Advice: playing by ear vs sight reading

February 5, 2019, 9:28 AM · To be clear, I'm not asking which is better :)

I AM working with my teacher on this, he tells me that playing by ear comes so naturally to me that it's impacting my actual reading skills. So much so that I didn't realize that I am still depending on my ear and memory as much as I do, until he brought it to my attention last night & then proved it. This is carry over from when I played 40 years ago. I got away with it 40 years ago quite well, but for me to eventually be able to play the pieces I want to play, this needs addressed.

Obviously I will work with my teacher on this. I've a a week before my next lesson, and have been trying to think of anything I might be able to do during my daily practice sessions to intentionally focus on the actual music. I thought I was... As many of you are teachers, I'm curious to hear any thoughts on this. I'm sure this is a common problem.

Replies (35)

Edited: February 5, 2019, 9:48 PM · Sight reading involves playing music you have never played before and may never have heard. I would think that finding some music that meets those criteria and trying to read through it and then work on it would be helpful. One grows to hear the relationships from the printed music to the ear (rather than the other way) so that one can actually hear the music on the printed page as you are reading through it, but before you actually play the upcoming notes.

As you become familiar with certain genres and composers you also grow to know what to expect and that may add to the mental/aural mix. Of course, with that there are often surprises.

I have always been a "reader," but I do find that once I have read through something, future playing becomes a mix of reading and remembrance - I would not call it "memory" because I have just never been a memorizer.

February 5, 2019, 9:47 AM · Are you really talking about sight-reading -- reading a work that you've never seen before -- or about music-reading in general, i.e. accurately learning a work based on the printed notes?

Sight-reading is a more complicated skill, and it is at least partially ear-dependent.

Edited: February 5, 2019, 10:15 AM · Thanks Andrew, that's helpful. I don't actively memorize, but the music does enter my memory quite quickly.

We are re-building from the ground up, we knew from the beginning that actual reading would be a challenge for the above mentioned reason. I like what you said about learning the relationship from the page to the ear, that's exactly what I need and it's helpful to think about it that way.

Very thankful to have a good teacher who likes working with adults!

Lydia, right now it's the 2nd of the two, though sight reading is where I want to eventually be. The problem right now is that my fingers start taking over and plays what I remember playing/heard played rather than what's written. I think I'm currently trusting my memory/ear more than the notes on the page. It's the unconscious transition from reading the notes to playing what I remember that is the problem. I think. It will take time.

Edited: February 5, 2019, 11:53 AM · It will indeed take time and dedicated focus in reading the notes. As for the reason for sight reading, it is one thing to memorize a 6min folk tune, it's another to memorize a 14 pages, 45 min long second violin symphony part. I said 2nd violin because it often has not much of a melody and sight reading is simply a must. I actually envy those who like you can play by ear and so easily memorize music, I often wish I could, but that is not for me, I can hardly memorize 2 bars so reading the music is my only option. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those musicians who record movie sound tracks, where the music, is recorded as the musicians see and play the score for the first and last time, on the spot.
February 5, 2019, 11:51 AM · Everyone does that, actually. We all will trust our ear more than the notes on the printed page, and if the printed notes contradict what's already in our brain, it's hard to self-correct.

You need practice reading music with unfamiliar tunes, I think. Doflein is useful for training this skill.

Edited: February 6, 2019, 5:57 AM · Roger - that's exactly why I need to address this. There are some lovely classical pieces I would like to learn someday, and my current approach would fail me, for sure.

Lydia, thanks for your comment. It really helps to know it's a common problem. I knew it had to be, but it helps to hear it.

I've also thought about playing something very familiar to me backwards (measure 54, 53, 52, etc. - I've done this on a passage that was challenging me) or with alternate bowing. Just enough to force me to focus more on the notes. I only returned to the violin 2 months ago, so currently I'm limited on what I can play - but it's coming along!

