Learn by Sight and by Ear

Reading music is a vital skill, possessed by nearly all professional pianists. There is more music written for the piano than any other instrument. Much of it is among the world’s greatest music, and it can be quite complex, and therefore nearly impossible to learn without reading.

Because so much piano music (especially classical music) is depending on good reading skills, many pianists don’t develop the ability to play by ear (that is, hear something and then play it). But those who can are much more likely to excel at improvisation, composition … and most important, impressing people at parties.

The truly proficient keyboard player should work to develop both skills. One complements the other —knowing how to summon the correct notes without sheet music, while also knowing how to quickly read music, will allow you to use whichever tactic serves you best at any moment.

(By the way, there is a third approach to learning music: by watching a demonstration and memorizing what you see. This method, rote learning, is not recommended as the primary skill for learning music, as it keeps you dependent on your teacher, or videos, and does little to promote musical confidence.)

Sing…Even If You Can’t

The foundation for a good musical ear is the ability to match pitch, which means correctly singing a note played on the keyboard. (This isn’t the same as “perfect pitch,” which isn’t an essential ear skill.) The next step is learning to sing intervals (the distance between two notes or keys). Being able to sing and recognize intervals is the basis for playing by ear.

Singing is recommended for all musicians. It’s by far the best way to develop your ear. Don’t worry about the quality of your voice—you’re not preparing to sing for others, but rather becoming familiar with the sound of different intervals, so that you can recognize them.

Music Theory is Your Friend

Music theory encompasses the nuts and bolts of how music works, and includes things like how chords are constructed and how they progress. To some people, “music theory” reeks of esoteric academic pursuits and may feel intimidating. To others, especially those who took music lessons as children, the phrase conjures up the drudgery teachers insisted we slog through before the fun stuff. But with the right attitude and approach, music theory can be as intriguing as learning a new language.

Learning music without theory is like reading or writing without understanding the rules of grammar – you might know what sounds right and what doesn’t, but you don’t know why. Grasping the “why” of music makes everything related to it easier – learning new music, memorizing music, and creating your own music.

Practice as Well as You Would Like to Play

To err is human. You can’t expect to improve without taking risks, many of which will lead to mistakes. Yet too many mistakes can hinder progress. In neuroscience, a popular phrase related to learning is, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” In other words, the brain adapts to repetition—as you do the same thing over and over, you will find it takes less and less effort over time. This is a fundamental principle of learning.

The problem is that the brain doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong notes – it only knows what you do. If you repeat the same mistake, it will begin to cement itself in your brain, and then in your playing. You will then have to spend time “deprogramming” your brain from making the mistakes it has habituated itself to.

To avoid all that extra effort, whenever possible, stop before you make a mistake. Spend time learning to play something correctly before trying to memorize it. If you practice as well as you’d like to play, the only barrier to your goals will be time.

Learn more about practice strategies at my new site The Creative Keyboardist.

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