Reading music vs. playing by ear

If you have a post about music or guitar that doesn't really fit anywhere else, put it here. This is strictly on topic, guitar or music related topics only. Please be civil and courteous here. This forum is moderated and respectful conversation is expected.
User avatar
HobbyPicker
Junior Member
Posts: 58
Joined: December 28th, 2006, 9:48 pm
Location: Snåsa, Norway

Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by HobbyPicker » January 2nd, 2008, 12:51 pm

For most of the nearly 30 years I've been struggling with guitar playing, I've learned songs from fakebooks, or tried to figure out the chord changes by ear, simplifying it to fit to my rather limited and crude techniques and making my own "arrangements" which mostly was rythm guitar and singing. 2-3 years ago I decided to learn to play "properly" and started to learn songs from tab and notation, painstakingly slow and sort of intimidating since instead of getting to play the song in a crude way in a few hours, I could spend months on "impossible" fingerings and still play the tune pretty poorly. I soon realized that tab are very limited when it comes to visualizing the music, since you really don't get any information readily on how the tune goes. Standard notation is much better since you get instant information on the rythm, as well as you directly see how the melody lines move, and how the different voices move if the chords are written out.

Having had very little confidence in my ears and my ability to learn to play by ears, it was some sort of revelation for me when I started to play with a banjo player a few months ago. After the first session, I put on a song I really wanted to figure out, and suddenly I figured the key, the chord changes, and a way to play it in a version that incorporated chord voicings and rythm figures I've got in my "toolbox". So now I approach music I want to learn by playing on "repeat" and listening, listening, listening, being aware of different things, getting the melody memorized well, figuring out the key and changes, mainly by listening to bass lines, and figuring out "key riffs" that are the "backbone" of the song. To me this is a lot more satisfying and challenging than sitting for weeks with a transcription.

I believe that reading music takes away some of the attention that really should go to the relation between what you do (play and sing) and what you hear. What I'll focus on to improve my playing, is to learn the fretboard better, and also pure technical exercises to be more precise both with my picking and fretting hand!

There's still so much to learn, almost unlimited possibilities to get better, but that's fine with me, in fact I believe that's what really keeps me going on with my playing! :D

dhodge
Musically Insane
Posts: 5733
Joined: June 15th, 2002, 8:21 am
Contact:

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by dhodge » January 2nd, 2008, 1:38 pm

HobbyPicker wrote:I believe that reading music takes away some of the attention that really should go to the relation between what you do (play and sing) and what you hear.
This is a common stand by many a player. And while it has its merits, and while everyone has a different learning style and things certainly come easier to some people than others, it's the whole "either / or" approach that usually keeps people from using music reading as a tool. They instead seem to see it as an obligation, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Think if you were living someplace where you didn't know any of the language. You'd at least learn enough to be able to say "hello" and hopefully know you got the right change when paying for something. :wink: Or enough to meet whatever your individual needs might happen to be. Yes, you can certainly live without knowing the language, but it's decidedly easier when you know even the slightest bit.

Same thing with music. And it's kind of funny in a way because many people who can and do read are more than happy to acknowledge that musicians can do without. In other words, that it's not an "either / or" choice. But people who don't read music (or at least the ones that post their opinions) seem to want to polarize things and make it an "either / or" choice. In and of itself, that would be an interesting discussion.

I truly can't see how reading music takes away from seeing (and hearing) the relationships of playing / singing and what you hear. If anything, being able to read reinforces a lot of basics of theory - intervals, bass lines, chords and harmony. Students that can visualize notes, whether on a keyboard, fretboard or on a staff tend to have an easier time understanding theory.

Obviously whatever works for you is what's best for you. But for whatever it's worth, and since this is the who knows however many hundreds of times this subject keep coming up here at Guitar Noise (not to mention wherever else), why don't we explore ways that people can do both. Having two tools you can count on surely beats arguing why the one you have is better than the one someone else prefers, whichever side of the fence you're on.

Peace

User avatar
HobbyPicker
Junior Member
Posts: 58
Joined: December 28th, 2006, 9:48 pm
Location: Snåsa, Norway

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by HobbyPicker » January 2nd, 2008, 2:14 pm

dhodge wrote:This is a common stand by many a player. And while it has its merits, and while everyone has a different learning style and things certainly come easier to some people than others, it's the whole "either / or" approach that usually keeps people from using music reading as a tool. They instead seem to see it as an obligation, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Well, I see from your reply that I've written myself a bit away from the point, getting a little carried away by my own words I believe! :D

I do believe that reading music is useful, and indeed one of the reasons it was so much easier for me now to figure out the songs by ear is the very process of learning some tunes from transcriptions, forcing myself to learn new fingerings. I do however still believe that listening never can be mentioned too often when it comes to skills that's important to be a musician, and also that a transcription is nothing but one specific arrangement of a song. For the moment I play mostly blues and bluegrass, where playing by ear is a necessity.

