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I started playing Take Me Out To the Ball Game by ear on the piano and I find that I have been making several mistakes in knowing what note comes next. I don't know the lyrics well but I am familiar with the tune.

  • Is there any added benefit in playing without the score?
  • Will it make it a better musician?
  • Will it help me with composing later?
  • Does this count as ear training?
  • Does it help with any form of theory?
  • If any of the above is true, is it the fastest way to learn any of the above as an adult with other responsibilities like work, exercise, family?
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  • Note, of the three "distractions" of work, exercise, and family, exercise stands apart because it helps you as a musician, while the other two do not directly help your musicianship. "We are athletes of the small muscles". Building the large muscles and cardiovascular health improves small muscle ability, focus, mental capacity, and aural acuity. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 3:04
  • Regarding the fastest way to learn as an adult, it might help to know that music pedagogy today usually takes a multi-faceted approach focused on core musical skills (in order of importance): performance (solo and in ensembles/groups), theory, aural skills (AKA ear training), and keyboard skills. Daily practice in as many of those areas as possible will give you good results. The best single step you can take is to hire a qualified teacher and have weekly one-hour lessons on any instrument while also practicing at least 30 - 60 minutes a day with occasional days off. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 3:13
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    If you have two hours a day, 60 minutes of piano, 30 minutes of theory and 30 minutes of aural skills practice would make a big difference. If you have only one hour a day, I would do 40 minutes of piano and then do 20 minutes of theory or 20 minutes of aural skills on alternate days. If you only have 30 minutes a day then just piano and it will be hard to progress beyond a certain point. I suggest giving up all entertainment/leisure that is not also family time in favor of music study and practice if you really want to progress. Any money should go to lessons, not gear. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 3:17
  • 6 questions in one go is way too many. I would have proffered some answers, but it's all too complex. Please split the questions. Vtc.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 11:12
  • @ToddWilcox - not wishing to open a debate, but I'd rather have gone to an experienced teacher than a qualified one!
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 14:12

4 Answers 4

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Playing by ear is an invaluable musical skill.

So is playing from music.

So is recognising and codifying the patterns in what you play (by either means) to form a concept of 'music theory'.

It's all good! They all feed each other!

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  • I wish I could play by ear, but I can’t even do that with the melody line, which is what I mostly hear as nōn-overtone nōn-harmonic listener. At least I’m decent enough as singer in sight-reading, if the piece isn’t too… modern/chromatic/unexpected. So do train playing by ear if you can.
    – mirabilos
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 1:03
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To start, a restatement of the question:

As an adult with limited practice/study time, but interested in being a better musician, composing, ear training, and theory, does either learning from a score or by ear provide a faster route to my goals?

No, not in any absolute sense. The answer will depend on how any particular individual learns best and what their specific goals are. But here are some pros and cons of each approach:

By ear

Pros

  • Greater ability to pick up tunes from recordings
  • Greater ability to translate one's own musical ideas into sound
  • Essential to ear training in general
  • A head start in understanding the sounds that music theory is describing
  • Greater ability to develop musical nuance by listening to other performers.

Cons

  • For many, if not most people, slower approach to learning music (once score-reading is secure), because it requires memorization.
  • Can be an impediment to ensemble playing, depending on how the other musicians operate.
  • Unless one has the skill naturally, it can take a long time to develop.
  • Greater reliance on other performers to guide interpretation of a particular piece.

Score reading

Pros

  • Once proficient, a generally faster way to learn new music.
  • Can make music analysis easier.
  • Allowing the skill includes score writing, helpful for a composer to communicate their ideas.
  • Lends a visual context to ear training.
  • Learning is independent of a particular source (i.e., recording), and helps explore and understand a composers intentions and development of an individual interpretation.

Cons

  • Steep initial learning curve.
  • Does not necessarily develop the ear.
  • Does not necessarily promote creativity and invention.
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    Not bad enough to downvote but I think this answer misses the best advice possible along these lines, which is to learn to play by ear and from sheet music. Learning both is the faster route to almost all musical goals. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 3:01
  • @Aaron, I am not throwing away sheet music. I find that with sheet music, I don't really pay that much attention to the sound to expect - is the sound I need two intervals away, or is it the same note? I have often failed to realized that I need to play the same note when I take the sheet music away. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 13:17
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    the "requires memorisation" point can also be a plus, in that it trains musical memorisation, which is a useful skill in its own right.
    – JDL
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 16:41
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Yes, there are benefits! Playing by ear is an excellent way to strengthen the coordination between your composing and performing instincts.

I often compose by playing, but what I write is limited by my skills: the goalposts move to match my ability. Playing existing songs, essentially arranging them on the fly, requires many of the same skills—translating intervals and harmonies from your head to the instrument. But it provides a more consistent target to measure your outcome against, which encourages growth, and in turn expands the limits of your own improvisation.

Like any single method, it shouldn't be the only way you engage with music, but it's an invaluable piece of the puzzle, especially if composing is one of your primary goals.

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  • The question isn't really about whether there are benefits; it's about whether one approach is faster than the other. You might just revise your last sentence to add an explicit comment on that.
    – Aaron
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 1:19
  • @Aaron I tried to make clear that I think that's the wrong question. A varied approach to music is always better than a homogenous one. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 1:24
  • Could you elaborate on what you think are the other methods I should try/use? I am really at the beginning phase and try to self teach some of the things. Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 1:29
  • @heretoinfinity Sheet music is good. Improv is good. Transcribing is good. Experimenting with other instruments is good. Studying better performers is good. Exploring different genres is good. This is nowhere near exhaustive, and all of these will look different depending on your level. Rule of thumb: Music is good! Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 1:35
  • Consider making that explicit. I think OP's question in the comments indicates that the underlying question wasn't clearly enough answered, and/or that the reframe needs more detail.
    – Aaron
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 1:40
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Playing by ear and notating the chords and tunes you've found out is - in my few - the most efficiant practice to train your ear and composing. For controling let the result play by someone else or compare it with an existing sheet music.

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