When I was younger in my teens, I went to my neighborhood piano teacher, an older lady that went to Juilliard in her youth. The very first thing she had me do is sit down with very elementary sheet music songs, after which I progressed to tougher classical songs. We went through the series 'Piano Pieces for Children' (remember that green book?) and for four years I was working on classical pieces. No theory. No chords. No playing by ear. No choice. Just learning how to read sheet music. The mechanical nature of it made me detest music for many years.

A decade later I started learning guitar with youtube videos and what I liked about the guitar is they emphasized music theory / chords / scales and less sheet music. Also the guitar was more concerned with pop songs and songs on the radio than classical music. It was around that time I saw an infomercial by a guy called Scott Houston who had a series called 'Play Piano in a Flash' where he didn't teach reading yet emphasized teaching theory and just playing piano based on patterns and it just made my jaw drop how easy it was. He had these really long late night informercials.

Anyway, since taking up piano again, I've decided to only stick to theory and playing by ear. there's a great piano teacher called Karen Ramirez that emphasized ear training. I'd watch all her youtube videos. Even she mentioned that piano teachers prefer to teach students how to play sheet music. and that it took her many years to come to the realization that one can play by ear, simply because all her teachers never emphasized that.

Why don't piano teachers teach how to play by ear and theory before they go into sheet music, or at least have the student pick what he or she'd like to do? You can say that there's different types of teachers. but it's not like that, the vast majority teach how to read sheet music. Most people just want to play what they hear on the radio, and it's alot easier to just do that by learning chords/scales and practicing picking out tunes. We are already musically inclined when we are born, most of us can hum and whistle. Same can be done on an instrument. So why introduce sheet music as the first thing when learning an instrument?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Doktor Mayhem Apr 29 '18 at 11:19
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    " closed as primarily opinion-based!" I don't agree at all:This is not at all a opinion based question. It is absolutely evident that there are different types of learners (and this should not be depending of the teacher.) Therefore a discussion about the methods of teaching should be quite appropriate in this site. Richard has mentioned some important points. This question concerns students as well as teachers. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 5 '19 at 17:26
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    @Albrecht - "a discussion" means this is almost certainly off topic here. Music Stack Exchange is not a discussion site. – Doktor Mayhem Feb 5 '19 at 20:27

Here are reasons why a musician would want to know how to read and write music, which are also good reasons why any music teacher would be acting responsibly by at least encouraging all of their students to learn to read, if not forcing them:

  • Scholarship - All kinds of materials that analyze and teach music rely on music notation. This includes books, magazines, web sites (Wikipedia and this site being prime examples), and videos. There are some mediums where it is not possible or as cost effective to transmit musical ideas in the form of recorded audio, but sending an image or Lilypond file or a PDF is easier.
  • Practice and Performance - So many pieces of music are available in written form, it boggles the mind. If you need a specific exercise to help your two-string arpeggios, you can find it. More importantly, if you are performing on stage (or in a pit) a lengthy and complicated piece that you haven't memorized, you can just read it while you play. Your ears are very busy when you're playing, but your eyes are mostly idle (they could be silently communicating with other musicians), so using your eyes to keep track of what you're playing and knowing what to play next makes sense.
  • Cash Money - If you want to earn money in the music business, you either have to be very lucky (maybe extremely talented also) or you'll have to know how to read and write. Want to teach? You won't be taken seriously by parents and adult students if you can't read and write music. Want to earn fairly steady money in a cover band, corporate band, restaurant jazz combo, as a session artist, performing in musical orchestras, etc., etc.? The first thing that's going to happen when you show up for any number of paying gigs is you'll be handed the music that you're about to play. On paper. And many times someone will come around and write down a change to what's on the paper, or scribble down something new on a blank piece of paper and say, "play this". If you can't, you won't get paid or at best you won't get hired next time. If you want to license songs you've written, you won't be able to register the copyrights or even sell the songs in the first place without writing them down first.
  • Just In Case - None of us knows where we are going to be in 20 years, or even who we are going to be. When I started learning piano as a child, I had no idea I would want to learn guitar at age 19, but when I picked up the guitar, there were tons of books with sheet music I could already read on how to play, complete with exercises. When I wanted to learn Every Led Zeppelin song ever recorded, it was all available in books written down and I could read it. When I wanted to sequence drums and bass and keyboard backing tracks for Led Zeppelin songs to play along with it, I could just read it off the page and enter into a piano roll MIDI editor. When my boss at my first job out of college asked me if I wanted to play guitar for a production of Godspell that he was working on, I was able to say yes and impress the music director with my playing because I could read the score (no tab!) that he handed me. Later when I was offered my first paying gig as a musician to play in Cats (ugh, by the way, just ugh), I was able to take the gig, earn the money, and really enhance my craft on guitar because I could read the score (and I never would have predicted I would want to do that). When I started teaching guitar and a student wanted to learn jazz, I was able to buy a Real Book and read and teach numbers from it instead of telling him he had to find a different teacher. Five years ago I wouldn't have thought I would ever try to write a musical, but now I'm about 70% done with the first draft with my collaborator and we have been writing it all into MuseScore and when the time comes, I will be able to orchestrate it without having to pay a lot of money for an orchestrator and hand the parts off to all the musicians knowing that they can read it and play it and I can hear the music we wrote in all its glory. The point is, you don't know yet what you'll want to do in music. You'll likely surprise yourself. If you can read and write, you're ready for anything. If you can't, you'll be severely limited.