The other point I wanted to stress a bit is that tablature, however useful it may be is very inadequate for reading the music, since it basically only tells where you find the notes on the fretboard, not indicating the rythm, and giving little visual aid to show how the melodylines move, which are readily seen in sheet music. When you have training in reading tablature, you'll of course recognize chord voicings and runs etc. but without having heard the music, or combined with standard notation, it's not my favourite tool for learning to play songs.
dhodge wrote:Obviously whatever works for you is what's best for you. But for whatever it's worth, and since this is the who knows however many hundreds of times this subject keep coming up here at Guitar Noise (not to mention wherever else), why don't we explore ways that people can do both. Having two tools you can count on surely beats arguing why the one you have is better than the one someone else prefers, whichever side of the fence you're on.
Hopefully, I've placed myself with a leg on each side of the fence with the words above. Indeed, when you are a fluent sightreader (I'm not, can barely spell note by note) I guess you can "hear" the music from the sheet and know your instrument so well that you can play that music instantly, which is basically much of the same that people who are really good at playing by ear can do. Thanks for your reply, I really didn't mean to discard written music as a tool, but to put emphasis on how important listening is to be a musician! :wink:

dhodge
Musically Insane
Posts: 5733
Joined: June 15th, 2002, 8:21 am
Contact:

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by dhodge » January 2nd, 2008, 2:32 pm

Hi and my apologies, as well, if I seem to be one of those old professors that we know so well by stereotype :wink: .

Listening is, as you rightly point out, one of the best tools that any musician can develop and not many spend their time practicing the skill of listening as well as one could. Myself included, I'm afraid...

Your point about tablature, especially computer tablatue (which almost never is found in tandem with notation as it is in books), is also on the money. If someone were to right out a descending major scale in tablature, for example, one might never know if it's just a descending major scale or perhaps the opening line to Joy to the World!

The other thing about tablature that's odd is that many people who read it often don't develop the ability to read it as one might read notation. By that I mean reading phrases, which would allow you to see chord shapes and possible positions for fingerings in the tablature. Instead one usually goes from number to number and it's not until after many run throughs that one might figure out "Oh! Here's how I should position my fingers!"

And I guess that's why I'm really kind of on a kick as to try to get people out of the whole "either / or" this I discussed. From the body of your description, I didn't really think that you weren't dismissing reading music. But the title of the thread, with the "vs" smack in the middle of it, does lend itself to people viewing this topic in that manner.

Anyway, I'm off to be a grump someplace else! :wink:

Peace

Misanthrope
Guitarnoise Addict
Posts: 2272
Joined: February 6th, 2006, 2:28 pm
Location: Southampton, UK
Contact:

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by Misanthrope » January 2nd, 2008, 2:47 pm

I consider tab as you find on the net akin to a paragraph with no punctuation - the rhythm is missing. I do my rhythm by ear, and the notes by tab. Notation I consider akin to a foreign language, albiet one I can speak in pidjin - I generally translate it to tab before attempting to learn it and do the rhythm again by ear. It's handy to speak notation, even if not fluently.

*Health warning: Waffling ahead, sorry!*

However: Notation, tab, and even watching the original being played by the person who wrote it I consider a guide. If they're doing it in a certain way because there's a good reason behind it, fair enough, but usually there's nothing sacred about the arrangement I've found. I use it only because I can't figure things out by ear, yet.

The Chili's Snow is a good example. Most tab will show you this:

Code: Select all

-----------------------------------I-------------------------------------I
-----------------------------------I-------------------------------------I
-----4---4h6h4---4-----4---4h6h4---I-----------------------6---6h8p6---6-I
---6---6-------6-----6---6-------6-I-----4---4h6h4---4---8---8-------8---I
-6-----------------7---------------I---6---6-------6---9-----------------I
-----------------------------------I-7-----------------------------------I

-----------------------------------I-------------------------------------I
-----------------------------------I-------------------------------------I
-----4---4h6h4---4-----4---4h6h4---I-------------------------------------I
---6---6-------6-----6---6-------6-I-----4---4h6h4---4-----4---4h6p4---4-I
-6-----------------7---------------I---6---6-------6-----4---4-------6---I
-----------------------------------I-7-----------------6-----------------I
...which is perfectly fine, note-wise, but beyond my ability to play at original speed. Frusciante appears to play it this way, as he has always had his hand in the 4th position every time I see him play it on various TV shows, YouTube clips etc., but who knows?

