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If you are a classical musician having undergone a classical music education you will most likely be well acquainted with one style of learning, visual. 

In fact so much value is placed in being able to read music that classical music programmes at universities the world over feature classes of sight reading, study of the history of western classical notation, while, most include only the bare minimum requirement of ear training with maybe one or two hours a week reserved for dictating excerpts. 

In my experience the general attitude towards ear training in the classical world is that it is rarely taught and is mostly a series of drills with no real attention given to students who do not yet have some form of reliable perfect or relative pitch, and with no real strategy offered for how to improve should you not be naturally gifted in the subject. 

There are many reasons for this, a collection of requisites that have built a tradition in which musicians are often left feeling that they do not ‘understand’ or ‘speak’ their own language when asked to improvise or to recreate from an excerpt the music on their instrument; the intellectualisation of the art form, the importance attributed to the ‘artefacts’ of the genre, the fact that classical music is often complicated and difficult to teach by ear in the early stages, the aid of a visual stimulus in a genre that values the memorisation of long pieces of music, the creative freedom that reading gives the performer in making their own intuitive musical decisions and not least the mostly harmless pass down of a tradition of reading and respecting the score from teacher to future teacher to future teacher etc. 

Nevertheless, being able to play by ear is a skill that many classical musicians (often secretly) covet. 

Where some of our teachers or heroes might associate learning music by ear with more “outdated” and “less nuanced” traditions or genres, it is clear from looking at the abilities of our jazz counterparts that learning to play by ear does not mean that the music produced is any less intellectually charged, in fact many would argue that jazz players have a much more extensive and well functioning harmonic and melodic understanding of the music they play as opposed to classical performers. 

Even if we drain away the intellectual reasoning behind learning by ear of any genre, being able to pick up something just from hearing it is cool, funny and liberating, so here are the reasons that improving my ability to learn music by ear is on my list of goals for 2023.


1. Learning music by ear improves your spatial awareness

If you have ever heard somebody saying that listening to Mozart is good for babies, this is the reason why - listening to and engaging with music supports the development of sophisticated neural trails that help the brain process information, this is the reason why so many children who have access to music education from an early age perform well in many subjects and overall perform better in verbal and non verbal reasoning. 

Listening to music helps us make and identify patterns that we then create and recreate in our daily lives, this high sensitivity that we consequently develop to the differentiating characteristics of information around us helps us to make better sense of our surrounding worlds, breeding creativity and curiosity. 

Exercising your ability to make connections and patterns out of audio stimuli can therefore help you to improve your analytic capabilities when reading a score, ultimately making your music practice more fruitful and enjoyable as you make more and more sense out of the music you are reading.

2. It helps us form a stronger capacity for memorisation

Whilst most musicians carve out a large chunk of their practice time to focus on melody lines and defined voices, few musicians actively use the ‘sound’ of a melody as their basis for memorisation, and this despite the fact that most memory slips are triggered by an unexpected audio stimulus such as us ‘hearing’ a wrong note while playing. 

Learning to play music by ear and finding the corresponding sounds on the instrument helps to bolster a musician’s melodic memory capacity, which, in combination with the various other memory forms we are used to training, such as spatial memory, muscle memory, logical memory and lexical memory, makes a powerful, unshakeable memorisation strategy that offers more efficient and more accurate recall when performing under pressure.

3. It improves our arranging skills

The combination of improved spatial ability and the newfound improvisational confidence that learning by ear gives us, helps us to better order the importance of the information we are taking in when listening to music. 

This gives our listening style its own unique identity which can be particularly helpful if we are interested in putting into words what we are hearing, or if we want to make creative arrangements of our favourite music. 

With the view to being able to play some of the music I love, that is unfortunately not written for guitar or is not yet arranged for the instrument I am best at, improving my ability to use my ear a lot more in the learning and the creative process is the improvement I am putting most attention to in my playing this year!

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