Learning notation vs learning by ear?

  1. iaindr
    At our beginners' class this week we were learning the melody to 'Midnight on the Water'.

    As a newbie, this was an interesting lesson that understanding the notation (and/or learning by ear) is so important.

    The tabs show you where to put your fret fingers, but don't tell you anything about the tune's rhythm. The tune is 3 beats to a bar, which would be fine if they were all straight quarter notes, but when the first note is two beats (half note?) and the third beat is an eighth note plus 50% (it has a dot) + a sixteenth note (it has a tail), tabs don't cut it.

    I don't read music (yet), so all this was a bit of a revelation. Hearing the tune played really helps. What's your take on learning notation vs learning by ear?
  2. HonketyHank
    They both have their place. But learning to read notation will open up a whole bunch of great music that hasn't been been tabbed out. For example, collections of Niel Gow's tunes, to say nothing of all the classical violin tunes. Plus, as you say, tab notation does have its limits of what it can easily and properly express. If you dig around in the main forum you'll find many strongly held positions on the tabs vs dots question.

    I use both and I am glad I learned to read music a million years ago so I didn't have to learn it as an old toot. If you collect tunes from thesession.org you'll find ABC notation and the dots, but no tabs. ABC also has its adherents, especially in the Celtic world, it seems. I find ABC to be a cumbersome way of writing down music and I convert it to tabs immediately if I download an ABC file.
  3. SOMorris
    I am probably biased, but I think it is good to learn standard notation first. Music is about the only thing I know of that a musician from Russia or India (or anywhere else in the world) can sit down and play a song in standard notation just like those of us here in the U.S.A. It is a universal language and worthwhile (I think) learning to read it. Like you said, tabs (to me) is just a short cut and definitely has limitations. Since picking up the mandolin, I have learned to read music, time signatures, etc. This was starting from no music background at all. I'm not saying I can play it though!
  4. Louise NM
    Louise NM
    What Honkety and SO said: standard notation contains worlds. Take the time to learn to read.

    You are absolutely right about the limitations of tab—the rhythm thing. Standard notation isn't perfect. The swing of a hornpipe, for example, isn't written out, or it's written as dotted eighth–sixteenth, which isn't correct either. Microtones aren't easy to show in standard notation, if you're headed toward Middle Eastern music. But these are part of what you learn by listening, and by playing with other people.

    I wish I was better at learning by ear. It's a valuable skill, and if you can develop it, it will serve you well too.
  5. Southern Man
    Southern Man
    So, I will be the contrarian here and say that I think learning by ear is great, especially if you are interested in playing Old Time, Bluegrass, Folk, Jam, or any sort of improvisational music. It is also valuable in learning to pick out melodies, which is pretty important since I've found a lack of mandolin specific music for much of what I want to play. I got a lot of practice taking Sharon Gilchrist's Beginner Bluegrass class on Peghead Nation, but I was a little beyond a beginner and I relied a lot on tab to get started.

    Standard notation is better than tab, but I don't read it (I need to learn). Or I should say I can't really read notes, but I can read time. Fairly often you see music that has tab on the bottom and standard on the top. I can't sight read it, but I can figure out the timing from the standard and the notes from the tab, just takes a little work to put it together.
  6. HonketyHank
    Southern Man, I agree wholeheartedly while wishing that I could play by ear better than I do (which is poorly). Maybe I am just a slow learner or not properly instructed or just an old dog faced with new tricks, but my impression is that my play by ear skills have improved (from terrible to poor) over time just by practicing and learning various tunes and the licks which make the tunes work. Thus I rely on reading tabs and/or notation mostly but I am happy to report that more and I hear stuff and say to myself "hey, that little bit sounded just like something I learned in [whatever tune] and I can play that." I am pretty sure that even if I were a good ear player I would still find the ability to read notation and tabs to be valuable skills. But I would love to be a good ear player. And if I live long enough, maybe I'll be good at it. (I am 75 now, so-o-o-o ... ). Oh well.

    Also, I like to see both tabs and 'the dots' on written music I am trying to learn, too. For pretty much the same reasons.
  7. iaindr
    Really interesting responses, thanks everyone. I’m at the beginning of my mandolin journey, so it’s great to get some ‘old toot’ perspective (not far off being an old toot myself).
  8. NDO
    Although I learned to read SN at a young age while playing clarinet, I’m on Southern Man’s side… I play mostly by ear for learning melodies and leads (and all my harmonica playing). I use letter chord notes on lyrics sheets for learning to play and sing songs. The only time I personally read standard sheet music is singing in church, although I do intend sometime to build the mental connection between the mandolin strings and notes on a page.
  9. JeffLearman
    IMHO, learn both!

    I learned by ear, and reading is a struggle. When I try to learn it, it's back to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" which is hard to enjoy. (I can read chord charts, just not the dots and lines, much.)

