Learning to Play is Learning to Speak
Which is more important--the ability to read music, or to play by ear? And which is the more appropriate starting point for a beginner?

Most music teachers begin with reading. But there are compelling reasons to use an ear-based approach. After all, music is a language. Why not model music education on the way we learn to speak?

Here's part of an essay I wrote in the 1980's. Though my teaching continues to evolve (these days I often devote a small portion of the first lessons to reading, particularly with adults) I still find these principles to be valid.

The article begins by gleaning insights from the way we learn to speak, and applying them to the study of music.


Insight: We learn to talk by saying what we need to say.

In the beginning we don't study grammar, or practice mouth and tongue exercises. We simply dive in and start speaking. Children learn to talk by talking, using whatever skills and words (or approximations of them) they can muster.

Application: We learn to play by expressing ourselves.

Devoting most of your time to theory and exercises will teach you a great deal about theory and exercises. But if your goal is to play--to speak through your instrument--then that's what you need to do. Only by saying what you want to say will you learn to say it, and it's never too soon to start.

Because we do it "from the inside out", learning to speak is inherently satisfying. Since a young child doesn't practice exercises, but instead, uses his imagination to express what he thinks and feels, the process of acquiring new words and skills is a pleasure, and he'll "practice" for hours at a time, frequently talking to himself if no one else is around.

For you, the musician, the parallel is clear: in order to grow you need to be there. Only the real thing--making music from the heart--will keep you coming back alert and emotionally alive, day after day and month after month.

Scales, ear training, and other disciplines do serve a purpose; the point is, they're secondary.

For the same reasons, you need to play the kind of music you want to play now. Once you understand the basic and appropriate ways to begin "speaking" them, you can approach many styles--including rock, pop, classical, country, folk, reggae, New Age and others--immediately.

Insight: As we learned to speak, we improvised.

Did you memorize little speeches as a child. . . or did you ad-lib, choosing and combining words on the spur of the moment?

The fact is--talking is improvising.

Application: Spontaneity is an important part of learning to play.

Though we often think of it as something extraordinary, an ability that comes later if at all, improvisation is the natural starting place. When a beginner grabs hold of a few notes and simply begins playing with them (in every sense of the word), he develops physical skill, practices rhythmic continuity, trains his ear, and learns to create--all at the same time.

If you think improvisation is beyond the capabilities of a beginner, it might be because you're focusing on a musical style that is, in fact, inappropriate for someone just starting out. Using basic resources like the pentatonic (five-note) scale and a very easy left hand pattern (or an accompaniment provided by friend, tape, or synthesizer), anyone can begin to play creatively with little or no preparation.

Of course there's more to making music than improvising. You can best learn to play by improvising and imitating--again, just as you learned to talk. Back and forth infants and musicians go between these two ways of learning. Imitation provides new resources for improvisation, and skills gained through improvising making it easier to imitate. Both modes are essential and both have their place, from the start.

Insight: We began with the fundamental aspects of our native tongue.

Parents don't ordinarily plan their child's language education; we allow these things to happen in their own way. But if you think about it, there's a predictable and essential sequence of steps.

Take, for example, the early behavior known as babbling. Though it might seem insignificant, babbling is the preverbal improvisation that prepares us for language. Through it we become comfortable with our vocal apparatus, gradually approaching the inflections and rhythms of actual speech.

And, when we're ready to tackle our first words, there's a logic to the ones we choose. They're one- or two-syllable nouns, pronouns, and names--the specific handful of words best suited to the messages we need to convey and our rudimentary skills for conveying them.

Application: A player needs to begin with the core sounds and skills of music.

Certain elements are fundamental to virtually all musical styles. Major chords, simple scales, straightforward rhythms: these are the sounds that constitute musical "baby-talk." By expressing herself with these first "words"--which, though simple, can be used to great effect--a beginner starts to acquire both the vocabulary and skills she needs.

For repertoire--music appropriate to his stage of development--the beginner can choose from a broad spectrum of songs and pieces that use the basic language just described. The first parts of both "Hey Jude" and "The Rose", for example, as well as many songs in their entirety, use essentially only three chords. Even the very inexperienced, when shown the necessary chords, can learn to play attractive accompaniments to these tunes. In the process, they can begin to master chord inversion, voice leading, bass line construction, and other fundamental skills.

Furthermore, just as all children improvise with words, it takes no special talent or experience to begin juggling a few notes on a musical instrument. As you get started at the keyboard, neither a "good ear" nor any appreciable knowledge nor dexterity is required. You'll gain these attributes by making music. With your left hand hitting a C chord or part of it, your right hand roaming the C pentatonic scale, and with your rhythmic instincts to guide you as you set it all in motion, you're on your way.

