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So my technical ability is ahead of my sight reading ability. And I haven't practiced my ear at all. My end goal is to eventually be able to play any song by ear and put my own variation on it. I'm not good at sight reading at all. I can read the notes but it does take me a while to get them all in my head. I don't care much for sight reading either, although I feel like I should at least master the basics.

Now my question is, should I continue practicing sight reading first before I practice ear training? Are there any big benefits in sight reading and does it help me improve in other aspects of playing the piano as well? Should I practice both simultaneously? Or should I just neglect sight reading alltogether and just focus on ear training and relative pitch if that's my end goal?

I always fiddled around with the piano as a child and would watch tutorials for songs online. That's why my technical ability is far ahead of everything else. I only recently started learning about the music theory behind it and how to read notes etc.

  • Do you mean you want to improvise piano arrangements of songs, where the vocal part of the song will be played instrumentally on the piano? That contrasted with playing the piano part of song. – Michael Curtis Feb 4 at 20:12
  • @MichaelCurtis Yes that's what I mean! – Tipsi Feb 5 at 23:16
  • @Tipsi - Usually the term sight reading means performing having never seen the sheet music before. After that first play-through it's not sight reading any more, it's just plain reading. In your question do you mean reading or sight reading? Proper sight reading is a hugely useful skill in its own right, but it's predicated on the skill of reading. – Brian THOMAS Feb 6 at 13:03
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If you want to be able to pick up on a song by ear, sight reading won't be a lot of help. (Downvoters - please say why you did!).

Since your aim is to play by ear, and hit whatever notes and chords instinctively, then being able to read charts won't help at all.

As long as you are aware of what each chord comprises, and how they work with each other, and can play a bass line that flows, and use your ears for instant accuracy, carry on playing the way you do, as sight reading is a very different and diverse skill from playing by ear. Generally speaking, I find that players fall into one of the camps - great sight readers, or great 'play by earers'. There are very few players that I've worked with who are very good at both. I guess if one is better at one, then that gets favoured over the other, and strengthens more to the detriment of the other.

Looking at and considering the comments and answers - it would be worth a foray into sight reading. It might just be that, as you already have a way round the notes, that looking at how it's portrayed on the lines and spaces, it suddenly becomes pretty obvious how it all works. And you start thinking - actually, it's easier than I thought, I'll have a go. Certainly worth consideration. 'Cos then you have that extra bow to your fiddle, or whatever the phrase may be today...

EDIT: something that will help you playing by ear is to know several scales, in many keys. Reason for this is that when you've found/decided on a key for a piece, and are aware of whether it's using say, blues scale, pent. scale, minor scale notes, it usually automatically means certain notes won't be played. So you will save time and effort not even trying those notes. Simple example, in key C, chances are you won't be needing D♭.

  • I definitely do want to get the basics down for reading sheet music. But another big reason why I still use sheet music is because my ear isn't trained well enough to play very technically demanding pieces of music. And isn't it important to still play music that matches with my technical ability? I either continue reading sheet music on the side in order to play more technically demanding songs, or I only practice playing by ear and start with easier songs. Another option is to watch youtube tutorials like I used to do, but I doubt that's a good idea. – Tipsi Feb 3 at 21:19
  • If today's requirement is to play a particular song, don't be ashamed to use any resources you can find! For the broader requirement of developing your personal skills, do anything that broadens your musical horizons. (Why are you restricting your ambitions to being a 'busker' anyway?) – Laurence Payne Feb 4 at 1:04
  • @Laurence I'm not planning on competing or becoming an actual performer. I'm learning to play the piano because I love how it feels when I am playing. I barely like classical music, only modern classical music really. Most songs I do like don't have sheet music availabe and aren't as hard as classical music. That's why playing by ear is my goal. I'd rather be really good at 1 method than decent at all methods. – Tipsi Feb 4 at 11:39
  • Far be it from me to question your goal... but I'm going to anyway! No, your goal is playing the music. Playing by ear is merely a method, one route to that goal. – Laurence Payne Feb 4 at 18:27
  • @LaurencePayne Sure but my goal can still be to play music by ear. I want to eventually be able to hear a song and instantly play it without having to read sheet music. I'm aware that there is plenty of music that I won't be able to do this with. For example with alot of classical music. And I might not get it right 100%, but that IS my goal. Another reason for this is because alot of music I often want to play, doesn't have any sheet music available for it. Playing by ear will help with this as well. – Tipsi Feb 5 at 23:20
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You can only play 'by ear' using musical elements that you're familiar with. So you need to get familiar with LOTS of music, in LOTS of styles - what it sounds like, and what your fingers have to do to get that sound.

