Ear vs Eyes

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cnev
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Ear vs Eyes

Post by cnev » March 22nd, 2013, 4:15 am

I thought I would throw out a hypothetical question in line with some of Honeyboy's recent posts. Just something to get opinions on.

Honeyboy already asked the question about guitar player vs musician but I am taking a slightly different angle and that is ear vs ability to read standard notation.

For the sake of this theoretical argument I want to make a couple of assumptions going in. One is that both guitar players used in the example have the exact same technical capabilties.

My question is what do you think would be a better/more important, more useful skill to have of these two:

Guitar player A learns and plays everything strictly by ear.

Guitar player B cannot play by ear but can read music fluently.


As mentioned above think of the players as technical clones of themselves so technical differences are not a factor. If you closed your eyes you could not tell which player was playing.
Last edited by cnev on March 25th, 2013, 4:09 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by jason brann » March 22nd, 2013, 8:46 am

a will end up doing better. music is felt. look at all the blind musicians that sound better than their sighted contemporaries. name me anyone who stands up to blind willie mctell or stevie wonder besides hendrix and michael jackson.

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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by Big Lar » March 22nd, 2013, 11:55 am

Beethoven is my counter argument. Music is felt, but notation is the most accurate way we have have of documenting that feeling so that the information can be transferred from one musician to another.

Having said that, I think both ear skills and notation skills are important. Saying one is more important than the other implies I feel someone could neglect one. I don't think that is the case.

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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by jason brann » March 22nd, 2013, 3:07 pm

nah, beethoven is a great composer for piano, imo, but writes some boring chorals and orchestral work. if it was based on his ability to manipulate sheet music, as opposed to his ability to play and write specifically for the instrument, there wouldn't be those inconsistencies. also, he didn't go deaf until he was much older and had already written hundreds of pieces. there are no great songwriters or composers who started deaf or became deaf young..
also, i can't think of a single great composer who wasn't also a great performer.
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by Diceman » March 22nd, 2013, 9:32 pm

I think that there would be a lot of situations where a musician who can't play by ear would find himself at a loss while the " strictly by ear " player would feel right at home . Impromptu jam sessions , dark places where it would be impossible to read notes off a page , stages where you might want to move around , campfire sing-a-longs ... all these would be beyond the sheet music player's grasp . Granted , the ear player would be at a loss when playing an unfamiliar tune if all that was available was standard notation to learn it from . Not being much of a reader myself , I wonder if sight readers can commit a piece to memory as easily as the non reader since it isn't necessary for them to do so . Also , it would seem improbable to me that a fantastic sight reader wouldn't have some ability to play by ear . I guess I'll wait for others to chime in on this topic .
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by fleaaaaaa » March 23rd, 2013, 3:25 am

Well..... I can read a bit of music but I am much better with my ears.

Advantages
If you learn a piece from reading -
It will probably take less time than learning it by ear
If you are concert musician you won't have to memorize everything you do
You may understand better how music is constructed - able to recognise scales and arpeggios - patterns like that

Disadvantages of being someone who can read but can't work out by ear
You may not know how to improvise
If you are in a band situation where someone asks you to listen and copy - if you can't use your ears your lost

Advantages
If you learn a piece by ear -
You are most likely going to memorise it - when I learn something by ear though I tend to transcribe it or I forget it (tab)
You can work out any piece you want without finding music/or tab - which is freedom imo

Disadvantages - If you only use your ears
You can't read music, so in certain circles you can't fit in (maybe this person can't read tab either?)
You might not have quite as comprehensive idea of what is actually happening in the music or what notes/chords you're playing.


Those are just a few things, but I am sure there's more to it than what I have posted. Best thing is to be able to do both. Though my ears are always much better than my eyes ( music reading )
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by Diceman » March 23rd, 2013, 9:20 am

I think most would agree that having both capabilities would make for a more well-rounded musician . Although my sight reading is poor , I believe knowing more about music theory will make you better equipped to play difficult pieces . The problem I had when I started playing , 45 years ago , was the lack of readily available guitar notation , especially for the songs that I wanted to play ( what's now called classic rock ) . Today , the internet has made so much more available to everyone . Unfortunately , teaching this old dog new tricks is not easy . Learning anything new these days seems to be harder than it used to be . It's Hell getting old !
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by Alan Green » March 23rd, 2013, 9:59 am

Good thread.

I reckon my sightreading's pretty good, so my argument in favour of sightreading is that a good sightreader can (with a bit of work) play any piece of music you put in front of him

I reckon my ability to work things out by ear is none too shabby either, so my argument in favour of playing by ear is that a musician who can play well by ear can (with a bit of work) work out any piece of music you want him to.

The ability to play by ear leads naturally to being able to improvise, which is where I find a lot of straight classical players fall over - they're so used to playing exactly what's written on the page that they can't do anything else. So there's an argument in favour of being able to play by ear.

Having said that, when I put a piece of Renaissance or Baroque music on the stand, I find all I'm given is a good harmomic framework and a melody and I'm expected to know what to do to improvise around it, which is where my sightreading skills are way more important.

So I'm going to come out neutral. I think both skills are a must if you want to produce a well-rounded musician.
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by NoteBoat » March 23rd, 2013, 2:25 pm

The short answer is whether or not the specific gig requires ear or reading. But the long answer - what's best for a musician over the long haul - is pretty clear to me.

I recently read an interview with a Broadway contractor - a guy who hires people to play in pit orchestras for Broadway shows. He said this:

When I look at musicians who work all the time, I don’t hear flashy drum solos, tapping on the bass or shredding on the guitar; except when called for. What impresses me most is their intense focus on using their skills to match what the leader is hearing and what the music dictates. Not throwing in arbitrary licks or playing what is safe and always works. I see them wrestle with “what is the essence of what the leader is hearing

Sounds like a hands-down vote for ears, right? Wrong. In the context of the full interview, he said that was the SECOND thing he looks for in a musician. The first thing he looks for is sight reading.

Why? It really comes down to just a couple of reasons.

Readers will come up to speed faster. An ear player must listen BEFORE he or she plays. If the tune is 5 minutes, it takes a minimum of 10 minutes for them to practice it once, and that's if they have a perfect memory. The reader does it twice in the same time. Time is money. If you can spend less time preparing for a job, you have more time to find jobs. And the person who hires you will spend less time waiting for you to be ready to go.

Reading shows a commitment to the CRAFT of music - you have put in the time to acquire that skill. Given the parameters of the question, the guitarists are of equal ability technically - but one has an additional skill that is valuable in some situations (playing whatever is put in front of him or her) and useless in others (improvisation). The other has the opposite skill set. There's a little thing called supply and demand... there are lots of guitarists who play by ear; there are few who play at sight. Because of that distribution of abilities, gigs that require ear ability have lots of candidates, so employers can hire cheaply. Gigs that require sight reading have a much smaller pool of available talent, so the price for the services of the musician are bid up. Readers in general will make more money than non-readers.

I'm not saying you should be in it for the money. But the fact is, I am a full-time guitarist, and I am able to do that ONLY because I read well. There are lots of guitarists out there with better chops than I have in any style I play. If a gig is for salsa or blues or whatever, you can find a player who can do it better than I can. But I can play blues today, jazz tomorrow, show tunes on Monday... and somebody whose business is hiring musicians needs to decide how big their rolodex needs to be - do you want to find 30 good players for 30 genres, or find two or three players who can do an adequate job no matter what's on the agenda?

As a result, I play about 50 hours every week between practice, teaching, and performing. If I had a non-music day job, I'd be lucky to do half that. And that by itself makes me a better musician than a peer with equal natural skills - I get to spend twice as much time honing my craft. Given a peer with equal skills, ten years from now I'll be better than they are, simply because of the time we both put in to improving.

But in the end, it's really a false choice. If you can't read, start learning. If you can't hear, start listening. If you can do both, go out and gig.
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by imalone » March 24th, 2013, 3:24 am

I'll vote for the 'not either or' camp as well, in development of normal language skills 'learning by ear' comes first, but reading has been shown to deepen and augment those skills. Of course there may be a difference for music, though the biggest one is that almost anyone who's not a professional musician spends far more time speaking and reading spoken language than music (and far more time learning to speak, read and write).
For playing with other people, most of the musicians are in voluntary classical orchestras or choirs, reading is paramount for them because they're performing something that's already set down. For interacting musically with people in the same room playing by ear is by definition more immediately useful.

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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by jason brann » March 25th, 2013, 3:06 am

well, noteboat, you picked out a relatively specific subset of musicians. all those people are playing someone else's music, so sight reading would be an absolute must for anyone who hadn't already memorized a set, which is rare. if you're releasing an album of all new songs, sight reading may not be a priority, while if you're doing a set of mozart quintets, sight reading's probably of utmost importance.
but when it comes down to my reality, i've played a whole ton without looking at my hands or the guitar or music, while i can't remember playing much of anything that i couldn't hear, so i lean to ears. also, i tend to learn songs much faster and for longer periods if i learn them by ear.

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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by fleaaaaaa » March 26th, 2013, 8:45 am

I suppose if you want to be a symphony orchestra player/session musician like note boat then reading will be your primarily goal.

I would never have the confidence to read music like that, for someone like me who just mucks around at home using my ears is way more helpful and I can work out any piece I want without a piece of music. I also find working stuff out very satisfying.Of course I can read music at a very low level... as I mentioned and I'm glad I have that skill it has helped me. But in terms of learning on my terms I'm faster and more efficient at using my ears.
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by Crow » March 27th, 2013, 7:54 am

jason brann wrote:well, noteboat, you picked out a relatively specific subset of musicians.
That's what we're all doing...
...but when it comes down to my reality...
Right. YOU, sir, are a specific subset of musicians. There is no way to generalize a yes/no answer to the original question.

