Musicians tend to categorise themselves as a “sheet music reader” or a “play-by-ear musician”. This is often related to whether the person has had formal music lessons or taught themselves, but there may also simply be a natural inclination towards one or the other.

In the world of classical music learning and sheet music reading, ear training is a natural addition to your studies. As you learn to read notes on the page and to play them on your instrument, ear training provides the bridge between the two worlds, allowing you to “pre-hear” the music you will play, and and to improvise your own music without the need to write it down first.

Outside that world though, it can be unclear whether ear training is relevant or useful.

If you can already play music by ear, what’s the point of ear training?

Ear training is not simply for learning to play by ear. It is about hearing more detail in music and understanding what you hear. These benefits are just as relevant and useful to a “play by ear” musician as a “sheet music” musician!

Hear more detail in music

Even if you can already play music by ear, your skills are probably limited in some way or another.

  • Perhaps you’re good at playing chords by ear but struggle with melodies.
  • Perhaps single-note riffs are fine, but harmonisation always feels too complicated.
  • Or maybe you have good ability when music is played slowly, but with faster music it all just feels too rushed to figure out by ear.

Whatever your play-by-ear abilities currently are, there are almost certainly ways you could improve them. You can:

  • Extend your skills to more complex music
  • Broaden your skills to a wider variety of musical styles
  • Reinforce your skills to be more reliable and versatile

… and so on.

While your natural inclination might be to simply wait for these skills to improve over time (especially if you have so far learned them “naturally” without any dedicated practice), in fact dedicated ear training will allow for much faster progress.

Understand what you hear

Being able to instinctively play music by ear is a wonderful ability. However, it can leave you somewhat insecure. If you rely on instinct and don’t truly understand how you do what you do, there is always a possibility that your instincts will fail and you won’t know what to do about it.

If you’ve ever found your play-by-ear skills pushed to their limit and been frustrated by not knowing how you can get better – consider using ear training to build the support you need.

Ear training connects up the theory of music and notes on a page with the sounds in your head and the skills on your instrument. This provides the intellectual understanding of music that empowers you to play and create music confidently.

Use ear training to add this understanding to your play-by-ear skills and you will find you are a much more confident and capable musician.

Don’t assume ear training isn’t for you

Even musicians who become very capable very quickly, seemingly due to natural talent, can benefit from formal training. Just as instrument lessons with a well-matched tutor can help even the most able musicians improve further, so too can ear training help musicians who naturally play by ear develop their abilities to an even higher level.

At first it will feel strange to formalise the play-by-ear skills you may have acquired without thinking about – but once you get started ear training you’ll find it a very effective and rewarding way to improve your ability to play music by ear.

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • What if I can already play by ear?
  • Is ear training only for formally-taught musicians?
  • Is there any point to doing ear training if you are a play-by-ear musician?

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