Play By Ear Or Sheet Music?

By CJ | Music Curios

Should You Learn to Play by Ear or Use Sheet Music? 

Why Choose? Diabolical looking sheet music like what I show in the video is enough to scare anybody away from learning to read sheet music and avoid anything that remotely resembles music theory.

One look at that and you say, well I’ll be better off just learning to play by ear.

But I’d like to put those concerns to rest.


And then replace them with new concerns. Let’s look at playing by ear vs. reading sheet music.

Of course there shouldn’t even be a versus. They are related to each other by music theory.

First fact, music theory is different from reading sheet music. You need to know music theory to read sheet music, but you don’t have to read sheet music to understand and use music theory in the real world.

Music theory is used for improvisation, not just for traditional or formal sheet music.

How important is music theory? Imagine that you’re learning to speak a new language. French, for example. Could you you imagine learning that language without becoming literate, without learning to read or write at all.

Music Is A Language. Read It, Write It, Play It! 

Of course it’s possible to learn to speak a language without learning to read or write it. Children can talk long before they learn to read and write. But let’s stick to adult learners.

The question then isn’t can you lean a language without learning to read and write that language, but rather, would you learn a language and wilfully avoid learning to read and write that language? Of course not, you’re an adult, you know better than that.

Simple things that we take for granted like street signs, directions, labels on food or even just ordering from a menu would be frustrating.

Grocery shopping in foreign countries can be a fun and interesting experience. When you’re visiting. How about if you lived there and had to fill out a form? Basic stuff, I’m not talking about a thesis on french literature, just the basic things that life requires, like reading your mail.

Wouldn’t you feel like an idiot if you lived somewhere and were only semi literate. How seriously do you take people who are only semi literate?

Know The Basics Scale & Chord Function 

To put it another way, choosing to only play by ear or to only play using sheet music are equally limiting choices. S

ome might choose sheet music, so they can play the great composers like Beethoven, Chopin, mozart and Liszt, but I suspect that more people would choose to have the ability to play by ear because at a glance it looks easier and more fun, opposed to some diabolical notated sheet music like this.

The fact is that both skills are learnable and they are complementary. The two go hand in hand.

Not all sheet music is written like this. This particular notation is specifically for piano, as indicated by this brace, which combines the treble and bass clefs into the Grand Staff.

This can be very intimidating. Nowadays, many musicians prefer something like this. A lead sheet. It has enough information for a musician to play the song. It’s written very simply. There are signs to tell me where to go next, just like following a map. There’s only a single note melody to read.

So where do the rest of the notes come from?