Thursday, February 22, 2007

Learning by Ear vs. Reading Music

I get asked about this often, so it seems like a subject that would be of interest to folks. I think the first question to ask is "What are you wanting to do with your music"? For orchestra and band students, it is very important to learn to read music. For bluegrass, country and folk musicians, it is not necessary to know this. Can it help? Yes, but playing by ear is more important for this type of music. Now let me explain why.

If you are playing bluegrass music, everyone gets together and just plays. You might not know all the songs or even the people with whom you are playing! It is important to have developed your ear skills because you need them for this type of get together. You just don't see bluegrass musicians setting up their music stands and reading music. (Now you might see them with their words to songs, though.) Usually, whatever method you learn first is the method that you will be most comfortable with. So if you learn to play by ear, you'll do it just fine. If you learn to read music, then you won't want to get rid of your music.

If you are going to play in an orchestra or band, or if you want to play classical music, etc., it would be impossible to do this without knowing how to read music. You are expected to play everything exactly the way it is written on the page. No improvising, no ad libbing...

By contrast, in bluegrass music, there are as many ways to play a song as there are people who play the song. It is desirable to improvise and come up with your own style and/or way to play the songs, as long as you stay within the chord structure and rhythm of the song. There are songs that are even played slightly differently in different parts of the U.S. This even includes different words to songs from time to time! Since this music was passed on from person to person, there will always be these variances.

Do you think you're tone deaf, or have a "tin" ear? Chances are, you are not. A truly tone deaf person speaks in a monotone because they cannot hear variances in the voice. I have never met anyone that spoke in a monotone. I HAVE met people who couldn't sing on pitch or couldn't tell the difference between pitches. That is not tone deaf. Even if you can't sing on pitch, you can train your ear so that you can play by ear or even sing in tune. I have seen this over and over. It's not what you were born with, it's what you develop.

What about learning rhythm? Is that possible? Yes. From a teaching standpoint, I think teaching rhythm is much harder than teaching pitch. When a person doesn't have natural rhythm, they can't play with other people. When a person doesn't have good pitch, they can still play with others, though they might not be in tune all the time until they develop this aspect of their playing.

What about people who have played a long time and still don't "have it"? My thoughts on this is that many people don't realize they have a pitch or rhythm problem, so they don't work on it. Or maybe they don't work on the right things or have the right teacher to help with these issues. For instance, it is popular belief that a metronome will help people that don't have rhythm. I don't believe this is true. A metronome is very hard to stay with even when you have great rhythm. How in the world can someone who doesn't have natural rhythm stay with it? I think a much better way to develop good rhythm is to play along with the song on a CD. Some students prefer to import the songs to their iPods and play while they listen to it. Either way, a person with poor rhythm should avoid playing alone. Playing guitar also helps people who don't have natural rhythm.

People who have poor pitch can practice playing a fiddle with an automatic tuner. Someone who wants to learn to sing needs another person of the same sex to work with them. That is because the voice differences between men and women are too great for those with the poorest pitch. You don't even need a voice teacher, per se, just someone who has a lot of patience and who can help you learn songs that are the appropriate difficulty level for you.

One more question - What about trying to memorize all those songs? Even you can do this! You will develop your memory just like you develop everything else. Once this gets on track, you will amaze yourself at how fast you can learn a new tune. I have had banjo students that could only memorize four notes at a time in the beginning. I would have to write things down and record them, and then the students would go home and practice and try to memorize as much as they could. Those with the worst memories would have a remarkable improvement by the end of the first year. Usually by that point, I can teach an entire song in a lesson and the student can remember it all. Maybe not play it all perfectly or up to speed, but they can retain everything fairly well. With a CD to take home, they don't have to worry about forgetting it later.

Feel free to post your comments and questions, or e-mail me.

No comments: