I begin every lesson with a new beginner, and even with many who have played before, by having them figure out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” by ear. Everyone comes with different levels of natural ear ability; some play it right off with no struggle, others have to work at it a bit; only a very few can barely do it at all. I am still amazed when someone comes to me who can play a Chopin Nocturne, but who struggles to play the simplest tune by ear, that is, without the written music in front of them. This would be the equivalent of reading a complex novel but not being able to construct a simple paragraph of your own creation.
We all speak a language before we read it. When we are toddlers we speak in complete sentences and by the time we learn to read we speak at almost an adult level. Yet when it comes to learning an instrument, most teachers put a book in front of the student at the very first lesson. The student has not had the chance to develop the ability to “speak” at the piano but must now learn to read first. It would be like never having spoken English and starting out with “see Jane run.” A slow, and potentially frustrating, process.
Playing by ear has always been an integral part of jazz and pop player’s skill set – and many of them don’t read music at all, or very little. At one time, playing by ear was part of a classical musician’s training as well, but somewhere in the past two hundred years or so, this art was lost. Many classical music teachers treat playing by ear as if it were somehow “cheating” or not as “respectable” as learning from written notation. How bizarre! We marvel at the stories about Mozart hearing a piece of music once and playing the whole thing by ear, yet somehow we believe that if the rest of us try to do that, it is not as legitimate as learning the piece from the page. I believe the opposite: that notation is simply the best route to learn music for “the rest of us” who cannot learn it entirely by ear. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!
Playing an instrument is an auditory sport. We need our ear to guide us at every step of the way, even when playing music we have learned from the page. How else do we judge whether what we are playing is pleasing, or even correct? I think it would be true to say: we cannot play what we cannot hear. Development of the ear needs to continue throughout our musical lives, just as other skills at the piano such as technique or reading. Most teachers don’t play by ear themselves and have no idea how to help the student learn to do so.
After playing Twinkle, Twinkle, I show them 3 chords in the left hand, and they harmonize the song with those 3 chords. Voila! They have played hands together at the very first lesson. This is something that would not come for many weeks if they had to read it all by notation. Next we move to other songs such as Happy Birthday, again adding chords. They continue this process for several weeks, until they have a good “repertoire” of songs, before we start reading. Even after we start reading we continue playing by ear. I also have them transpose the songs to many different keys, so they are not only working the ear, but becoming familiar with other keys. (They would have started out playing in the key of C, easiest for pianists.)
If you are a pianist, or someone just starting to learn to play, I urge you to play by ear to whatever extent possible for you. Start with simple songs, move on to more complex ones. Sing the melody out loud and listen carefully. Use your hand in the air as you sing, moving it up as you hear the notes go higher, down as you hear it go lower, or at the same level when it repeats the same note (surprising how this last one trips people up!). Move your hand a smaller amount when you think the tone is a step away from the previous one, a larger amount if it jumps farther away. Then play on the piano following the direction and distances you found as you sang. Keep at it, don’t give up if you don’t find the right notes immediately. The benefits of developing your ear are worth it. And, most important, it's fun and truly satisfying!
More on ear work in future posts….