About Piano by Ear


We were born to play “by ear.”

My private students that I teach here in my studio learn to read music, eventually. I don’t start them there, though. I get them playing with the least amount of written information possible because I want them to associate the sounds they are hearing with what their hands are doing with nothing in between. I have lost count of the students I have gotten over the years who have had a “traditional” piano education and yet who could not pick out the simplest songs “by ear.” They had become so “page-bound” that they just could not think of a note on the piano as being separate from some dot on a page. It would be like someone carrying around flash cards with pictures of nouns they were trying to pronounce.

So, I make my students learn to play songs by ear. The first Piano by Ear titles were actually lessons on songs that I taught here in the studio that I recorded so that my students could work on them at home. A song that would usually take us about four private lessons to learn they could complete in a week with the take home tape or CD. When I started teaching continuing education seminars at colleges during the early 90’s I would take copies of these lessons with me to sell and they were quite a hit. From there I just kept expanding the number songs I taught “by ear” and the customers found me.

Then people who were blind and visually impaired found about them, but, that’s another story!

Reading music is a fairly recent event in human history. Actually, any kind of reading and writing is “modern” when you look at the history of mankind. Spoken language, though.. that is another story.

Recent medical imaging has allowed us to look at the brain while reading either words or music and compare it to the brain while either speaking in dialogue or playing with other musicians “by ear” (See Johns Hopkins Article link below). The results are stunning in that the brains of those reading either words or music use four small and separated areas of the brain to execute the task. This makes sense because the brain has to look at a symbol, determine its meaning, execute a task for the meaning, and then check its answer. That is a lot going on! When doing things aurally and orally though, it’s a different picture, literally.

The images of the brain in “by ear” mode, either musically or verbally, shows the use of two very large sections of the brain that are centralized and very well connected. It is like the brain comes hard-wired for learning languages easily. This also makes learning a musical instrument “by ear” far easier than using music, tab or even video because it uses those same sections of the brain. This customization of the brain makes sense because people have been doing things “by ear” for a lot longer time than they have reading and writing.

And that explains, at least biologically, why Piano by Ear lessons work so well.

Teaching someone this way is very time consuming and it has to be done right. There a probably millions of pages of sheet music and countless lesson videos all over the internet and most of them are very cheap or free. That should tell you something right there. When you are taught “by ear” you develop your ability to play “by ear.” But it has to be done properly.

I hope you will try one of my Piano by Ear lessons out or at least try some of the lesson samples throughout the website. I think you will see that when you learn “by ear” you learn the song quickly and that you memorize it as you go. Learning this way also sharpens your ability to learn other songs “by ear” because you have removed any visual step between what you did and what you heard. The note you played becomes directly related to the sound you heard which makes it easier to find later when you hear it again. When you learn by ear, you can play by ear.

Keep in touch and God bless!

Bill Brown

Link to Johns Hopkins Article


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