Why don't piano teachers teach how to play by ear and theory BEFORE they go into sheet music

Well, some teachers do. Of the many branches of music pedagogy, the most common that goes this route is the Suzuki method. In short, the Suzuki method aims to mimic language learning as much as possible. When you're a child learning a language, you pick it up based on the sounds you hear, and then your skills are refined in grammar ("theory") classes. Suzuki classes are taught in the same way: music first, and then we refine the technique and explain the theory.

You can say that there's different types of teachers. but NO, the vast majority teach how to read sheet music.

It's probably because it's harder to teach by ear; it demands considerably more patience from both the teacher and the student, and not everyone has the patience to stick with it from day one.

but more often than not, kids just want to play what they hear on youtube or on the radio - not complicated Bach and Beethoven pieces.

This isn't a problem of music pedagogy, it's a problem of finding the right teacher. If someone wants to play what they hear on YouTube or the radio, they should state this outright when they're finding a teacher. It shouldn't be a surprise that a Juilliard-trained piano player taught you Bach and Beethoven and not the Beatles.

  • Suzuki method sounds interesting. Never heard of it before, just looked it up. But all this extra stuff "Parental Involvement" etc. seems like more hoops to jump through. how about just play by ear. that's enough. it takes years to get truly good at that. – foreyez Apr 25 '18 at 20:05
  • @foreyez "It takes years to truly get good at that." Which is why parental involvement is so important! – Richard Apr 25 '18 at 20:07
  • @ Richard: I agree in almost all points, but not in the last: This is - sad to say - a problem of music pedagogy. Teachers have to respect that there are different learners with different learning dispositions and different ways of learning. It should not be a problem of finding the right teacher. The problem should be which method is the best method for which child. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 5 '19 at 17:30

Same reason we learn to read books rather than relying on the oral tradition round the camp-fire. There's just so much MORE music available if you read. But, sure play and learn any way you like. I'm sorry you feel 'traumatised' by standard-issue childhood piano lessons though. Isn't that a bit extreme?

