to do this.
This approach is a bit of an investment though. Things will take longer at first. The first time you figure out a song by ear with a student, it will take a while. This is the reason I don’t always teach by ear when I’m subbing for another teacher. It’s simply more effective to stick with the approach students are used to.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for me as a teacher is to stay disciplined. It’s certainly easier to give someone a piece of paper. You can point at lines and symbols to explain what you mean. Sound is harder to talk about than visual information. At some point, I realised that my insecurity as a teacher also played into the desire to use notated music. It gave me something concrete to point to and say ‘this is what we worked on this lesson.’
In short, teaching music by ear is not without its challenges. But when you overcome these short-term obstacles, the results in the long-term will be worth it. It has made my students into more motivated, more independent and simply better musicians.
What have been your experiences of teaching piano by ear? How have you overcome the challenges? Please leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below.
Just Rijna is the founder of StringKick, a site featuring in-depth guides and courses on learning to play music and mastering the guitar. Recent examples include an illustrated guide to playing barre chords and a step-by-step plan to learning to play guitar by ear. Head to www.stringkick.com to see more.