Edited: February 7, 2019, 9:37 PM · To deal with this issue, because I have the same thing, my teacher is making me do rep that i don’t have in my ear at all, ideally that I’ve never heard. I’m forbidden from looking it up on YouTube. We had to back into much easier stuff than I could technically play, because that’s my actual reading level. In the end, no one is going to play a concerto for me measure by measure so I can learn it by ear... much as I wish for that, lol. My teacher in fact won’t play any section of the piece until I’ve played it at least once. Anyway, I am definitely improving. Working at my actual level means it’s not frustrating, I don’t get stuck, rather can work through it. I don’t even mind the rep being “easy.” As to that, we are putting a lot of thought into phrasing, cohesion of character and voices and narrative, understanding the piece structurally. Always plenty to do...
Edited: February 8, 2019, 6:52 PM · Thanks for your feedback Leslie, and I've the same agreement with my teacher as well. He is also my choir director so we both knew coming into this that finally learning to read music properly would be a challenge.

So I'm not allowed to look/play ahead and no YouTube. I THOUGHT that I was coming along in the reading music department quicker than I actually am, but it's simply another challenge - he showed me the other night just how much I'm playing by ear. He won't play for me either until after I've noodled away at it a bit. As I'm filling in a 45 year gap on this journey we're re-building the basics with the Essential Elements book and supplementing that with pieces that are just challenging enough for me without being impossible - and since I'm picking them (with his final approval on their appropriateness) they are also very enjoyable/interesting, and quite basic for anyone other than me I'm quite sure :-)

I'm bound and determine to get past this. If I don't, eventually it will bite me when what I want to play is either too long or too complex to learn in the way I currently do. Nothing wrong with being able to play by ear, but much better to do both.

Edited: February 8, 2019, 4:57 PM · Both is the ideal. Transcription is the bridge between both - ear players get better at relating what they are hearing to notes and readers get better at using their ears.
February 8, 2019, 7:06 PM · I was also very good at playing by ear, so much so that my sight reading was lacking. I would end up when faced with a new piece of music, going through each piece very slowly reading it and learning the notes and rhythms, more memorizing it than reading it.

My poor sight reading has kept me out of All State bands and orchestras when I nailed everything else in the audition.

My advice is to always have music in front of you, even if its something simple like scales. Other than that I think I'm in the same boat.

Edited: February 8, 2019, 10:20 PM · Sadly, having the music in front of me is no guarantee that I'm actually reading it as my teacher proved to me at my last lesson. I've been experimenting with a few things this week that, hopefully, will help. Part of it is not knowing when I make that switch, it's totally unconscious at this point. My goal is to make it more conscious so I can choose which is the best for the moment.

It will take time, and that's fine. Returning to the violin at 59 my goals certainly do not include becoming a professional - just to play some of the music I love for the sheer joy of it, and to be able to play with others. It's my musical journey!

Edited: February 9, 2019, 12:22 AM · One way to ensure you are reading the music is to mentally think of every individual notes, whether naming it in your head (DEFGABC) or visualizing its fingering position.
February 9, 2019, 2:49 AM · Just an idea.

How about finding atonal music scores? I mean music that does not follow a known path and where you really have to figure every note from the score?

Alternative idea is that you just write your own lines meaning write notes without composing, for example write them the score upside down and then turn the score the right way and play. It does not take a long time to write a page of notes.

What that atonal violin music would be, I dont know, but maybe someone else knows?

February 9, 2019, 7:00 AM · I have somewhat of the same problem. My teacher occasionally points out when I’m “composing”, not reading. Lydia mentioned Doflein - Doflein uses many short pieces with different key signatures and meters. There are so many that it is difficult to memorize them and play by ear. By randomly skipping around in a given chapter or chapters, I find that it is improving my sight reading. The other advice I’d offer is to always have a metronome ticking, and play however slowly is needed to “play the ink”, not the “tune”.
Edited: February 9, 2019, 11:15 AM · Those are all good ideas - while I'm certainly not ready for Doflein (just returned to the violin 2 months ago after many years), I get the idea and will remember Lydia's suggestion for the future.

I like the idea of naming the notes while playing them - whether mentally or otherwise. That also forces my mind away from the tune or pattern that my fingers really want to follow and back to the actual notes on the page.

Maria - I call my additional pieces that I work on with my teacher that aren't in Essential Elements my "reward" pieces. My next piece is based on the Asian pentatonic scale as it's a traditional Chinese melody (Carmen suggested it in another thread related to the ringing notes). While it isn't atonal, it IS different - simple and a bit haunting at the same time and that different scale pattern does force a different kind of attention.

Hadn't thought about my metronome being helpful in this way...