  • not true, english is one thing. we read great novels we listen to great music. eye sight is not involved in music. besides it's easier to find something on youtube than it is to find the sheet music for that something. – foreyez Apr 25 '18 at 19:14
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    @foreyez I completely don't understand your comment on this answer. If you can't read and write music then you are severely handicapped as a musician. I'm also confused by in your question when you wrote that you want to learn theory without reading music. Theory is taught in books and by reading and writing music. Finally, maybe you should check out imslp.org which has sheet music for 131,000 different pieces of music. If you want to listen to music for enjoyment, you can find it on YouTube. If you want understand how the music was created, you need the score. – Todd Wilcox Apr 25 '18 at 19:37
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    @foreyez To cite just one of your examples, The Beatles worked with producer George Martin, who could read and write music, and who wrote the orchestrations for the hired musicians who guested on so many of their songs. McCartney himself called him "The Fifth Beatle", so McCartney might actually say one of the Beatles could read and write exceptionally well! Without Martin, or someone else available who could read and write, they would have had a hard time getting those other instruments recorded. Same with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. – Todd Wilcox Apr 25 '18 at 20:20
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    @foreyez Also, if you ever want to copyright any of your music, you have to write it down, or pay someone else (or find a volunteer) to write it down for you. Obviously famous musicians have little trouble finding and hiring people to help them with that, but in today's age of DIY music production, knowing how to write music could really save your bacon if you are interested in being a professional. – Todd Wilcox Apr 25 '18 at 20:23
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    @foreyez take a step back and listen to yourself. You're arguing for illiteracy. Is that really what you support? If the teacher was uninspiring, don't confuse that with the subject being worthless. I'm glad you're back into music, and I hope you keep learning about all of its aspects. I wish I were a better music reader. It would have opened lots of doors that would have allowed me to stay more involved in music as an adult. – dwilli Apr 25 '18 at 22:44

My point is why do teachers introduce the middle man (sheet music?).

Because it's a useful skill to have. It's similar to learning how to read ordinary texts instead just relying on the oral tradition. Of course I don't want to say that drilling sheet music playing all the time is a good idea how to teach; however dropping it altogether doesn't sound like a good idea either. More often, the teacher will try to make you build some "general musicianship" — and that of course would include improvisation and playing by ear, but it will include playing by score as well, and maybe some other things that will perhaps feel annoying at first (like rhythm or ear training).

The point of this is that after you have come across some threshold level in this "general musicianship", everything gets very, very easy. By everything, I mean things like playing instruments you've never seen, improvisation, transcribing music, being able to jam well with some random strangers you've just met etc., all the cool things.

For me personally, the sheet music was a big factor in this. I play the guitar for 13 years now. For the first 7 years I'd been a happy chord-strummer. Then I started drifting towards the classical, learnt to read the sheet music quite well and improved my technique a very big lot. Since now I was able to read some complex sheet music, I was able to read books about theory (which rely on sheet music heavily because it's the only way to present music (sounds!) on paper). That made me better at reading sheet music again, and also it made me way better at improvisation. Now I can improvise complex things with modulating melodies and quite nontrivial harmony. And reading sheet music also helped me to get into some ear training, which helped my sight singing, and my sight singing, which helped my ear training and transcription skills, and let's not forget helping my reading sheet music AGAIN because I was better able to understand what is going on just by looking at it,... and so on, you can see how this sets up a chain reaction that sends your skills skyrocketing.

But, of course, the main reason for learning to read score is just to be able to share recipes for making music with others. Maybe learning sheet music doesn't help you immediately as a child who wants to play what they heard on YouTube. But there are lots of people on YouTube who will make covers of other things on YouTube, and they will often share the scores. If the child really loves e. g. some music from a video game, they can just go and get a score of a cover they like and play it (that is, when they know how to read it). Especially when there is complex harmony or multiple melodies going on at the same time, the music can be incredibly hard to work out by ear. Why not take advantage of someone else doing it?

And it comes across all instruments too. You need to learn it once and then you can play anything for any instrument on your piano. For example, did you like a cello piece you heard somewhere? Just get the score and you can play it immediately on the piano. Or even on a guitar (with some re-tunings). Perhaps it was something for a SATB choir? No problem, you can play from that score too. It's the same for (nearly (I'm looking at you, clarinets & other transposing instruments!!!)) any other instrument.

Anyway, hopefully you didn't get scared by that wall of text...


Oh dear. The question seems to be written somewhat emotively, but brings up some interesting issues, answered really well.

