Memorizing a piece of music is different from learning it. Musicians who rely on written music, and then memorize it, have taken only a first step toward learning it.
Learning a piece of music involves making it your own, not just remembering the notes. It engages your feelings and thoughts about sound patterns, rhythms, tensions and resolutions.
Research shows that playing music involves many areas of the whole brain (see this earlier blog post), whereas reading music focuses on the visual and language centers. When we learn a piece of music we give it a much broader dimension than we can when we read it.
Reading music is certainly a helpful skill — essential for tapping into the vast repertoire of music available to us. But learning by ear is gives a musician a direct relationship to the music. It can add confidence, musicality, and dimension to your playing.
As one who teaches mostly by ear, I often run across people who feel fearful of learning by ear, or frustrated by it. Some feel that learning by ear is a level they’ll never reach. But everyone can do it, as naturally as singing or speaking.
We speak English in phrases — and we hear music in this way as well. Building a phrase of music by ear is not hard to do, because it is a manageable size. Bite-sized bits are easily digested, and by listening to audio you can absorb the feel of a phrase, not just the note sequence.
The tunelearning pages on this site allow you to learn a phrase at a time. With patience, repetition, and focus on one phrase at a time, it’s amazing what you can pick up–first, maybe the notes, but then also nuances of expression, attitude, intention. Bowing, breath, fingering, posture. In short, musicality. Right from the moment of learning that phrase. And that moment of learning can open up new windows on how to play the next phrase, and the next.
Then you can sew them together, learn the structure of the tune (often phrase 1, 2, back to 1, and then ending), and end up with something musical to say to yourself and other listeners that is much bigger than stringing all the right notes together!
©2016 Ed Pearlman