Thanks again for the ideas. I won't pretend to be able to solve this by my next lesson - or even the next 50 - but being aware of it and finding different ways to address it is the key.

"Play the ink, not the tune" Charles, I LIKE that and will share it with my teacher.

February 9, 2019, 3:31 PM · Catherine, haha, sounds like our teachers are on the same page!
February 9, 2019, 4:10 PM · I always tell my students that from an early age we learn everything from mimicry and approximation. While this is a natural gift we must not put our trust in it. If you have a good ear it should be there to support good technique and not be the foundation of it. Music is more of a science than an art and everything has to be in the right place at the right time. Basic logistics tend to be an easier said than done and it is really easy to become complacent in counting or tuning chords in fast passages because up to tempo it sounds right.

I really had to work on it myself and I did not dig in until about 4 years ago. It was the Mendelssohn concerto that kicked my butt into gear cause you can't fake it on that piece. You either have all the notes in tune and the right rhythms, or you don't. The things that really helped me were the basics... A metronome and a book of scales (Wessely). We all want there to be some magic complicated answer, and I floated between Dounis, Kreutzer studies, Sevcik... But those two things by far were the most beneficial for me.

February 9, 2019, 5:10 PM · intentionally focus on the actual music

I thought you answered your own question? Actually focus on reading and playing from the musical notation. Always be aware of your tendency to drift off and play by ear, and continue to return your attention to the notation. When the music becomes too familiar find another etude/tune/exercise to read. There are many books of folk tunes and childrens tunes, play through each tune until you can play it well then move on to the next one.

February 9, 2019, 9:50 PM · Has to be said though: playing by ear is a good skill to have. Teachers shouldn't portray it as something negative. I think students get that message all too often. A lot of music making, especially outside of classical music, absolutely depends upon playing by ear. Always shocks me when a highly skilled player cannot play anything without the music in front of them.
Edited: February 9, 2019, 11:44 PM · I am just curious. How did your teacher prove that you were playing by ear and not from muscle memory. As I understand it 'to play by ear' is to play a piece of music after only hearing it, not after reading it and practicing it a few times.
Edited: February 10, 2019, 3:37 PM · “playing by ear is a good skill to have. Teachers shouldn't portray it as something negative”

It is negative if it is used as a substitute for reading music.

February 11, 2019, 11:41 AM · "Playing by ear is a very good skill to have". I agree wholeheartedly. The ideal way to learn would be to learn
1. Reading the notes (i.e. their names and duration)
2. Singing the notes, i.e. the ability to produce the pitches and the rhythms from the written music.
3. Only then start on an instrument.
In such a way both modes would be developed and become natural.
As it is most students learn the mechanics: The notes tell them where to finger but not how they sound. Then slowly we learn to "hear" the pitches "in our heads", i.e. to anticipate the pitches. This faculty is critical for good intonation.
Edited: February 11, 2019, 12:43 PM · My earliest memories, I had a knack for playing by ear. I've always been commended for having a good ear. When I was in choir I learned solfege, solfege hand signs too. This further helped to train and and sharpen my ear which came in handy when I had no sheet music to read. Fortunately I had teachers who worked with me to develop good reading (later writing) habits too! They helped me to understand that both are tools and though discipline, and allot of patients, I learned to keep both in balance and acquired the maturity to correct myself when need be. Good friends will point out if I begin to lose my balance between the two. Each has it's place. My two cents worth. Royce
February 19, 2019, 8:13 AM · As a classical violinist from India, we only refer to notations after the violin lesson when we practice at home as a cross reference . Our training is predominantly that of playing by ear. An aural tradition. As a teacher of this art form also I find that students are more focused on playing when they are not asked to read notes and play.
Listening is very important to this art form - Violin Padma Shankar
Edited: February 19, 2019, 12:36 PM · I have been thinking about this issue as I learn a new piece (Rieding Op. 21 in Hungarian style). It seems that I approach a new piece in "layers". The first is the metronome-intensive, literal realization of the basic notation in pitch and rhythm. As I "get it" from a musical perspective, and with much repetition, the notation becomes more of a prompt than a script, bowings make more sense, and informed playing by ear, with action patterns rather than individual notes, starts to emerge. Further layers include more attention to dynamics, phrasing (that I mark in large parentheses), and addition of my primordial vibrato on sustained notes. I can now play some sections of this without any reference to the notation, as a mix of playing my memory and by ear. In short, there seems to be a gradual progression from sight reading to a memorized performance, with many layers of development in between. I'd be interested to hear thoughts on this, and preferences for recital playing from the score, vs completely from memory.
February 19, 2019, 4:59 PM · I agree with Violin Padma Shankar. My first introduction to playing the violin was through Irish folk fiddle music, and there the learning is predominantly by ear, sheet music only being used as a backup aid when practising at home.