Piano teaching seems to be quite a traditional craft, and like a lot of teachers, carried out in the same way as they themselves were taught. But if it worked for them, there's no reason for them to suppose it won't work for their own pupils. Except that while pianos haven't changed (acoustics!), pupils and times have. A lot of people who teach piano can read quite well, and it's put them in good stead: they can see the benefit of the written dots. Also in the mix is that a lot of them rely heavily on being able to read to play, and don't/can't rely on their ears so much. So it's not really in their remit to do that. Exams feature a lot in the piano learning journey, and they are heavily slanted towards the written music. It's also part of home practice regime, and a tried and tested route to next week's lesson.

As a lot of teachers are dot-orientated, they find it difficult to teach in other ways, such as playing by ear, which is very much more accepted with guitars rather than piano. There are electric guitar exams that get to grade VIII without the necessity to be able to read dots. It's an option in later grades, but distinctions can be obtained without. And they are excellent for progressing on guitar. So, actually, as Todd points out, if you're a reader guitarist, you're already streets ahead.

Anyway, back to piano, and playing by ear. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just that many teachers don't offer that part of learning. I do, always have, and it's certainly a good few months worth at the beginning, when students need to learn the instrument before they learn music. Finding their way round. Making up tunes, Copying a few (initially) notes played by teacher. Hearing a phrase in C, playing it in F#. All this before the baptism by dots. My main reason for incorporating this stuff is that all my teachers only worked from the music; that was their forte, that's what they did best. Luckily, I played guitar as well so on one hand there was the discipline of using dots, but with guitar, the shackles were forgotten, and playing by ear was acceptable.

I'm now in the very happy position of playing regularly and often with folks from both camps. This is where the rub is. I know, when I play with guys who read, the music will be accurate, musical and enjoyable. Every time. With the ear players, it's a mixed bag. Some are excellent players, who really don't know what they're doing, but it's a pleasure to play with them - the music is good, organic, and pleasurable. Others, though, have listened to songs, 'worked out' the chords, solos, whatever, and there are inaccuracies that exist so much that sometimes I need to stop playing to make it sound better. Wrong chords, bad timing, stuff like that. But that's the way they've heard it and think it goes. So, in conclusion, like most of the answers so far, and I suspect, in the future, do not exclude the other side of music - that which is written down.

Bach, Beethoven and quite a few others would NOT be still having their brilliant music played if they had taken your premise. Without them writing it down, how do you think, over 100 years on, we could still play their stuff? Come on, you couldn't dial it up on YouTube if they hadn't committed it to paper at the time, could you?

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    To be fair the last point could be seen the other way too - now that we do have easy audio and video recording, it reduces the relative usefulness of dots as a skill. – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 26 '18 at 4:45
  • @topomorto - that is my point. Years ago, that stuff was not available, so without writing it down, at the time, it would not be available for us now. Yes, of course there are videos and recording s available now, but they were all made using the dots... – Tim Apr 26 '18 at 7:59
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    Every day on this forum we see the mess that non-reading players (usually guitarists) get into by working inwards from 'theory' not outwards from a wide knowledge of repertoire. And the way to experience a wide repertoire is through reading. – Laurence Payne Apr 26 '18 at 13:01
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    There's no Catch 22 in 'if you want to understand music, learn the language'. The key to progress is open to all who care to pick it up. – Laurence Payne Apr 26 '18 at 14:41
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    @RosieF - depending on what style, number of instruments and other criteria, I've often found that transcribing by listening is far more accurate, for me, than relying on the music - if indeed it is available. Particularly having to rely on tab for guitar done by rank amateurs. However, having to buy sheet music to read for an 18pce band never comes cheap. And I've lost count of the number of corrections I have to make to such music even after paying good money for it. Finally, just because it's written on sheet music doesn't automatically make it sure it's correct! – Tim Apr 30 '18 at 17:12

There are a lot of answers already, so please forgive a partial one:

I think part of this is just that there is a genuine difference between the academic/classical tradition, of which the written form of music is a central part, and the 'folk' tradition that emphasises passing things on in person, or by ear (and yes, this is absolutely a generalisation, but one with some truth in it).

