Ear training in Piano Lessons

Are you learning to play by ear in your piano lessons?

Austin, Texas is the “Live Music Capital of the World”.  So, we’ve got our fair share of musicians–especially pianists and other keyboard players.

There seem to be two types of pianists in the world:  those that play by music, and those that play by ear.

But those two skills need not be mutually exclusive, and should not be.  All too often students who learn to play by ear do so on their own, with or without formal piano lessons. They learn incredibly valuable lessons that way, but may miss out on the thousands, if not millions, of pieces available in print.  They also miss out on the teacher who can guide their understanding of music theory, correct posture and hand positioning issues, and introduce them to the “standard” literature.  While play-by-ear pianists may be able to pick up simple classical pieces in that method, they are going to be hard-pressed to recreate more complex pieces simply by listening.

On the other side of the coin are students who are very carefully taught technique and the standard literature in the course of their piano lessons, but couldn’t play “Happy Birthday” or “Yankee Doodle” without sheet music.

Strange as it may seem, it is easier to teach a pianist who plays by ear to play from sheet music than it is to teach the sheet-music taught pianist to play by ear.

There are so many things that have a well-tuned ear helps with:

  1. You hear mistakes more easily.
  2. You begin to innately understand music theory, even though you may not have the terminology for it yet.
  3. You build a direct connection between your ears and fingers.
  4. You’ll actually learn music faster.

If you are taking piano lessons now, or intend to soon, ask your teacher if he’ll be helping you develop that skill. This includes two critical learning areas: ear training and sight singing.  In music school, we affectionately called that “ear-straining” and “sight-screaming”!  Ear training is designed to get your ear tuned to hearing melodies, rhythms, chords and intervals. Sight-singing is designed to get you to be able to reproduce melodies and rhythms without the aid of a keyboard.  For instance, you may know where a C and F# are on the keyboard, but can you HEAR that and name it?  Can you sing it?  Those are key skills in developing your ability to play by ear.

Once you become proficient with these skills, you can sit down and play the most kick-butt rendition of Happy Birthday your friends have ever heard–not because you have the sheet music, but because you know how you want it to sound.