Insight: You spoke "by ear" for years before you began to read.

Nobody learns to speak by starting with the written word.

Application: You need to play by ear before you begin to combine the separate skills of playing and reading.

I used to start teaching students to read at the first lesson, because that's how I was taught. These days I teach beginners to play by ear (now that I've taught myself!). I can't imagine returning to my old ways.

Here's why.

Since music (like language) is sound, it is sound on which the beginner needs to focus his attention. Not on the symbols that represent it, mind you, but on sound itself.

If the chef learns by tasting and the painter by looking, the musician masters his craft by listening. Nothing else will do.

For the beginning player, notation is an unnecessary obstacle, serving only to cloud the fundamental issue of learning to hear. Properly, the first task is to establish the ear-to-hand teamwork that enables one to play, memorize, and improvise naturally and directly.

Particularly important is the ability to recognize pitch sequences by ear, and then to locate (in order to play) them on the instrument. Unfortunately, a too-early emphasis on reading has kept many music students from developing this vital skill.

But there's another good reason to begin independently of notation. This approach enables you to concentrate on the physical aspects of playing. Good technique requires a relaxed body, and it's a lot easier to be relaxed when focusing on one thing at a time. If you're not familiar with the symbols of music, learning to play through notation is like rehearsing a new dance step while trying to read a description of it—in a language you don't know.

Reading is a valuable skill. It's simply out of place in the earliest stages of learning. I think that the reading-first method came into being because, before the twentieth century, musical recordings were not available. A teacher who saw his student only once a week had to offer something concrete to help in his absence, so he provided and taught musical notation.

Reading adds a priceless dimension to the musical life. I encourage you, as I encourage all my students, to learn to read. But begin by making music from the heart, and by building the connection between ear and hand. Begin by learning to play.

Suzuki's contribution.

Perhaps no one in recent times has done more to demonstrate the appropriateness of learning to play before learning to read than Shinichi Suzuki.

In 1932, while professor of violin at the Imperial Conservatory in Japan, Suzuki was approached by a man who asked him to accept his four-year-old son as a student. Although at the time Suzuki had no experience working with the very young, he found the proposition interesting, and began studying the matter, he says, from morning to night, wondering how in the world to go about teaching a child of that age to play the violin.

Suddenly, while pondering the fact that all children learn to talk, Suzuki found himself thinking a most intriguing thought: Is it possible that music needs to take its cue from speech? What if a first-time player, instead of being taught to read, were encouraged instead to imitate what he heard ?

What happened next is extraordinary.

As he began testing this theory by putting it into practice, not only did the four-year-old in question progress remarkably well (and go on to become a well-known violinist) but so did others. Suzuki worked with a sizeable cross-section of youngsters, and later trained other teachers to teach by the same methods. Student after student, none of whom had been pre-tested for musical aptitude, learned to play the violin--magnificently.

In the 1960's, Suzuki brought hundreds of his students--some of them five years old or younger--to the U.S., where they performed in recitals that included concertos by Bach and Vivaldi. Audiences were astounded. Many educators--with only their own mixed results to go by, and thus accustomed to thinking of talent as something we either inherit or don't--found it hard to believe that this teacher, who took on all comers, could produce musician after musician of such exceptional skill.
And five-year-olds ?

As I understand it, Suzuki's approach did not embrace improvising, singing, or styles other than classical. So his methods were, from my perspective, somewhat limited. Nevertheless, by succeeding so dramatically and consistently, he went a long way towards demonstrating what no one else seems to have considered: the potential to become an accomplished musician is not a selective trait. It's as universal as the capacity for speech, and needs only to be nurtured in precisely the same ways.

Parallels from the visual arts.

The issue of musical notation and its role in the learning process is so important, and even today so widely misunderstood, that I'd like to look at it from another perspective.

If anyone has done for drawing what Suzuki has done for playing, then that person might be Dr. Betty Edwards. In her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, she provides a number of before-and-after illustrations. Each pair includes a sample of a particular (adult) student's work before studying with Dr. Edwards, and another drawing completed a month or two later.

After only several weeks, students who entered the course with decidedly primitive skills were drawing like accomplished amateurs, while those who began with moderate abilites ended up drawing at a professional or nearly professional level. The stunning portraits created by student after student (and remember--many were sketched after just a few weeks or months of study) are hard to ignore; once again, we find a capable teacher helping to destroy the myth that talent is a rare and special gift. (With Dr. Edwards, another fallacy bites the dust as well--the notion that to excel in the arts, you have to begin training at an early age.)
Her secret?