Me, I slap a capo on the 4th fret and play this: (note the rearrangement towards the end of the first line, too - easier fingering)

Code: Select all

-----------------------------------I-------------------------------------I
-----------------------------------I-------------------------------------I
-----0---0h2h0---0-----0---0h2h0---I-----------------------2---2h4p2---2-I
---2---2-------2-----2---2-------2-I-----0---0h2h0---0-0-4---4-------4---I
-2-----------------3---------------I---2---2-------2---------------------I
-----------------------------------I-3-----------------------------------I

-----------------------------------I-------------------------------------I
-----------------------------------I-------------------------------------I
-----0---0h2h0---0-----0---0h2h0---I-------------------------------------I
---2---2-------2-----2---2-------2-I-----0---0h2h0---0-----0---0h2p0---0-I
-2-----------------3---------------I---2---2-------2-----0---0-------2---I
-----------------------------------I-3-----------------2-----------------I
Sounds just fine to me, and even better, I can (just about) manage to play it at original speed. Frusciante himself could appear before me and tell me I'm "doing it wrong", and I'd laugh in his face and ask him why he's making it difficult for himself :mrgreen:

(PS, for rhythm info for the above, see original recorded version ;))

GuitarPro I'm finding invaluable at the moment, for recording my own music - you input the notes as tab, but it is displayed simultaniously with notation, including note lengths, and best yet, it plays it back to you so you can check you've got the timing described accurately. You can even dump the whole thing out as MIDI, slap that into Reaper and set it up to play VST intruments as a backing track for recording. What more could you possibly want? I have no excuses left not to churn out classics :mrgreen:

dogbite
Musically Insane
Posts: 6354
Joined: July 14th, 2005, 8:06 am
Location: Coulee country, WI

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by dogbite » January 3rd, 2008, 5:01 am

I have mostly used my ear in learning new songs. I have done that most of my forty some years of playing.
never had much success with using Tabs. I have learned how to read music. I have found that knowledge very useful when I am given a song I have never heard. with the sheet music in hand the whole story is right there. I have been tempted to buy the slow down pedal to learn riffs, but never have.
I like the foreign language analogy. perfect.

Ignar Hillström
Musically Insane
Posts: 6587
Joined: July 22nd, 2003, 4:19 pm
Location: Detroit, Sweden
Contact:

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by Ignar Hillström » January 3rd, 2008, 7:08 am

Reading music can never oppose playing by ear. Let's take a pianist who wants to play a certain piece by Chopin. As he starts the piece he reads 'mp' above the notes. hmm, mezzo-piano. 'Kinda soft', how soft is that? Two measures later he has to play 'piu rubato'. A bit loose. Markings like that define the piece but what it really means is up to the performer and you have to hear it, not read it. A guitarist needs to hear if his bend is in tune or not, a violin player always needs to correct his fingerings by ear. Learning notation is extremely helpfull, it has helped me insanely much already. But no technique or skill will do you any good if you can't listen. Ultimately you'll want to be able to hear without your ears, and if you get that far all you need is some paper and a pen and you can write and hear all the music you've ever wanted to hear wherever you are.
Click here for FREE, limited one-time only offer!

unimogbert
Full Member
Posts: 174
Joined: November 14th, 2007, 5:21 pm
Location: Ft. Collins, CO
Contact:

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by unimogbert » January 3rd, 2008, 7:14 pm

I'm working on learning to read music. At this point I can't even say Hello, I just recognize what language it is. I feel very incomplete as even a beginning musician for not being able to read the music.

Have been working on learning this lovely fingerstyle piece by Ulli Bogershausen -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9eM2zd3BRGI

Follow the comments to find that Ulli has posted the music and tablature on his website.(accurate music and tablature - unlike the usual internet mistaken-ridden stuff)

The entire package becomes a big musical puzzle with one set of clues being the music (actual notes & rhythm),
more clues are found in the tablature (where to find the notes) and different clues in the video to see fingering, vibrato emphasis and to get the real feel of the piece played perfectly.

ALL these things are necessary for me to work it out. And then of course I have to practice perfectly to get the proper muscle memory to make the right sounds at the right time.

It gives me a motivating specific example to apply the theory stuff to.

I work best with concrete real world pieces.

