Reading Music By Ear

Reading music by ear isn’t the same thing as sight-reading, but it is a way of reading music.

One definition of ‘reading’ is ‘accessing information.’ ‘Reading by ear’ means accessing information about music by listening to it. Reading by ear is simply reverse-engineering what you hear.¬† A music transcription test,¬†where you hear a melody, and write it in staff notation, is an example of reverse-engineering based on information contained in music.

It’s possible to reverse engineer parts on guitar, bass, piano, drums, or any instrument by ear, as long as you can hear the part clearly. Working musicians and teachers, like us, pick parts off of recordings all the time. It’s one of the basic skills that qualifies you to work in a band or recording project, where you have to be both flexible and efficient. If you can read by ear, you can learn to write music and chord charts.

The tab books by the major publishers aren’t written by the original artists. If you imagine Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughn writing out their guitar parts and turning them in to their publishers, that’s not how it’s done. The publisher hires another musician to transcribe the parts. That’s why they say ‘Authentic Transcription.’ The artists have nothing to do with writing the tab books.

The transcriptions are practically never signed. The books don’t credit them – they’re anonymous. These days, published tabs are usually accurate. Except for teaching, pro musicians hardly ever use them because they can reverse-engineer their own parts from recordings.

If you read by ear, your music library is a reference library, and music becomes a hologram.

Learning to read by ear isn’t difficult. It’s intuitive. Beginning players can learn it. It’s natural to incorporate ear training into beginning drums, guitar, bass and piano. Playing by ear is built into the Rock Lesson Programs at Houston Percussion Center School of Music.

You get better at reading by ear as you get better at playing. Your ear-skills are usually tied to your playing skills. Ear and playing skills usually develop together. If you’re playing along with music while you’re practicing your hands, then you’re also practicing your ear, even if you’re not thinking about it.

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