"... students are more focused on playing when they are not asked to read notes and play". A very important observation. The brain has a lot more work to do when sight reading music off the page and simultaneously translating it into bow and finger movements.

As a personal example of this effect, this is what happened a few years ago when I attended a workshop on English folk music for dancers. There were about 100 tunes in the sheaf of music handed out to us. As it happened, I already knew about 75% of the tunes and found that when I was playing from the score a tune that I already had in my head I started making silly little mistakes. This was the reading part of my brain trying to catch up with what I already knew. When I realised what was happening I stopped looking at the music. Problem solved.

February 19, 2019, 5:26 PM · I don't disagree, but try playing by ear a 45min long Beethoven Symphony. Surely some people can, but I don't see how when you have maybe less than 6 hrs in rehersal and 20hrs of personal practice.
Edited: February 19, 2019, 9:19 PM · The ideal is to have both the skills of reading and playing by ear and hopefully improvisation and memorization too. Mostly, only reading is taught because it's the only thing the teacher learned themselves.
Also, traditions that depend on players learning by ear seem to be richer in nuances that you can't discern by reading.
Playing by ear expands the amateur player's opportunities to make music and expands the professional player's abilities to get work. Reading does too, but current teaching is really quite unbalanced in this regard imho.
February 19, 2019, 8:32 PM · As a side note, Doflein is a violin method, so its book 1 is intended for brand new beginners. In general, though, what you sight-read should be somewhat behind what you can actually play. I believe I started sight-reading Doflein when I was a Suzuki book 2 student.
Edited: February 20, 2019, 10:27 AM · I have always believed that having young children start playing by ear does them a terrible disservice. I have them start reading almost immediately. If they fail to develop the reading scan very early on, they have difficulty tracking the music. It's a very specific skill.

When pilots are taught to fly on instruments, they must develop a very similar skill, with the eyes tracking various instruments, back and forth in a certain order (some people even call it a "music scan" because it's done rhythmically). In the same way a flight instructor can tell what the student is looking at (or not looking at when the plane goes off course), I can tell what a student is looking at by the mistakes they make. For example, students learning to read very typically stop their forward scan at places like rests, where they actually rest when they should be looking ahead, or at the ends of lines, or when there are repeated notes.

The skill of reading music develops slowly, and it must be done early. Neglecting this training just makes it harder for the student to acquire later on. Reading and playing by ear/memory are NOT of equal utility for the typical classical musician. Although I do require students to play their pieces from memory, I don't have them do it first. Teachers that don't teach reading early are just passing on a problem to someone else.

I get too many students (including talented ones) that have been stunted in their growth by teachers who neglected to have them learn to read. They have trouble learning new music, and struggle in orchestras, especially when the conductor tries to "stretch" the orchestra by programming more modern music that one cannot play by ear.

Edited: February 20, 2019, 10:56 AM · Sight-reading is of course essential for 99% of working professional musicians, but it dramatically enhances the fun of being an amateur.

You can read string quartets completely spontaneously with friends. You can help out community orchestras and play their concerts even if you can only make a couple of rehearsals.

Becoming a good sight reader is just like becoming a good reader -- you learn it by doing it. Make reading part of your daily routine. We live in an age where you can download thousands of violin parts from IMSLP.

The essence of reading is to set a reasonable tempo and keep it -- and not stop for mistakes. If you miss an accidental or flub a passage, you just move on to the next one.

(And really a very important and underrated sub-skill of reading is the ability to count. Why do the members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra make $200,000 a year? Because they can COUNT).

Over time, magically, your brain just develops capacity. Just like book reading progresses from reading words to reading lines or sentences, music reading progresses from reading notes to understanding patterns and being able to read entire passages.

The faster you read, the more time your brain has to figure out fingerings and bowings on the fly.