This: Dr. Edwards has noticed that the drawings of most adults are virtually identical to the ones they produced as children. Children--excluding the handful who truly learn to draw--develop a repertoire of symbols that stand for objects or people in the real world, and then continue to use those symbols for the rest of their lives. Stick figures, suns with lines emanating from them, lollipop-like trees--none of these images truly resembles the real thing, but each gets the message across. And once you have a symbol for, say, a tulip, you never again have to lose sleep worrying about whether or not you can actually draw one.

Her method then, is getting adults to open their eyes and look. To really look. By asking a student to copy an upside-down photograph of John Kennedy or to draw the space surrounding a chair rather than the chair itself, she tricks him into abandoning his symbol (since no one has a symbol for either an inverted head or negative space) and really seeing what he's drawing--perhaps for the first time.

But, with a slight twist, this is the same as Suzuki's insight. Because his students learn by listening to a recording of a piece rather than by reading it, symbols never enter the picture and the focus remains on the true essence of music--sound itself. Edwards' students succeed because they look and consequently learn to see, Suzuki's because they listen and learn to hear.

It seems that whether you're learning to paint or to play, an over-reliance on symbols is an impediment, direct perception the cure.

If you think about it, the reading-first approach is similar to painting by numbers. Painting by numbers has no value to the art student because it develops neither creativity nor the basic ability to draw. Learning to play through reading is similar--the printed note tells you where to put your finger, shortchanging both imagination and the development of the ear.

When a new student arrives--one who's played for years but whose habits have been formed primarily through reading--I'm no longer surprised by what I find: expert fingers and undeveloped ears. If you fall into this category yourself, you'll know that given this handicap, performing a piece of music is like delivering a prepared talk in a language you can't really speak (can't improvise in). To say the least, it's a situation not conducive to spontaneity, flow, or confidence.

But it's a situation that can be changed. Though old playing habits (like old speech habits) die hard, even someone who's been glued to the page for years can break that dependence. (I, for one, didn't learn to play by ear or to improvise until ten years after I received my Bachelor of Music degree.) With persistence, intelligent ear training, and a willingness to play simply for a while, anyone who makes music can become more ear-oriented, and thus more expressive and creative.

On the other hand, if you're just getting started with your instrument, why wait to begin playing by ear? As you learned to talk, you developed your ear for language easily and naturally by relying on it from the start, and you can do much the same with your musical ear as you take your first steps in playing and improvising.

To restate our visual metaphor in its simplest terms: The painter learns first to draw what he sees. Isn't it equally obvious that the musician needs to begin by playing what he hears?

Musical success stories and what they reveal.

Earlier, we saw that Suzuki's students did remarkably well by studying music in a manner approximating the way we learn to talk. They learned by listening. (Although it seems that Suzuki placed little or no emphasis on improvising or on speaking the musical language of the day.)

But since what we've been examining is simply the way musical ability actually unfolds, with or without the help of an empathetic teacher or guide, it's easy to point to a wealth of other evidence showing that learning to play is indeed learning to speak.
For example:

• Anyone who delves into the biographies of the great composers and performers is likely to be struck by a pattern that keeps reappearing: These artists got started in music by picking out simple tunes by ear, through trial and error. Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Erroll Garner--all these, and I would guess, most of our finest musicians both past and present--began as we all do in learning to speak: intuitively.

Of course this shouldn't exactly come as a surprise. Any child who has access to an instrument will put his hands on it and begin to experiment. It's the fortunate few who aren't discouraged by parents and teachers, consciously or unconsciously, from doing so. Often, one of our first lessons in music is that learning to read is the correct way, while relying on our ear and instincts is largely a waste of time. (A dabbler's approach, according to some; only for the exceptionally gifted, according to others.)

If you can imagine learning to speak under these conditions, you'll begin to understand why so few of us who study a musical instrument when we're young continue to play.

Clara Schumann, one of the greatest pianists of the nineteenth century, is one musician who was apparently fortunate enough to be blessed with enlightened instruction. She wasn't introduced to notation until the second year of her training, but instead, was taught first to play by ear and to improvise.

And here's a brief remark about the early development of a famous composer: "There were at least two musical instruments in the Tchaikovsky house: a piano, on which Piotr Ilyich was soon improvising and imitating. . . " A statement which nicely underscores both of the basic ways we learn to speak

Prokofiev, in his autobiography, describes sitting next to his mother as she practiced the piano:

Mother would sometimes let me use the two upper octaves, on which I would tap out my childish experiments. . . I was soon sitting down at the piano myself, trying to pick out a tune. . . As a result of listening to music and improvising at the keyboard, I began to pick out my own tunes.

