Like me, you’ve probably heard many stories of someone’s aunt’s cousin’s brother who “plays by ear” – it seems people who play by ear are everywhere. With so many people playing by ear, why does anyone learn to read music?
The answer is quite simple: in reality, very very few people truly “play by ear.” To truly play by ear would mean playing advanced classical music in full (not simplified) having heard it only a few times, or maybe even only once. It is true that there are people in history who could do this. The 19th century’s greatest pianist/composer, Franz Liszt, was famous for it. Georges Bizet, composer of the opera “Carmen,” could do it as well. But people with ears of that skill and the piano skills to use them only come around a few times per century.
What most people mean when they say “play by ear” is the ability to pick out single note melodic lines of a song they’ve heard. Now don’t get me wrong, this is a great skill, and I’m always glad to hear when a student has done it. But people tend to assume that playing by ear obviates the need for learning to read music, when it’s actually the exact opposite: learning to read music obviates the need to play by ear. The vast majority of people, even those who have taken piano for years, would have a very difficult time playing both hands and all the parts to even a simple song by ear. This is why we learn to read music: it makes a difficult task – playing a song you’ve never played before – easy. It also allows you to do something that even the greatest ear in the world can’t do: play a piece you’ve never even heard before.
At first, it’s difficult. It’s difficult because it’s new. The student has to learn what all the lines and symbols mean, and how they fit together. But once it’s no longer new and the symbols are no longer a mystery, it becomes very easy, like reading a book. Imagine sitting down and playing whatever you want, any song you can think of, perfectly, the first time. I can do that. With practice, students can too. That’s why we do this.
Incidentally, Franz Liszt, the aforementioned pianist and composer, was also known as the greatest sight reader of the age. The two skills are two sides of the same coin.