To learn by ear or by reading music: That is the question…

Posted on 1:03 pm

With the introduction of the Suzuki method in the United States came an increase awareness and division between those who learn music by ear and those who learn by reading music. For those unfamiliar with the Suzuki method please read my following post outlining its basic tenants, history and success in the US:

Since this time many debates have ensued about whether students should be taught to read music first, or whether they should learn by ear first and learn to read music later. If you read my aforementioned post on the Suzuki method you will know I am not an advocate of the method as it has been employed in the US. I believe in teaching students how to read music from the first lesson. However, this does not mean that I think students should not also be taught how to play by ear. I think that it is important for students to acquire both skills.

Proponents of teaching students to play by ear usually quote from Suzuki who promoted the idea that young children should learn music just as they learn language. He postured that since children learn to speak before learning to read, music should also be approached from this same premise. There is truth to this idea, however the problem comes in its implementation.

When do we expose children to speech on a regular basis and when do children start imitating speech? They are exposed to speech from the womb and begin imitating what they hear before they can even walk. Children begin to speak words and form sentences far before the age of 2. When do children normally start music lessons? Age 5, 8, or 10? If we are going to teach children music the same way they learn speech, the time for learning by ear needs to come far earlier than when most students begin musical instruction. Many Japanese students of Suzuki did follow this musical training model. Music was a family affair which included daily classical music listening and practice. Babies born into these families demonstrated recognition of music that had been played for them while they were still in the womb. Their musical training had already begun.

Most students in the US will not have this experience, and that’s OK. Children can still learn music and an instrument and become well trained musicians. In order for this to happen both ear training and music reading must be part of a student’s lesson experience. I start with music reading so that students can begin to make the connection between what they see on the page and what they are playing on their instrument. If students do not have this training they are more likely to have trouble making this connection later one.

Students are also encouraged to listen carefully to what they are playing. String instruments require students to acquire a very good ear if they are to play their instrument well. This type of ear training should occur from the very first lesson. As a student progresses and gains a good understanding and functionality on their instrument  I introduce how to play by ear. This will happen at different stages for each student. Just as we start teaching children the foundation of reading words by teaching them their letters as soon as they are able, so should we introduce students to the foundations of music reading as soon as they are able to comprehend it. As we combine this with the training of their ear they will be more complete and competent musicians at every level.


Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

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