Learning by Rote or Reading Music; Which is Easier?

Posted on 2:33 pm

I recently came across a video on youtube of an intermediate/advanced violinist who has been acclaimed as a child prodigy. One commenter noted that this individual learns all their music my ear and does not know how to read. Another commenter posted that it is easier to learn music by ear than to read music.

I’m purposely not identifying the video, the performer or the commenters, because the purpose of this post is not to critique this particular video or individual, but to dialogue about the claim that learning music by ear is easier than learning music by reading.

Depending on your musical background, education, personal style, music preferences, pedagogy techniques, etc. you may be predisposed to agree or disagree with the commenter who made this post. However, I don’t think that one side has to be right and the other wrong. I think that in some ways both sides are right.

Learning music by ear is easier/faster before one learns to read music.

Let’s say I were to take two students of equal ability who have not played the violin before and who do not know how to read music, and teach them to learn the same song. One student I teach the song by reading the music and the other student learns the song by ear. Which would learn the song more quickly or easily?

The one learning by ear would more quickly learn the song because there is less being asked of them. The one learning the song by reading the music not only has to learn how to play the violin, but how to read. The one learning by ear only has to learn how to play the violin. It makes logical sense that when one is asked to learn more things it will take longer!

However, as one becomes proficient at reading music I would argue that learning music by ear is slower and more difficult than learning music by reading.

Let’s say I were to take two students of equal ability and playing proficiency; one who does not read music, and the other who is proficient at reading music. I ask them to learn the same piece. The student who does not read receives a recording of the piece they are asked to learn. The student who reads receives only the sheet music. Which student will learn the music more quickly?

The student listening to the recording must at minimum listen to the recording one time through before being able to play the piece. So let’s say the piece is 5 minutes long. If they can play it through correctly the first time, then it has taken them 10 min. to learn the piece. (Most likely it will take longer than that as it is unlikely that the student will play it back perfectly by ear in one hearing, even if they are used to learning music by ear and the music is relatively simple.)

While student number one is listening to the recording, the student who can read is already playing through the piece of music they have been asked to learn. If the music is easy, they will have completed the assignment on the first time through (5 min.). If the piece is more difficult they may have to stop and work out a few things here or there, but most likely student number 1 will have to work out those same issues.

So, if we assume that since the students are at the same proficiency level that it will take them the same amount of time to work through problem spots, the student who reads will at minimum complete their task twice as fast as the student who learns by ear. (I would argue that it would probably take student 1 longer to work out problem spots than the student who reads because student 1 needs to find the spot in the recording and listen to it again before working out the problem, while the student who reads can jump straight to problem solving.)

To further understand these two arguments let’s look at an example from everyday life that is comparable; learning to read words. Children learn to speak before they learn to read or write. However, as soon as a child is able we teach them to read their letters, then simple words, then sentences, etc. If a person does not learn how to read as a child they must go through the same tedious process. Whether child or adult, reading at these early stages is more difficult than simply repeating back a letter, word, sentence or phrase that someone might speak. Memorizing by listening seems much easier than figuring out how the symbols on the printed page convert to the sounds one recognizes in speech.

However, once someone learns to read, which is easier; memorization or reading? At the simplest level it will take one twice as long to repeat a sentence back than for the one who can read, because the one who can read will have completed reading the sentence at the same time the one who is listening starts repeating back their sentence (after hearing it once). However, the time differential becomes much greater as the assignment becomes more difficult. How about reciting a paragraph, or an article or a novel? Is the one who must learn by ear going to be able to recite the novel more quickly than the one who can read the novel? “Of course not!” we would say. The same is true of music. The learning process is difficult. At first it seems like memorizing the music is faster and easier. However, as music becomes more complicated and lengthier the one who memorizes must work harder and is slower than the one who can read.


Whether memorizing or reading is faster or easier depends on the level of music and the proficiency of the reader. Reading is not inherently more difficult, and when learned proficiently is actually easier and faster. The learning process will always require more of the student and therefore take more time. However, just because it is slower at the beginning does not mean that it is slower overall. Slowly the student who has learned to read will overtake the one who has learned by memorization. That is why I teach my students to read music from day one of their lesson even from the earliest age.

Learn more here: The Beginning Violinist: A Companion Book for Children and Adults  

Based on Howard’s comment below I also want to point you toward this post: Dependency and the Musician.

It was not my desire to discredit the value of ear training in this post, but to simply show what I believe to be the inadequacy of the belief voiced by the commenter quoted at the beginning of this post.

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

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5 responses to “Learning by Rote or Reading Music; Which is Easier?”

  1. I don’t agree with your analysis.

    People naturally have different learning modalities.

    I have presented technical short courses for a living (pays better than playing a violin!), and the train-the-trainer sessions that I took emphasized that all material should be presented 3 times, 1) orally, 2) written, and 3) through implementation exercises, in order to ping both major modalities and reinforce the learning through the exercises.

    I happen to be one of those individuals whose preferred learning modality is reading.

    My observation is that the attendees of my classes are split approximately evenly between oral and written modality dominance.

    I know of people who can listen one time to a piece, and not only be able to play it, but improv a harmony. Some of these folks can also read proficiently, although I know of one very accomplished guitar player who does not read proficiently.

    OTOH, all of the pieces that I play really well, I have seen written at least once, even if I was the one to parse it with several listenings and write it down myself. I definitely have more difficulty learning a piece by ear — it takes me many times of listening and puzzling out each part. I am getting a little better at it with practice, but I did not start trying to learn new pieces by ear until I was in my 40’s.

    Reading and learning by ear are separate skills, and both are learned through practice. I also consider them both to be important.

    I think it best to encourage both reading and playing by ear for all students.

  2. Emily says:

    Thanks for your comment Howard! I’m a little confused as to what part of my analysis you disagree with since you didn’t address the time factors I mentioned. You seemed to focus more on individual learning styles, and combining learning styles, which is outside the scope of this post, but which I agree is an important factor were we to be discussing the best combination for learning!

    In the end, the person who naturally learns by listening will still benefit from learning how to read, and the reading process will make learning easier and faster, even (and I think especially) if it is combined with the listening component, which it sounds like you would agree with.

    I agree with you that BOTH listening and reading are important skills, and teach both to my students. I also agree that they are different skills, and that an individual may be naturally more competent in one than the other. Like you, I think that we learn best when we can use both these skills in conjunction with one another. This post was not meant to suggest that one ought to only read or only play by ear.

  3. Emily says:

    In addition to my earlier reply to your comment, I also thought you might be interested in reading the blog post I wrote today inspired by your comment. http://blog.playviolinmusic.com/2015/04/02/dependency-and-the-musician/

    As I said, I agree that both reading and playing by ear is important and wouldn’t want readers to take away the wrong message from this post. Thanks for your contribution!

  4. Jonathan says:

    I wonder how many people who ask this kind of question are really just trying to find a way to circumvent hard work. It betrays my bias and cynicism, but when someone asks, “is playing by ear easier/faster?” what I hear is, “What’s the least amount of work and time one needs to invest before one can impress others?” Which, for me at least, misses the point of learning music. (To clarify, this is different than the person who is exploring the best learning method by which to understand a concept.)

  5. Emily says:

    Jonathan, I agree that if our goal in learning music is to find the fastest or easiest way to impressing others than we are missing the point! :) Hard work is an essential component to learning any instrument well. I think this is one of the reasons it can also be so rewarding and fulfilling!

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