Sorry, @Tim, but by far the most efficient way to do this is by reading lots of music. Not necessarily by perfecting a small number of difficult pieces (though you need technique too.)

Develop your 'by ear' playing skills AND your sightreading skills. They will nurture each other. Remember, the aim is to play the piece. If the printed music is available, it's foolish to reject that route!

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    "the most efficient way to do this is by reading lots of music" - true if you already have those sight reading skills. But if you are someone who enjoys trying to figure things out by ear more than reading scores, acquiring those skills might come at a relatively high opportunity cost. – topo morto Feb 4 at 1:19
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    I've played with many people who couldn't read, but were able to play hundreds of tunes that were in their minds - and could also play along with something never heard before, because they could play by ear. A lot of the stuff I do, and always have done, has been by ear, and I don't think knowing how to sight-read - which I can - helped that side much. Agree to disagree. But it is good to be able to do both. OP wants to know which direction to go, and he's given both sides of the coin with answers here! Probably hasn't time to do all though. And since play by ear is more natural, go that way. – Tim Feb 4 at 11:31
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    Given the actual question details - 'haven't practiced my ear at all' and 'not good at sight reading at all' - and the OP sort of supposing them to be mutually exclusive, this really is the best answer. Being able to read a songbook will help immensely. It can also confirm what they do by ear. Don't overlook that fact that 'by ear efforts' can actually lead to mistakes about what the actual notes are! (How many garbage guitar tabs online where made by ear?) – Michael Curtis Feb 6 at 13:45
  • Yeah. All these barriers people set up about the methods they DON'T want to use to develop and learn. Get in a situation where a paying gig depends on being able to play 10 new songs by Saturday. You'll soon stop being picky about the learning method! – Laurence Payne Feb 6 at 13:55
  • @LaurencePayne - been there, done it, never been desperate enough to want to rely on readily available 'tabs', as unlearning something learned wrongly is even more time-costly. – Tim Feb 8 at 10:56
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Before I start, I will mention that I can really only play (guitar, sing and drums) by ear. If I learn from something written down, I'm much slower and can't read music so it has to be tab or chord notation. In honesty, I've never needed to go further than this in order to get a LOT of enjoyment from music.

Learning a piece by ear is ace fun, and you'll get probably 90% of popular tunes easily. However when you get to something that's hard to hear (!) in detail, you probably need to see it written down.

The difference is that 'by ear' gives you a feel for it, and a good hint at a piece. Seeing it written down tells you THE CORRRECT THING TO PLAY.

However this doesn't necessarily mean sight-reading. It could be just reading the notes of a tricky part and getting them sorted at your own pace, then getting the rest right by ear.

Perhaps it depends on the kind of music you're playing. If you're playing popular tunes, or something jazzy etc then by-ear is usually enough detail to get them learnt. If you're playing tricky classical pieces with intricate arpeggias etc, then maybe getting the right detail becomes more important.

Incidentally, I'm in awe of people who can sight-read. It's not something I aspire to myself because I enjoy the freedom of playing things how I hear them rather than being too dictated-to. But watching someone sight read a piece is to me quite astonishing. I've had the same thing said by sight-readers about those who can play by ear, which underlines Tim's answer.

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There is a common misconception on what "playing by ear" is. Many people think it is knowing what a melody is then hunting and pecking on your instrument for the correct notes. One wouldn't walk through a mine field like that so why would we attempt to perform like that? Because you probably know how to read and sound out words, I can say "cat" and you will be able to guess KAT or CAT or maybe even QHUAT. That is because you have mastered the alphabet and sounding out with your mind's ear.