Another part of it is that while standard musical notation is applicable to all instruments, it's especially good for piano - it's almost a representation of the piano keyboard itself. So if you are playing keyboard, not learning notation is perhaps (even) more of a missed opportunity than with some other instruments.

I certainly won't contradict anyone who says that learning notation is a useful skill to have! However, there are lots of useful skills in music, and there isn't time for most of us to learn them all. Anyway, while I do think there is some truth in your observation, I hope you'll be able to learn to use both your 'earing' and your reading skills - it's all good stuff!

I'll cheekily point you to my answer here too, on a related question.

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    Regarding useful skills, I agree, with the addition that of the list of optional but useful skills, being able to read is very near the top in usefulness, if not number one. Playing by ear is a good contender for the top spot also, but I feel like reading is at least in the top five, if not top three. – Todd Wilcox Apr 25 '18 at 20:06
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    @ToddWilcox agree totally - it would be a bold choice for a teacher to not introduce their student to SN at all, and usually a poor one. At the end of the day, I'd like to think most teachers would follow a curriculum that introduces a mix of skills that a student can ultimately use, develop - or forget - as they see fit. – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 25 '18 at 20:13

I am not a big musician, but I don't understand your question. It's obvious that music notation is like the actual text we use to write things.

  • How can you learn a complicated classical piece with thousands of notes "by ear"?

  • How can you play with an orchestra without sheet music for each instrument?

  • How can you remember what you learned "by ear" in 1 or 2 months?
  • Not all students have innate "ear". Some people have to work hard before developing the "ear"

Guitar is simpler - you learn 5 chords and then you can play any pop song you want, but try to play a classical piece or a solo without notes (or tabs - which is also a kind of notation).

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    you're right when it comes to classical music. but most of the things we listen to nowadays aren't classical. so why prioritize it. – foreyez Apr 25 '18 at 23:20
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    screenertv.com/celebs/… – foreyez Apr 25 '18 at 23:35
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    "How can you remember what you learned 'by ear' in 1 or 2 months?" I can play tunes that I learned by ear 35 years ago, and most of those I have played only occasionally in the last 25 years or so. One benefit of learning to play by ear is that you can play whatever you can hear in your head. I do agree that reading is very important, and that notation is nearly essential for organizing large numbers of instruments. But every time I hear someone say that guitar is simple, I think that they must be listening to the wrong guitarists. – ex nihilo Apr 26 '18 at 2:44
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    Unless your definition of a 'great musician' is someone who knows how to read sheet music, it's certainly not true that any great musician knows how to read sheet music. And it's not true that you have to write down a piece you've composed - you can simply remember it and perform it, or you can record the performance in some way. While reading standard notation is a very, very useful skill, it's in no way fundamental to many musical activities. – topo Reinstate Monica Apr 26 '18 at 7:48
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    @foreyez - in your first comment here, are you using the 'royal' we? You're assuming an awful lot in the whole of this question/answers/comments. There are no grounds for stating that 'most of the things we listen to nowadays aren't classical'. Some credence unfortunately has been lost by you here. – Tim Apr 26 '18 at 10:04

I think it helps to learn to play a little before learning to play something by ear. If you can play your instrument it will be much easier to hear what is happening. Starting with easy pieces allows you to get some coordination and gets you up to the basic level of actually playing the instrument, and most pop bands that have been recorded are going to be too complex for a beginner. Most people cannot play along to a recording right away when learning their first instrument.

Starting with sheet music allows the student to be able to take home what was covered in the lesson and can be worked out at the student's own pace. It is a lot harder to hear what is happening in a recording with multiple instruments playing at full speed. This makes learning by ear hard.

Style of music and the end goal of the student will play big roles in whether a teacher uses printed music or not, as well as the style of the teacher. Finding the right teacher is hard, and learning to read music is one of the many elements that go into finding the right match.

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