Here's MY reality: If I had a band, needed musicians, and had equally proficient readers and non-readers to choose from, I'd pick readers every time, because we would have a language in common. If I say "A flat," I don't want to risk hearing something like, "Uhh... what fret is that?" Presently I'm playing with two readers -- seasoned professional musicians -- and four non-readers, and it's reinforced that preference. The pros I play with also have solid foundations in music theory, which is even better. If I say, "No, that isn't C sharp minor, its A major in first inversion," they get the picture right away. After decades of playing mostly with non-readers, that is unbelievably pleasant. (A non-reader might get the nod if s/he owned a van, let's say. Or practice space. Or a liquor store. :lol: )

For myself, as a player, I'm happy to be able to read or play by ear as the mood strikes. Can't imagine NOT being able to read music.

BTW, I've never met a musician who regretted being able to read music, but I've met a few who regretted that they couldn't.
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by NoteBoat » March 27th, 2013, 10:28 am

I wasn't trying to give selective examples stylistically - not everyone wants to be a studio musician. I was trying to give an economic justification.

Let me try it another way.

You could be a better guitarist if you had more time to play, no matter what style you want to do.
You could have more time to play if you didn't need to work a 9 to 5 to support yourself.

Let's say you need $500 a week to meet your basic expenses. You could to that making music by...

Busking. On a busy day, if you're good, you can make some nice coin (I once split $700 in 4 hours working with a harmonica player during Mardi Gras). But not every day is Fat Tuesday. If you average $10 an hour you'll need to put in 50 hours a week. If you average half that, you're looking at 14+ hour days, 7 days a week. No other time to practice, but you'll probably improve a bit simply by virtue of the time you're putting in.

Playing 10 bar gigs a week. Hmm... there are only seven days in a week. And a lot of bars only have bands on weekends. You'll need to supplement this with something else.

Playing 2-5 wedding gigs a week, depending on how well you market. Most wedding bands have EXTENSIVE play lists, because every couple wants specific tunes. It's not unusual for a wedding band to have 600-1000 tunes in their playlist. That's a lot of memory... as a result, most wedding band guitarists read from charts.

Giving 25 lessons at $20 each. Now we're talking - that's only 12-1/2 hours of work (not counting prep time), leaving you lots more hours to play. And it's even true that some guitar teachers don't read.... but most do (and all of the good ones I've ever met - because many topics related to music require a certain literacy in standard notation to fully understand).

Do a bit of studio work. Depending on the contract and location, you'll take in $40-150 per hour (union rates vary by what you're doing - demos are cheaper than albums, etc). Some gigs pay even more - overtime can go to $2-300 an hour, and some players can get more than scale. So at a minimum that range requires anywhere from a bit over 3 hours to 12-1/2 hours to make your nut for the week. You have even more practice time left. And not all studio musicians need to read... but for the most part, those that don't are doing work that pays <$80/hr, and those that do are taking the cream. The funny thing is, 95% of studio work for a guitarist does NOT require reading. But if the gig should be one of the few that needs reading and you can't handle it, you won't ever work for that leader again. (I've actually heard a leader tell people why he won't work with another guitarist because of an issue like that... and that issue happened almost 50 years ago!)
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Re: Ear vs Eyes

Post by Chris C » March 27th, 2013, 11:08 pm

Great question Chris. :D

I value both, but for my money a good ear is the most essential skill I could have. It's the one I most covet anyway. Even if you read music brilliantly you still have to judge the accuracy and effectiveness of what you're playing, and your ear is the tool you use for that. I also want more than just metronomic faithfulness to the dots and squiggles on a score, I want the ability for nuanced or interpretative playing when required.


Learning to read music was one of the best things I ever did - even if I did leave it until I was 60...oops... Even though I'm still a pretty slow reader I take great pleasure (and pride) in being able to do it. There's absolutely no doubt that it's a very valuable tool, even though you could make a perfectly good argument for not needing the skill. After all, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder et al did just fine without it.

The way I look at is that an illiterate person who couldn't read or write could still become a great story teller, a fluent socialiser or even a great orator. But you'd struggle to make a case for saying that illiteracy or blindness was necessarily some kind of advantage in life. As Crow mentioned, you don't seem to meet anybody who ever regretted learning to read music.

But having said that, I value what ear I have developed over everything else. One of the great discoveries for me ( a dyed in the wool book fan) was that I didn't only need to follow the books to learn music. I learn a huge amount by improvising and experimenting (and I'm quite happy to call it 'noodling' too) and just listening to what works and what doesn't. I don't believe that making 'mistakes' in the course of that process is any kind of problem because I have learned to trust my ears and what you might call my musical subconscious. Trusting my subconscious ability to store what it likes and reject what it hears that didn't work was a key step. One of the great joys for me is to listen to my fingers making choices that I didn't even know I knew (if that makes sense!)

I don't aim to be a professional musician, so I don't really need high level reading skills (although I certainly wouldn't knock them back if Santa dropped them in the Christmas stocking). My main interests are in improvising for personal pleasure, and in song-writing. So careful listening, in a broad sense rather than just to learn details of somebody else's song, seems essential.


Fortunately, as Noteboat comments, most of us don't have to make such an extreme choice to be exclusively one or the other. So I plug steadily along at trying to improve my modest reading skills. But developing my ear skills will always be the clear winner for me. So maybe I'll put my effort something like 75% on ear and 25% on reading.

Cheers,

Chris

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