Reading by Ear

"But I Can't See My Music Stand"
What kind of playing environment are you preparing for?

The Relative Non-Importance of Reading Music

I have nothing against reading music. I read and write music. My hand-written script is a lot better than most. I teach reading to the few students of mine who are preparing for playing environments where reading is necessary. I’ve written lots of reading supplements for guitar and bass, and dozens of complete piano arrangements.

As someone who reads and writes pretty well, I tell beginners if your goal is to get the real-time playing and interpretive skills you need to be in a band, then reading staff is an inefficient way to do it. You should learn the note names on the guitar neck, so you can learn about musical concepts. Otherwise, your time as a beginner is better spent developing your technique and interactive skills. I have nothing against reading, but I have to ask, what playing environment are you preparing for?

Touring on the Gallery Circuit

This is a response to classically-trained detractors of my ‘read by ear’ approach. College transcription tests are tests in reading by ear. Music is like DNA and other materials which carry the instructions for their creation within themselves. I really wonder at teachers who insist that today’s music can be reduced to symbols on a page. There are nuances in pitch and timing that you can reproduce by imitation, but which staff can’t describe. If you can’t reverse-engineer what you hear, you’re limited to what someone else has written down. If you can reverse-engineer what you hear, your music library is your reference library.

I pick out guitar and bass parts from recordings on demand as part of my job as a teacher. I can pick out the chords from most hit songs instantly, and I can write them down (chart) in minutes. I can chart a couple of songs in 30 minutes. Any adult who has taken lessons from me has seen this for themselves. I’m a chord-charting fool.

But back to you and your teacher …

Some teachers want to turn you into this …

Some teachers don’t like their students to experiment on their own. They just want their students to learn to follow instructions. You’re evaluated on your ability to ‘recite’ from sheet music, alone. Each piece is just a routine. The goal is to play it the same each time, till you can play it like the guy in the picture above.

Some teachers rail against ‘wasting time on Youtube.’ I’m a big fan of Youtube. Youtube has helped people who wouldn’t have played otherwise. With help from a good teacher, Youtube can take you to unimagined musical destinations.

I want my students to experiment constructively. That’s how they get good at following the music. It’s how I got good at following music. I encourage my students to explore lesson videos, and other music, on Youtube. I can help you get a lot more out of Youtube, and more out of music, wherever you find it.

My play-along practice tracks train your fingers and your ears to interact with music.

So You Learned To Read Music …

Congratulations. But if your instructor didn’t set you up with one of the several free online flashcards, then you learned to read the hard way – and the slow way. Seventy years ago, we developed Learning Theory, and criteria for scoring readability. In my next post I’m going to talk about the “reading racket,” and the lack of imagination traditional instructors have brought to bear on the problem they complain about most – READING!

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