True playing by ear is more cerebral than you think. It involves knowing all your scales, some degree of music theory and the ability to see the notes in your mind's eye when you hear them. Here is what I mean.

I can hear the tune ODE TO JOY in my head. Because I sing a lot but sing by visualizing sheet music (usually by the pool) in my head, I just know that the melody starts on the third. I can hear it start on the third. From there, as I hear each pitch, I just know what the numeric values are: 33455432 1123322 33455432 1123211 As I hum, I simply know those corresponding numbers because I only think in numbers. An added benefit to reading by numbers and not letters is that I can then transpose that into any key. Just start on the third of any scale and play those numbers. Poof, you're a genius. If I am improvising and I wish to quote this melody, I only have to aim for the third. There is no hunt and peck, there is no guessing, there is no "playing by ear." It is all brain conversion from inner ear.

The good news is that you can practice this anywhere without the need for a piano. Lying in bed, driving a car, lounging by the pool, hiking through the woods, listening to the homily . . . Also, whenever you hear music, don't just hum along, listen or ignore it, use it to practice. What is the starting pitch? Is it on the 1, 3, 5? Does the bridge change keys a fourth higher? What is the chord progression? You can hear all these things and translate them to numbers on the fly. WITH PRACTICE.

Some teachers teach the solfege method but I find numbers easier and if I am jamming with other musicians I can just hold up a finger. I can't hold up a SOL.

Try it with something simple such as MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB. It starts on the third. Don't use just your ear, employ the brain. Don't guess, know. I'll wait. My brain tells me the pitches are 3212333 222 355 3212333322321. Did you get those too? Go test them on the piano in any key.

Now, someone is going to chime in saying "That is fine and dandy for melody but you can't do that with larger works, fugues or etudes." What they are really saying is THEY can't do it. Because I only read by numbers I can see all the numbers. If they read by letters, they see letters. I can't fly an airplane so therefore nobody can. All you need to do is know your scales and intervals and what each interval sounds like - away from the piano.

As an added bonus, you will find memorization to come rather quickly. Actually you are not "memorizing" notes. Your ear will hear and you'll just know or read in your mind. I don't have GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS memorized but I can fake the story.

This will be offensive to many people but I consider letter readers to be musically illiterate. Like, they can speak but not read. My folk group musicians are all excellent readers. They can play anything I put before them. However, if I ask them to raise it a third, they can't. Why? They really don't know what they are doing. Matching dots to a key is so easy a parrot can do it. In the following video, I doubt the bird knows what a square, circle or isosceles trapezium is. This bird is not genius, it is just matching shapes like it was trained to do. BTW, this is how Beethoven could compose while deaf. His ear may have been deaf but his brain wasn't. Go ahead, "hum" something in your brain. What were the numbers? Parrot matches shapes

A good way to practice is to go steal a hymnbook from your local Protestant church (God will forgive you) and away from the piano, number sing all four parts. Start with just one line at a time (SAT or B). Soon you will see all four parts by their numbers. Hymns are great to start with because they rarely go beyond and octave, the notes are repetitive, the form is often AABA and all the notes are chord tones. Study, study, study, study, study. Then sit at the piano. Oh, if you don't want to beg, borrow or steal, you can check out hymnary.org but taking a book with you means you can "practice" anywhere, anytime.

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    I agree with much of what you say (+1), but once someone is familiar enough with an instrument, I think it is often possible for then to just pick out the notes of a melody they've heard without analysing it first. Many people without the musical training to identify intervals can sing a melody back correctly, isn't doing the equivalent on the guitar a similar skill? – topo morto Feb 4 at 13:38
  • Can you figure out the numbers for less tonal pieces? I guess you can for 12-tone serialist pieces, but I once transcribed a piece that had the F7/Eb - G7/F - Ab/Bb - G/A chord progression at one point, and I suspect passages like this raise difficulties when trying to assign note numbers to them. – Dekkadeci Feb 4 at 16:49
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    While there's a lot of interesting food for thought in this answer, I don't see how it answers the question. Instead, it's an essay about what comprises music literacy in your opinion. (I happen to agree with a lot of what's written here, but that's not the point.) It'd also be a much better answer if it were less confrontational ("offensive to many people") and more helpful (e.g., "this is a method that works well for me"). I hope this helps improve the answer! – neilfein Feb 4 at 19:26
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My end goal is to eventually be able to play any song by ear and put my own variation on it.