    I know a lot of musicians who learned just by reading, and would love to play by ear, but again it's back to square 2 for them. (That's a step ahead of square 1 for us ear musicians, though!)

    The musicians I respect the most are those who can do both, and most of them learned both at the same time, for the above reasons. Feel free to alternate, focusing on reading for months and then switch to ear, or whatever, whenever motivated. Have fun! But really try doing both as much as you can. I wish I had. Maybe after I retire ...

    But the real benefit of learning both is that each also helps you with the other, believe it or not. Ear training is essential even for readers (to reach higher levels). Reading is a lot faster way to learn certain new things even for those with strong ears.
  10. Sue Rieter
    Sue Rieter
    I have started an ear training course on ArtistWorks. The first step of it is using a tuner and trying to match your voice to a tone. Recognizing intervals comes next. It is wicked hard for me, but, I think, will be worthwhile. Parallel, I'm working (by ear) on the song "I've been working on the Railroad". I know it very well b/c I used to use that song to sing my kids to sleep when they were babies (learned it from my mom). I find I know what a tone should sound like in my head, but I don't necessarily know where my finger should land/what note it is. I have the notation, but am trying not to look at it.
  11. JeffLearman
    From what I've heard, ear training courses are the best thing ever, for any musician who wants to be serious. The way my high school band director explained it:
    - step 1: train your voice well enough to hit a pitch, because that's the instrument you'll be using for the whole course
    - step 2: learn the intervals
    - step 3: see step 2!

    Learning to hear intervals is fundamental to really understanding music theory and making it real rather than just an abstraction on the page.

    Mentally working out a tune without using an instrument, like Sue almost says above, is a great exercise. Even for those of us who've been playing by ear for decades, it can be a challenge (because we've allowed ourselves to be sloppy, always having an instrument at hand to correct mistakes quickly.) I just tried "working on the RR" in my head and I was fine except for two points. On the second "Can't you hear the whistle blowing" I started "Can't" on the wrong note. Oops! Also, it seemed odd to me that on the first "Can't you hear" that "hear" isn't in the key (it's an accidental.) That threw me off making me think I was wrong about "Can't" but nope, "hear" is an accidental. Go figure!

    Once you get "Working on the RR" down, try "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." OK just kidding.
  12. iaindr
    Really appreciate and enjoying the contributions to this thread. I've been snowed-under recently, so haven't been on the forum much.

    Over the past few months I've been learning new tunes using tabs and recordings from the online lessons I attend. I don't read SN, but occasionally find it helpful if I want to work out the melody/timing where there's tabs but no recording. I'd like to learn SN, but have to be realistic about my time and capacity.

    One of the things I find very satisfying is trying out (making up) melodies to various popular tunes from memory (Loch Lomond, Danny Boy, etc) - you know when it sounds right (even if you're not sure which key you're playing in). Typically, I'll follow up by looking for a published version with tabs, which is invariably a better/more elaborate version, but the sense of achievement (and progress) remains.

    Not sure I'm ready for an ear training course at the moment, but interesting idea.
  13. Sue Rieter
    Sue Rieter
    The course is pretty interesting so far. I really don't have enough time to put into it, but I'm working on it a little at a time. I bought an inexpensive used keyboard off craigslist to use with it, and my DH rolled his eyes.
  14. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    I don’t think the two should be pitted against one another, though they often are, so I tend to take issue (privately, not usually publicly) with the use of “vs” as used in the thread title. The two should complement one another in my own little world.

    As to whether one or the other should be preferable, that would depend on the student’s goal, for instance, if it’s her goal to perform classical music in an ensemble then reading would receive preference over playing by ear. If her goal is to play popular or folk music either solo or in a band, ear learning or playing would receive precedence. Likewise if her goal is play in old time or bluegrass jams, or pop or country “guitar pulls”, i.e. jam sessions.

    In general, I think learning and playing by ear is the more natural course, because it’s reasonable to assume that sort of teaching and learning and playing by example, as well as composing and improvising by ear, have long been done and preceded written and recorded music.

    Just my thoughts on the “vs” there; in my own little world playing by ear, reading tab and notation all have their place and are important.
  15. iaindr
    Good point Mark, and becoming more evident as I progress. I don’t think I intended to pit them against each other, as such. Just curious about everyone’s preference and experience. I’m new to learning an instrument and the contributions here have been very insightful.
  16. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    For me, the journey began (with guitar) long before the internet, so I learned to play from a book which included songs like On Top of Old Smokey, Shenandoah, etc. My dad gave me that book; afterward, I bought a big book of guitar chords. Then I would seek books or sheet music with popular songs I liked. What I heard on the radio, records, and later, cassette tapes, I had to learn by ear if I couldn’t find a book or sheet.

    Today we have a plethora of resources at our fingertips, but the truism for me is that we learn what we want to learn by any means at our disposal. Just do whatever you need to do in order to play what it is that YOU want to play.
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