How to cope with learning by ear if you usually read music notation

Listed on October 27, 2013 in Blogs!

Many choirs use written notation to learn and perform songs. Over time singers can come to depend on having the dots in front of them.

These singers may then join a different choir or go to a singing workshop where songs are learnt by ear and sheet music is not available. How do they cope?

ear note

photo by Molly Germaine

Last week I wrote about how singers who usually learn by ear can cope when given sheet music. In this post I’ll show you how to cope if you read music and usually learn songs using sheet music, but are asked to learn a song by ear.

my experience

I’ve often had singers in my choirs and workshops who are so used to having sheet music that they really struggle without a piece of paper in their hands. They are very much outside their comfort zone and feel somewhat handicapped.

Most of the songs I teach in short workshops are not long and not complex. They are often traditional songs which have been handed down orally/ aurally from generation to generation.

Yet music readers can find even these simple songs hard to learn without written notation. It is as if sound has become encoded visually for them and without any visual reference they can’t ‘hear’ the song clearly.

handy hints for music readers

Here are some handy hints that I’ve learnt along the way to help those of you who usually read music, but are then asked to learn a song by ear.

  • don’t panic – there are bound to be others in the same boat. Most music readers are not perfect sight singers and are used to learning songs using notation whilst hearing their part sung or played. It’s the same thing, just no piece of paper involved.
  • and again: don’t panic! – it takes time! If you’re not used to learning by ear you will feel all at sea at first. Nobody expects you to get it the first few times. You are basically trying to short-circuit a process which takes years. If you grew up in the culture that the song comes from you would hear the song countless times and it would gradually sink in. We’re trying to do that in a few hours. The plus side of this is that once learnt the song will probably stay with you longer than when you learn from notation.
  • sound is not vision – we have become a very visual culture and seldom spend time listening to, and really hearing, what goes on around us. If you read music you are reinforcing that dependency on your eyes rather than your ears. It is good practice to spend some time focusing exclusively on your hearing rather than your sight.
  • follow the leader – most teachers of songs by ear will use visual cues to help. The most obvious ones are hand signals: the hand goes up and down as a rough guide to where the notes go up and down. The bigger the jump, the larger the musical interval. A slight incline of the hand might signal a semitone. It’s like music notation in the air! There are even formal systems for the sol-fa system such as Curwen hand signs (later borrowed by Kodály).
  • learn to listen (again) – this is a great opportunity to remind yourself that singing is all about listening. You could even take the risk of closing your eyes whilst learning. And rather than following your part in the score whilst another part is practising, try listening hard and singing your own part in your head.
  • don’t anticipate – you might think you know the song already, or you might think the harmony will be obvious. Because you can’t look ahead in your score, you’ll have to be patient and wait to see how the song unfolds. Don’t make assumptions.
  • practice makes perfect – because of the nature of teaching by ear, not every part starts singing at the same time as they might do with a written score. Nobody knows what’s coming next, so each part has to be taught in turn. That means that you may end up going over your part more thoroughly than you would with notation available. It also means that you hear the harmonies for sections of the song in isolation as the song is being built up. Often pairs of parts are sung together when learning so you can really hear how they fit.
  • pay attention to the subtleties – you won’t have any visual cues for dynamics, structure, volume, vocal quality, etc., so you need to pay close attention to the musical director’s instructions.
  • write it down – if all else fails, you could always write things down as you go along. It doesn’t have to be full music notation, but anything visual that helps you. Try to resist this temptation though as learning by ear is a great skill to develop.
  • ask for the sheet music – most choir leaders who teach by ear are reluctant to hand out sheet music as they want a level playing field for all singers. However, if you are really struggling in a choir (not at a one-off workshop) and still aren’t getting it after several rehearsals, ask the leader if you can have a copy of the sheet music. Study it at home, but don’t use it in choir.

Learning by ear can be a struggle for me too as I’m a very visual person. So I make sure that I attend workshops regularly where notation is not used. Once I’ve settled in and let my ear become attuned, I usually find that I learn the songs far more effectively.

I know much more about the reverse situation: when learners by ear are presented with sheet music – so I’d love to hear from those of you who are usually sight readers who have tried learning by ear. What is the hardest part? Do you find any advantages? How do you cope? Do you find any differences when you go back to using a written score?

further reading

You might also want to check out these earlier posts:

Learning songs by ear

How to teach (and learn) a song by ear

Asking for sheet music in a ‘learn by ear’ choir

How long does it take to learn a song?

Using sheet music to teach and learn songs: pros and cons

Singing is all about listening

Chris Rowbury’s website: