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Should we Learn by Ear Instead? Ear Training vs. Learning by Ear

Updated: Jan 28

(A portion of this blog post was approved for publication in Technology for Unleashing Creativity published by Oxford University Press, April 2022)

Music teachers often understand and agree that a “good ear” is important to learning music, and helps to contribute to the overall skill of musicianship. This is why classical music programs, and many formal approaches to music education focus a portion of their time and energy on the concept of “Ear Training.” However, the way ear training is generally administered is hardly authentic. The term “Authentic” in music education refers to “…goals and learning processes [that] are realistic, culturally relevant for learners and meet their needs” (Evelein, 2006, p. 184). For example, ear training is often taught in a formalized way, beginning with simple and moving to complex, often including intervallic recognition and rhythm dictation exercises that are out of context or in isolation. This practice is not generally seen as a terrible thing and it can develop a good ear, but it is fair to say that it is disconnected from how a good ear is generally acquired outside of school. What is the really strange part is that all of this learning is performed and executed entirely on another instrument other than that person’s principal instrument, and is done in complete isolation from their ensemble and applied repertoire. They are not immersed into the process of learning by ear and actually copying another piece of music completely by ear which is, really, the overall intent of developing a good ear. This is why this formalized approach to developing one’s ear does not meet learners’ needs, and it is not a realistic, culturally relevant way to develop a better ear.

Ear Training vs. Learning by Ear

Learn by Ear Instead

Learning by ear often gets a bad rap in formalized music education. It is often called cheating, and seen as “…a simplistic and inefficient alternative to doing it the ‘right’ way, through notation” (single quotes added, Woody, 2012, p. 83).

What if instead, ear training was taught more like learning by ear? Here’s what I mean: When a person learns music by ear, they are first looking for a song that they want to learn, which is an important difference between these approaches. Next, they have to actively listen to it, meaning that they critically listen to it for the sake of learning to play it. Then, they are immersed into the process of learning the song by ear using trial-and-error, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Over time, the player will begin to recognize patterns, intervals, and rhythms inherent in the music they are learning and those patterns will become vastly easier to instantly recognize. The skill of learning by ear is typically acquired on the musician’s primary instrument and is learned and acquired in ensemble and solo work with a recording. Of course, it is more prominent in popular styles, but certainly has a place in the classical world. In fact, classical music was largely learned by ear before notation began to take over (Agrell, 2008). Ear-based learning is a slow process at first, but what new skill isn’t slow to acquire at first? And, considering that “[t]he vast majority of all music ever made is played by ear” (Lilliestam, 1996, p. 195), not learning music by ear with this approach seems like a disservice to everyone involved.

For ensemble parts, this may be a more challenging (but not impossible) feat to pull off than learning solo repertoire by ear; but even for solo repertoire it seems like a reasonable ask seeing as there are normally two parts with one being the main melody with a mostly chordal accompaniment on piano. Consider, instead of immersing yourself in reading and notation, you are instead immersed in ear-based learning activities with only your instrument and a recording. Think about how immersing in those activities will improve your ear and how your ability to learn a song completely by ear will become very efficient in a very short time. There is evidence to suggest that learning by ear can drastically improve other musical skills (like reading) as well:

“…ear playing offered much to learning to improvise; it was also, however, a strong contributor to sight-reading ability. Playing by ear was even shown to facilitate performing rehearsed music, the traditional mainstay of school music education” (Woody, 2012, p. 85).

Informal Learning and Ear-Based Learning

Lucy Green, a long-time scholar of informal learning approaches in the UK has lots to say about learning music by ear. A tenet of informal learning involves learning music by ear from a recording (the way popular musicians learn music) as referenced earlier. During her first study, published in 2002, she observed that:

“…the informal learning practices of popular musicians, especially listening, copying [learning by ear] and improvising can lead to the development of what can be called very ‘good ears.’ Although their aural abilities are not necessarily any better than those of classical musicians, they are likely to be better sooner and, moreover, to be possessed by the vast majority of the players involved, rather than the few” (Green, 2002, p. 195 italics in original).

This suggests that the immersiveness of learning by ear from a recording might be a superior method to developing the ear than the traditional non-immersive approach common in classical training.

In her 2014 book, “Hear, Listen, Play!” (HeLP), she presents concrete examples of how the informal learning model using ear-based learning can look when administered in a variety of school music settings with tips for the teacher on how to approach it and what to expect in those situations. As part of the research in the book, Green was able to conduct an experiment with a control group of learners (those who did not use any HeLP strategies) and their HeLP groups who had experience with HeLP strategies. Learners were paired with others who had similar experiences and ages but were from different study groups. Then, “[e]ach student listened to a short recording of a melody played twice on a piano. The student was then given the starting note and key chord, but nothing else, and was asked to play the melody back on their instrument, by ear” (p. 111). Students were all assessed on the following criteria with the help of the ABRSM (the assessment body for music in the UK):

  1. Pitch accuracy;

  2. contour accuracy;

  3. rhythmic accuracy;

  4. closure (whether they attempted to complete the melody or not);

  5. tempo accuracy; and

  6. overall performance.