Reading Sheet Music vs. Playing by Ear: Which is Superior?

by | Aug 8, 2016 | Beginners | 5 comments

reading sheet music vs playing by ear

Are you scratching your head wondering which is better; reading sheet music or playing by ear? In this blog post, we review each of the techniques.

What’s the Difference?

Reading sheet music involves looking at written music, then translating the notation into the physical movements needed to play the song. The written music instructs you what and how to play.

On the other hand, playing by the ear is listening to a song to help you know how to play it.  With practice what you hear can guide you as to what to play.

Reading Sheet Music

Reading sheet music is the traditional way of learning music. You read everything that you play.  It is a straightforward way of learning music. It is what most music teachers teach.

Advantages of reading and playing from sheet music include:

  • It is comparatively easy since you get detailed guidance throughout the whole reading sheet music vs playing by earpiece, therefore, no need to remember or improvise. Of course, it’s only easy once you know how to read music or tab notation.
  • There is a lot of learning material for guidance. Many books on learning music will give you ample material on this technique.
  • In a group performance such as an orchestra or a band, having to read from a sheet music ensures everybody is in sync. It guides the whole performance.
  • It provides the essential foundational skills and principles of music. Therefore, it prevents pick up of habits and practices that might derail your progress.

Playing by Ear

While many wish they could read music, all of us admire a person who can pick up an instrument and just play a tune on it without any notes.

reading sheet music vs playing by earThis technique, admittedly, can be harder to master.Your mind will have to learn to do the reverse of reading and playing sheet music. However, some people find playing by ear much easier than reading notes – and some people find reading notes much easier than playing by ear!

You listen to music playing and translate it into a mental sheet music. Finally, you then play it yourself.  With practice your brain can to directly from hearing a song to knowing how to play it.

The pros of learning by ear are:

  • You’ll learn new pieces faster this way because no time is used in processing the written sheet music first.
  • You develop the ability to improvise a song and add your signature style.
  • It improves your ability to create your own compositions.
  • It is a fun and exciting way to learn in addition to being handy where no sheet music is available.

Our Verdict

In conclusion, none of these techniques is superior to the other.  Both of them are efficient and useful.

Some teachers tend to focus more on reading sheet music and not so much on playing by ear. Doing this limits the students’ abilities. What if they don’t have the sheet music? What if they need to improvise the piece they are playing? What if they forget the piece? Then, they always have to start at the beginning and can’t work on the hard parts.

We, therefore, think it necessary to learn both techniques. As earlier mentioned, playing by ear is not exactly an easy thing to do. Most people start by learning sheet music first. Through disciplined practice,  they eventually learn to play music by ear too.

Happy Strumming!

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  1. Chrissy Tetley

    Hi Jenny – I'm one of those 'lucky' ones who can play by ear. But! Always a but. It has meant that I have struggled to read music well in ensembles. As a natural tendancy is to wander off the music page into doing my own thing.
    I did enjoy your blog – cheers Chrissy

  2. Jenny Peters

    I agree, both skills are necessary to play well with others in a band or orchestral situation: listening and the ability to read music. However, one without the other, is a deadly combination. I have enjoyed trying to give my students experience in both worlds. I think they become better musicians when they can both read the music and listen to what is going on around them.

  3. Judy Shaffer

    Very interesting….I always thought that playing by ear was an innate gift not a learned skill.
    I'm excited to hear that there's still hope for me:)

    • Jenny Peters

      Yes, I find the D DU UDU strum useful for many, many songs. It sounds cool, and it's easy to use when you can't think of another strum. With that being said, it's good to try to vary your strums within a song. It makes the some more interesting for the listener.

    • Jenny Peters

      No, playing by ear is something you can learn, just as reading music is something you can learn. You get better with practice, but since music is made up of patterns, you can try the patterns you know and then simply figure out where this song varies from the norm. All good music is made of of patterns and the breaking of patterns to add interest and keep the listener on their toes.


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