The first steps taken by Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein), as reported in the biography by David Ewen, virtually sum up this entire essay:

When he was four he could piece together on the piano bits of melodies, using two fingers. . .By the time he was six, Dick played the piano by ear with two hands. . . He disliked trying to read music from the printed page, loathed finger exercises and scales. Instead of devoting himself to formal practice he would spend hours either improvising melodies or trying to perform the songs he had heard his parents sing and play.

Paul Shaffer, keyboardist and bandleader for the Dave Letterman show, had this to say in an interview published in John Novello's The Contemporary Keyboardist :

I started playing the piano by first just learning how to put my fingers on the keys, and right away I started playing by ear. I loved it immediately. First I played the songs I heard that had only three chords; once I knew the three chords, I could play a lot of songs. . . Although I had started taking private classical lessons at the same time, I didn't practice too much. Playing and expanding my repertoire of chords by ear were really the most important things to me.

Chick Corea, in the same book, tells a slightly different story, but one that also points out the importance of the ear:

One thing I did a lot when I was learning to play. . .was transcription from records. From very early on. . . I would listen to the record through and pick out a very simple thing to begin to transcribe, and pick at it until I got it. . . And through that process I actually Iearned almost everything I know about notating and reading music and recognizing sounds. It was a tool that I used to an incredible extent.

And there's still more evidence to support what we've been saying:

• Musical ability tends to be passed on from parent to child, as illustrated by the Bachs, Mozarts, Strausses, Marsalises, Cash's, and other well-known families. While some may attribute this to heredity, I--remembering Suzuki's impressive evidence to the contrary--see it this way: If a helpful adult "speaks" music around the house, a child growing up in such an environment can learn the language just as he would a native tongue, with all the thoroughness, precociousness, and creativity that that implies.

• Think of the many distinguished musicians and composers who are blind. Having relied on both ear and imagination from the very start, it's no coincidence that these so-called "handicapped" are among our most creative artists.

•Finally, violinist and teacher Elizabeth Mills makes this point:

From the dawn of Man's history to the medieval period, music existed without notation except for the rudest forms. People learned to sing and play instruments without standing in front of music racks reading exercises, scales, and etudes. They were undoubtedly drawn to the most musical and expressive singers and instrumentalists from whom they learned by imitation and direct help.

Putting it all to use.

Repeatedly, we've referred to the ways children learn, and we've done so for good reason: at no other time in our lives do we learn so much, so easily, and so well.

But it's one thing to be a child learning to play, and quite another to be an adult. As you begin to apply these insights, certain grown-up realities will no doubt intrude. For example, it's unlikely that you'll have an accomplished musical parent around the house, nor will you have the opportunity to make music all day long, in the same way that children love to endlessly exercise their language skills.

The secret, then, is to understand these principles, and to make them work for you. If it's too late to be adopted by Billy Joel or Chick Corea, provide yourself with the best musical models and guides you can find--teachers, recordings, videos, books, and so on. If you have only a limited number of hours available, spend your time doing what matters the most: learning to play by ear the songs and pieces you like, and improvising (playing by ear the music you imagine ).

Since no one learns to talk alone, do these things with friends.

And another thing to do by ear: sing. Singing is to music what speaking is to language--both the heart of the matter and the best way to learn. If you can carry a tune (even if you tend to drop it at times), your voice is an instrument which you can already "play" by ear, and is therefore the perfect vehicle for practicing new skills (like improvisation) and transferring old ones (especially ear-related abilities) to other instruments.

If you find yourself getting serious about music, you may want to supplement your playing with a balanced regimen including technical exercises (musical calisthenics), theory (musical grammar and vocabulary-building), and, of course, ear training.

Remember also that if it's too late to become a virtuoso, you don't have to be one to make music that matters. The simplest forms of expression are often the most moving. (On the other hand, if you're no longer a kid but still determined to have it all, take heart: "Queen" Ida Guillory, described by Keyboard magazine as "the hottest zydeco accordionist west of New Orleans", taught herself to play in her forties.)

And a final thought: Savor each step along the way. Though building musical ability takes work, it gives pleasure--immediately. We often think of education as something to get through ; we can reap its benefits later, we tell ourselves, by sacrificing now. But does an infant make that bargain with himself as he relishes the vocal improvisation we call babbling, or communicates through his first words? As Suzuki suggests, when we allow ourselves to enjoy an enjoyable process, patience is no longer an issue.

As an adult learning to play an instrument, you may not be able to recreate, in every aspect, the ideal process by which we learn to speak. But the closer you come, the greater your rewards will be.

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