Why "By Ear"

Why do I teach songs only "By Ear?"

Short answer.. 

It develops your ability to pick out and learn other songs by ear. It is also faster than having to learn to read music or tab. 

Long answer..

When I was a 'tween I had a guitar teacher who taught me songs by ear. He could read and write music, as could I (mostly), and yet he made me learn the guitar solos he was teaching me without any written guides. While it was initially frustrating after awhile I realized it was easier than reading the music and it gave me a better "feeling" of where the notes and chords I was hearing in my head were on the guitar. I began to associate the sound with the location.

This isn't the same thing as playing a song you learned from reading music or tab by memory. Believe me, I know the difference. Because I could read music so well when I was younger there were several songs I had learned from reading which I then memorized. While they got written into my "muscle memory" they were not written into my "music memory."  By this I mean the hearing of the song in my head wasn't associated with a sound on the instrument but with a location only. They are different things.

The best analogy would be voice recognition. If you heard the voice of someone you knew well you would immediately associate that person with the voice, even if the voice was coming over a bad sounding phone. A copy of the sound of their voice was buried in your brain somewhere and it was linked up to a picture of them. This association was created by time with them hearing their voice and seeing their face together. This is expected and not unusual because we are primarily visual and verbal animals. 

The reading and writing of language are recent inventions of humans while verbal language has been with us since there was "us." Most people are born with the capacity to learn four languages simultaneously, that is, verbally. We have to learn to read and write through painstaking (at least to the parents) drills and repetition. You would also think that our ability to speak our language would translate seamlessly to our ability to read, write and conjugate our language. It does not. Verbal language and written language are two different worlds as far as our brain is concerned. So, back to music.

When you learn songs "By Ear" you are using the verbal centers of your brain. These different parts of the brain connect sound with meaning and help to organize the order of the sounds for the purpose of communicating. Because music is so similar to verbal language it used these same areas as well. There have been plenty of studies where they have hooked up musicians to fmri (functional magnetic resonance imagery) machines and have them improvise with either another musician or a track. The results show the same centers used in speech lighting up as though the musician were having a verbal conversation. The fmri images or musicians READING and playing music show up as though they were READING a book. This is understandable since playing by ear is different than playing from music or memory.

So, where does that lead us? If you want to develop your ability to pick out other songs "By Ear" then you need to learn to play songs "By Ear." As long as you are relying on your visual reading, be it music, tab or video, you are not calling on your auditory functions to help you hear and remember where things are on your instrument. Because my guitar teacher didn't write the notes down my brain learned to associate the sound with the location on my guitar and to this day I can find those sounds quickly on the guitar. The same holds true for the piano. I remember working at a music store and hearing a new song on the radio and walking over to the piano and hitting the note of the key the song was in THE FIRST TIME. This was due to a few years (and hundreds of hours) I spent learning songs from recordings to play on the piano and keyboards for a band I was in. There was no sheet music for these parts. I had to find them. 

The final positive aspect of learning "By Ear" is that you don't have to wait on your music reading skills to catch up with your playing skills. Most music pieces that are rated "second year" can actually be played in the "first year" if you don't have to read the music. I have had a lot of adult piano students say they quit taking piano as a kid because they weren't good at it. I then ask them "Were you not good at the piano or not good at reading music?" They usually admit it was the music reading that was the hurdle and not the piano playing itself.

There is not enough music, tab or video out there to teach you all of the songs you want to learn. You need more. Come and take the "By Ear" journey with me and open the door to a whole new world of music experience!

Learn by ear, play by ear.