While researchers have confirmed what some of us improvisers know through experience- that playing by ear is the skill that facilitates musically purposeful improvisation (and actually sight reading and the memorization of notated music as well), it has an uneasy fit in our notation-based music education system. This may be because many of us use a different process to read notation than than we use to play by ear.
Playing by ear used to be even more common than it is now… and it is still very common! Notated music got lodged in school music, though (another post for another time!), and just like how we may not be able to remember phone numbers anymore now that we just enter them into our cell phones, notation can change the way our minds work. Using notation does two things for us (or to us!)- it tells us what individual notes to play, and it relieves our memory of some of its duties, since the whole song is on a piece of paper. Let’s look at these two ideas as they relate to music reading and playing by ear…
Ear Playing: When we’re playing by ear, we hear a note and we have to know which note on our instrument is going to make the same sound. So, we always know what the note we’re about to play is going to sound like, or at least we think we do! That’s an aural-kinesthetic connection.
Notation: When we learn to read notation, we are often taught which note on the staff corresponds to a particular finger on a particular string, or a certain key or fingering. A lot of people don’t know what the note they’re about to play is going to sound like until they’ve played it, so we’ve got visual information triggering a kinesthetic (physical) reaction which we then hear (aural). Since in music it’s pretty important to know how what you’re about to play is going to sound, the ideal order of operations is actually visual-aural-kinesthetic, in which case you can see how it would make a lot of sense to learn to play by ear and build that aural-kinesthetic connection first.
The whole song
Ear Playing: When you learn something by ear- let’s say a friend plays you a lick she made up, you play it back, and then play it again, and then play it the next day- it’s also “memorized.” There’s no other way to do it. You could record her and then play it for yourself again and again, but since you probably wouldn’t be able to listen to it while you’re playing, you wouldn’t really be functional until you could remember it yourself. There’s an interesting connection between remembering a song and a kind of musical “comprehension,” but suffice it to say for now that the better you “comprehend” the music, anticipate what’s going to happen next, hear its patterns, the easier you can remember it.
Notation: As mentioned, the marks on the page will always be there to tell you what to play- you can even look at it while you’re playing! You do need to remember things like which notes/fingerings on your instrument correspond to each note on the staff and how the key signature affects the notation, but you don’t need to remember how the song goes in order to play it.
So you can see people who use the visual-kinesthetic-aural “order of operations” for reading notation may not develop the deep connection between the sound (aural) made by certain fingerings or keys on their instruments (kinesthetic) while using their musical memories in the same way ear players do. And some music readers may be ok with that. The problem may become more obvious when you want to improvise your own music, or play a favorite pop song with friends, and you don’t have the skill of playing by ear to make that happen.
Playing by ear in schools
Since there are so many fun things we can do with music that don’t require notation, or where we need quite a bit more than the notation to make it sound good (have you ever been all excited to get the songbook of your favorite popular album and cracked it open at the piano and been really disappointed it didn’t sound like the recording?), many school music teachers have included activities designed to students develop ear playing skills. There are different approaches with different emphases- Edwin Gordon’s musical learning theory, for example, is heavy on the aural and the comprehension. Some have experimented with rote imitation or singing while fingering instruments, hoping to help students develop that aural-kinesthetic connection. In the UK, Lucy Green is heading up explorations into creating spaces in schools where kids can figure it out themselves or in peer groups, the way popular musicians traditionally do.
As an Irish traditional musician as well as a researcher, I was moved to investigate how people are taught to play in aural traditions. Now sure, I’ve taken many lessons and classes myself while learning to play the guitar, fiddle, whistle, and other instruments within Irish and bluegrass traditions (and taught a few as well!), but looking at the process through a researcher’s lens has been unexpectedly revelatory and thought-provoking for me. What I found were three intelligent, analytical, passionate teacher/instrumentalists, deeply rooted in aural traditions while living and teaching in the US, who are adapting the basically imitative teaching tradition for modern American students. These teachers are focused on making music, on how it feels (physically and emotionally), sounds, and looks. They’re guiding their students to notice patterns and form while perceiving and producing the melody and pulse through their bodies and instruments… towards true aural-kinesthetic comprehension.
Check out the poster I presented at a recent conference below. I’ll be back with a video soon!