Updated: Oct 25
(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):
closure (whether they attempted to complete the melody or not);
tempo accuracy; and
They found that “all the children in the group who had used the HeLP strategies achieved higher marks on every criterion than did the students who had not used the HeLP strategies” (italics added, p. 113)
Although Lucy Green herself said that more research is needed in this area, these findings are significant.
Contribution to Lifelong Learning
Learning by ear has huge implications for lifelong music learning, too. Woody says in his article, Playing by Ear: Foundation or Frill?:
The ability to learn a song they like from the radio, YouTube, or what-have-you would automatically give learners access to music they enjoy and music they do not have to purchase sheet music to learn. And focusing on learning by ear will give those learners the skills they need to make that happen. He also references a study which stated that “…the five skills of improvising, performing rehearsed music, playing by ear, playing from memory, and sight-reading, he found that playing by ear was the only one that contributed to the other four skills” (pp. 84 and 85).
Can I Write it Down?
Although reading staff notation is not necessarily as important as it once was since the dawn of the audio recording, it is useful in some settings (classical and jazz), but not required in others (rock, pop). On a similar note, Western staff notation is automatically what music teachers think of with the word “notation,” but there are so many forms of music notation just within North America that you may not have heard of that all have different purposes, or may be idiomatic to particular instruments or genres, and are all legitimate. Notation definitely does not need to be of the Western staff variety. So if a person decided they wanted to write down a part so they don’t forget it, they could do that in one of the many ways in the link above or in their own invented notation.
Learning by ear has gotten a bad rap over the years. It can actually help in enhancing other musical skills that have been traditionally valued. There is evidence to suggest that learning by ear could be the foundation of learning music as a whole for any genre and that it has huge positive implications for lifelong learning of music. Learning to play by ear can only be learned in context and by immersing yourself in the process. Ear training, as it is traditionally taught, does not give enough sufficient or authentic experiences to produce an ear-based learner as efficiently as learning by ear. Being able to recognize intervals and rhythms without context is like being able to recognize a word or two in a sentence someone speaks without being able to repeat the rest of the sentence.
How are your ear-based learning chops? Have you been working on it or does it intimidate you? What strategies do you employ to help?
Until next time, Happy Musicking!
Agrell, J. (2008). Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-Jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else. GIA Publications.
Evelein, F. (2006). Pop and world music in Dutch music education: two cases of authentic learning in music teacher education and secondary music education. International Journal of Music Education, 24(2), 178-187. doi:10.1177/0255761406065479
Green, L. (2002). How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education. England: Ashgate Publishing.
Green, L. (2014). Hear, Listen, Play!: How to Free Your Students’ Aural, Improvisation, and Performance Skills. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lilliestam, L. (1996). On Playing by Ear. Popular Music, 15(2), 195 – 216.
Woody, R. H. (2012). Playing by Ear: Foundation or Frill? Music Educators Journal, 99(2), 82-88.