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.
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