You might try to find something that motivates you similarly.
Don't put it off 30 years like I have!
Unimogbert
(indeterminate, er, intermediate fingerstyle acoustic)

User avatar
Alan Green
Guitari Lama
Posts: 8045
Joined: September 23rd, 2002, 1:35 am
Location: Little Cambridge, Essex, UK
Contact:

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by Alan Green » January 4th, 2008, 4:30 am

I have a foot planted firmly in both camps - I teach my students to work things out from recordings and do so myself when I've got an electric in hand, but when I pick up my Classical Guitar to do even the simplest little thing I reach for the sheet music. There are advantages to both methods, but if you're playing from Tabs and don't know the song you're kinda out on a limb because you don't know how it's supposed to sound; with standard notation you can see exactly what's going on. It's good to have all the tools in the box.


A :-)
"Be good at what you can do" - Fingerbanger
"I have always felt that it is better to do what is beautiful than what is 'right'" - Eliot Fisk

Wedding music and guitar lessons in Essex. Listen at: http://www.rollmopmusic.co.uk

cnev
Guitarnoise Addict
Posts: 4906
Joined: June 2nd, 2003, 11:07 am
Location: New Britain, CT

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by cnev » January 4th, 2008, 6:24 am

Personally learning to read music can NEVER be a bad thing, but with that said if your goals are to be a professional musician and I mean either playing in band, studio musician, teacher etc., then you absolutely need to be able to read music.

If you are doing this as a hobby, play in a bar band, jam with friends then I personally would think working on your ear will get you farther than learning to read music. Although doing it won't be bad it just won't be that valuable of a skill.

Realistically if your jamming with friends or in a rock band, your not going to standing up there with a music stand playing the songs from sheet music. You'll have them memorized and I can't EVER remember seeing anybody in a rock band looking at sheet music on stage. That's kinda lame. Rock n roll is alot about the energy of the band and I can't beleive there would be much energy with someone standing like a tree reading music.
Last edited by cnev on January 4th, 2008, 7:47 am, edited 1 time in total.
"It's all about stickin it to the man!"
It's a long way to the top if you want to rock n roll!

Ignar Hillström
Musically Insane
Posts: 6587
Joined: July 22nd, 2003, 4:19 pm
Location: Detroit, Sweden
Contact:

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by Ignar Hillström » January 4th, 2008, 6:53 am

Heh, I also think you REALLY need to go out of your way with huge ammounts of drugs to forget the three chords of rock. :lol: If you need to read the sheets while playing blues or rock something went seriously wrong somewhere.
Click here for FREE, limited one-time only offer!

cnev
Guitarnoise Addict
Posts: 4906
Joined: June 2nd, 2003, 11:07 am
Location: New Britain, CT

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by cnev » January 4th, 2008, 7:17 am

Exactly and for me personally that's all I'll ever play anyway so I decided when I started that I would spend my time elsewhere. To me the motor skills are more important. What could would it be if my eyes could read the notes but my fingers couldn't play them, just because you know how to read doesn't mean you can write a great novel.

In my 4-5 years of playing I have yet to have a need to be able to read sheet music.

Sometimes the Jaegar makes me...nevermind
"It's all about stickin it to the man!"
It's a long way to the top if you want to rock n roll!

gnease
Musically Insane
Posts: 5523
Joined: March 2nd, 2004, 10:38 am

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by gnease » January 4th, 2008, 7:32 am

cnev wrote:Realistically if your jamming with friends or in a rock band, your not going to standing up there with a music stand playing the songs from sheet music. You'll have them memorized and I can't EVER remember seeing anybody in a rock band looking at sheet music on stage. That's kinda lame. Rock n roll is alot about the energy of the band and I can't beleive there would be much energy with someone standing liek a tree reading music.
Not really a rock band, but ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MZg4qwUFlE

Of course, Nick was probably the only one who played before then.

cnev
Guitarnoise Addict
Posts: 4906
Joined: June 2nd, 2003, 11:07 am
Location: New Britain, CT

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by cnev » January 4th, 2008, 7:48 am

Well I can cut some slack on an jam abit..but I'm not so sure about Nick's hat!
"It's all about stickin it to the man!"
It's a long way to the top if you want to rock n roll!

Ignar Hillström
Musically Insane
Posts: 6587
Joined: July 22nd, 2003, 4:19 pm
Location: Detroit, Sweden
Contact:

Re: Reading music vs. playing by ear

Post by Ignar Hillström » January 4th, 2008, 7:50 am

Maybe Nick just falls under the 'go really out of your way with drugs' category. :lol:
Click here for FREE, limited one-time only offer!

Post Reply