February 20, 2019, 11:44 AM · It's very interesting to read of your different experiences and perspectives on this. Much food for thought, thank you!
Edited: February 20, 2019, 2:23 PM · If you are purely an orchestral player then you probably feel that reading is all you will ever need to do. Outside of classical music it's essential to play by ear.
I actually think that if you don't develop both at the same time and only develop one then the door closes on the other. Your brain becomes wired that way.
I've known a lot of violinists and I've known a lot of other musicians, especially jazz horn players. String players for some reason are a different breed of musician and are largely known as such. Horn players seem to have no problem reading and playing by ear. String players usually won't or can't. It's like they have this huge ability in one area (reading) but very lacking in other areas of musicianship - they can't play without music, they can't improvise and they can't compose. Very generally of course, but why is this more so with string players? Does the instrument do something to our brain?
Of course you cannot be an orchestral musician and play all the music by ear. However, not everyone is going to be an orchestral musician and in the profession it's a very small minority. There is other work but more and more it depends upon somebody sending you a bunch of Youtube links and you are expected to learn tunes that way.
Edited: February 20, 2019, 4:47 PM · Hi Christopher, some comments on your comments:

"String players usually won't or can't. It's like they have this huge ability in one area (reading) but very lacking in other areas of musicianship - they can't play without music, they can't improvise and they can't compose. Very generally of course, but why is this more so with string players?"

I think while you're right on one hand, it may reflect the interests that typical classicaly-trained string players have: they tend to gravitate towards classical because they love the repertoire. They want to master Bach, Brahms, and Paganini. Maybe so much effort needs to go into that repertoire that there's little energy left.

One should keep in mind:
The orchestral repertoire is so enormous, and the works so long and complex, that one simply can't play them from MUST be able to read them. Think about the difference between a typical classical symphony player and one in a pop or folk ensemble: the latter probably has a set list that is played every weekend and is probably repetitive and short. It's learnable by ear. The former has to prepare a different concert set every weekend which draws from 400 years of material. It is not learnable by ear.

HOWEVER....musicians that are experienced in the repertoire and have passed a professional audition can probably play much of the important repertoire from memory. I haven't had to play Don Juan in years, yet I'll be I could open the case and play much of it from memory. And Shostakovich, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms; most of the big concerto accompaniment. In fact, I'd suggest that if someone wants to survive in a professional symphony, one actually has to work at memorizing fingerings and bowings for many reasons:
a crazed stand partner that keeps turning the music towards themselves, stage lighting that suddenly renders all pencil marks invisible, lost music, etc. Having to relearn the major works is a very inefficient way to be a professional. You'd drive yourself insane if you had to relearn a Brahms symphony or Verdi overture anew each time you had to play it. And you simply can't learn it by ear. You're painting it as a "problem," when it's just the requirements for the job. In the end, I think violinists that want to play by ear and put themselves in those situations will play by ear.

Edited: February 20, 2019, 5:43 PM · Scott. I agree you shouldn't and in most cases can't learn orchestral parts by ear! If you are playing in a professional orchestra then you had better be a good reader!
You are right that it's to do with the interests and also the sense of urgency that there is a vast repertoire to learn. I add my comments from the perspective of a working violinist spanning different genres.
I'm thinking though that even the classical violinist is going to encounter situations where they have to play for a wedding or something and are asked to play a particular tune at short notice. As an example, I've been asked to play Ave Maria and didn't feel I needed the music to play it - if I know how a tune goes then I can play it. Furthermore, when I turned up to play I was playing with somebody who had the accompaniment in a different key. It's not a problem for me as I can play the tune by ear. That to me is a real life work situation. I also find that playing by ear skills make memorization very fast.
A classical violinist may typically get a wedding gig as a strolling violinist and be asked for requests. They are not going to be asked for Paganini caprices but it could be Fur Elise or something like that. If they need to read in that situation then they are at an impasse.
Not so much painting it as a problem but just pointing out that if you spend years just reading then you will not have the skill of playing by ear if you have put nothing into it. Years of the brain making the eyes to fingers connection will possibly make it harder to play by ear. It just seems a shame if you have a high level of skill but ear playing lacking - a lot of doors are closed. I would say the same about reading too - if somebody just learns to play by ear it is not going to further reading (fairly obviously) and it's a sad limitation.

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