Same here that was my goal too, esp if you're into improvising and composing you need to play by ear mainly. Even the Beatles didn't know how to read music.

I played piano as a kid for years reading sheet music, played guitar for a few more years without knowing much theory, just jamming around to random tabs and improvising random patterns. It took me about 10 years to realize I had learned music all wrong.

I had an epiphany when I realized that music should be played just like we whistle, using muscle memory. Another epiphany came to me when I realized that all major scales are simply shifted in pitch but are essentially the same pattern "do re mi fa so etc", that and that 80% or so songs are in major. Then another epiphany when I realized I've always had a propensity for the minor scale, and more epiphanies along the way.

I then went back to a piano and took it upon myself to play by ear hundreds of songs that I always had in my mind throughout life and ask any question I had on this site. It took me about two years of about 3-4 hours a day but I was committed. Just knowing as many songs as you can, that you personally like and what makes them tick. So like what scales and chords they're using. But not focusing on chords names, more so focusing on their function and relative notation (I, ii, IV, V7, etc) so that you can play them in other keys.

My biggest suggestion is to take very easy songs and play them in all keys. It's like playing scales but practicing scales limits you to playing minor second and major second intervals. That's not enough. So take a tune, for example "Amazing Grace" and play it in all keys. That way you start developing your muscle memory to what different intervals sound like, and you start training yourself to know where the notes and chords are in all keys.

At first it can take days to figure out a song but with enough practice it then takes minutes, or even seconds.

Also the only thing you need is a piece of paper and write what songs you know on it. And constantly work and refine them and add more songs to that list. There are still old songs I know that I'm constantly fitting new harmonies in and polishing what they sound like, adding embellishments, etc.

But you need theory if you go by ear: so know how to create a scale, know how to get chords from a scale, play major/minor, etc. Once you have theory + ear then you have music. You'll hear ANY song on the radio and you'll know how to recreate it instantly when you have a keyboard next to you, and you'll be able to improvise your own music, it's very liberating. You'll begin to appreciate how every song around you follows the same basic rules.

  • I tried to play a few songs by ear yesterday. It went well-ish. I got the chorus of 1 song in just 10 minutes. But I often pressed a note, thought to myself "Hmm.. It should be higher" and just keep repeating until I had the right melody. This isn't really playing by ear imo. But hopefully it will help get me there. I'm also not sure whether I should get the chords or melody first. Melody seems quite easy and I often do guess the notes right. However chords for me is just playing all the chords available in that scale until it sounds right. – Tipsi Feb 5 at 23:37
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    @Tipsi absolutely always start with melody (that will indicate your scale) then to harmonize it try I IV or V chords of your scale. Keep in mind that there's many ways to harmonize a melody. The more harmonic vocabulary you build via theory the better. As far as the higher/lower that will go away with time after you build muscle memory. Meaning you will internalize how an interval sounds and you'll know what key to what key to play. With time it just gets better and better and that's when the real fun starts. – foreyez Feb 5 at 23:40
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Playing by ear is only possible when you have the patterns you wish to identify already adapted. If not - you will lose much time to to find them out by trial and error. These patterns can be melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ones.

If you are able to identify the chords (and the chord progressions) you will easily be able to find out the tune or even improvise to these chords. (Understanding and following the rhythm will probably the lesser afford.)

That means: sight reading will always be a help! It is like reading, writing and speaking in general a feedback process that will always benefit.

Try to play along a tune or the chords to a record. It's a good practice.

So the most important would be to learn chord patterns as posted here:

Is there a set of closely related keys in modern popular music?

and by studying harmony (not on a professional level, but just by this examples above.)

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