Music Lessons for Children – Learn to Play by Ear

Music Lessons for Children – Learn to Play by Ear

The Passive Approach to Musicianship

When I was young, music was thought of as art that lived in the manuscripts of great composers. A Reader can play anything, as long as you interpreted the notes written on the sheet music, sold by the music publishing house. As far as the music business goes, “the publisher makes a greater percentage of the money”. Note reading was the “King’s Keys” to ever being able to play a popular selection of music and impress your friends; mom and dad too!

Short of memorizing the music, we stopped playing when the music sheet was taken away. It was like we were addicted to the sheet music. It was like reading out loud from a book and suddenly the pages went blank.

“Notation” is a system of writing music to be reproduced by the reader’s interpretation of the many symbols representing the pitch, time, rhythm, volume, and articulation, etc of the piece before the reader.

What About the Composer, The Song Writer

Music composers have to be a mystic genius to make up such stuff! Where did such a muse come from? The manuscripts that they created were once blank sheets of paper or empty staves. Many writers don’t use staff paper to sketch their ideas on.

Classic composers wrote great symphonies. Their music was transcribed from the master score and delegated to each member of the orchestra or ensemble. Each member of the unit would “read” their parts together, being led by a master timekeeper, called “the Conductor”.

Consumers of Sheet Music

Music teachers develop students that become consumers of sheet music. Therefore, the instrumentalist wishes to play something he/she has in their head they often wish they had the music. Then they get a folio or sheet of the artist’s music and work out the performance from the score (written arrangement).

There are musicians who have allowed their ears to interpret the pitches directly to their instrument. About 8% of musicians have a desire to bridge that gap by trusting what they internally hear and bring it directly to their instrument. You could say that about 90% of musicians are brainwashed that reading is the only way. It’s the way it has always been done. I was taught that reading was the correct thing to do.

Playing by Ear – Really?

A student, as in many of my Piano students, want to learn to play the piano.  A majority of teachers are readers and feel that the student is asking, “How do you do it”? The teacher learned to read him/herself, not develop the link between the instrument and music in their mind.

Jazz musicians learn to transcribe music from recordings and write down the notes they hear. Some musicians go right to their instrument and imitate the sounds directly. The first method requires some reading. Understanding how to transcribe to score paper to read at a later date. I ear player goes directly to making their instrument play as they play back the sounds from their audio memory.

In Conclusion – Hearing VS Reading

Both directions of playing music are worthy. The creative musician wants faster results and plays “on the fly”. The logical student would get great benefits from embracing the system of reading. The reader enjoys having the folios of the favorite artists. The ear trained musician interprets what he/she has heard before.

I learned to read and that is why I am a teacher first. In college, I played in bands and my reading skills became a crutch for me to “let go” and play. Nowadays, I teach ear training to help those “who just want to play”.

Remember, music is an “auditorial art” and reading may not be meet a student’s short-term goals.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. I’ve always wanted to be able to play without having to look at the music sheets, copying someone else’s work, hearing how great their music sounds.

    Don’t get me wrong, it was great practice, but with this information you have motivated me to just let myself go and listen to the music that is created as a product of that.

    I’ll still use the sheet music when I want to hear something I like to play, but I’ll try to go by the sound a lot more.
    Thanks for sharing this information with me, I’m sure others appreciate it as well.

    1. Spoken like a well-rounded musician. I have more hope for my post affecting other players.

      Thank You!


  2. Hi! I like your approach! Yeah, I agree reading is necessary. And it’s expected, in certain circles.

    But playing by ear also seems to fuel creativity in a very distinctive way.

    I think both are necessary. But I hadn’t heard of a music teacher being an advocate of playing by ear. I also guess what you explained about teachers and reading is true

    1. Yes, a musician whom reads well, unlike a performer usually is drawn towards teaching.

      The performer loves just making music finds it hard to explaining it without using theory.

      Thank you for your comments.


  3. I don’t know a lot about sheet music, but what I do know is it’s a great way for beginners to learn how to play that may not be “ear-trained”. The funny thing is, I knew someone who did both. Sometimes, he’d play the piano following the notes and other times, he’d just freestyle and play what sounded good to him. So I think hearing and reading can both be done simultaneously. 

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Thank you for your comments of my post.

      Nice of you to reply!  


  4. Thank you for your very interesting article: Music Lessons for Children-Lear to play by Ear. Which is more important for a piano student to learn, reading music or playing by ear? For most children their first experience with music  is singing a simple song, like Mary Had a Little Lamb. How did they learn this song? By ear. They heard it until they were able to memorize a series of sounds and they use their vocal chords to reproduce those sounds. When a student begins to play, there is no need to ask them to memorize note names and positions on the staff, before they learn to play any songs. For a beginning pianist, listening and imitating are the best way to acquire a song.

    My feeling is that, in time, a piano student will choose a preferred method of learning new music. Some may come to rely so much on sight-reading that they can´t play by ear. Others will struggle with sight reading so much that they have to hear and memorize a song in order to play it. Relying too heavily on one skill may prevent the other from developing. So, in conclusion, you´re quite right. The key is to gently encourage the development of both skills, at the right stages, for well-rounded musicianship. 

    1. Children learn a lot from nursery rhymes.  Now-a-days, kids don’t have a repertory of these songs that develop a mental awareness of rhythm and form.  A child learns from birth. 

      Great talking with you.


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