Lead Sheets or Play by Ear?

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What is your preferred playing style: lead sheet with chords, sheet music, or strictly by ear?

The discussion below is taken from a thread launched by Scotty Yee on the Synth Zone General Arranger forum. Click here to go to the original thread.

Scottyee
01-26-2003 11:36 PM

I realize we all come from varying keyboard playing backgrounds, as well as differing music education experiences. Some of us are formally trained and can easily "sight read" complicated written song arrangements, yet may have great difficulty playing by ear, while others can't read a note, yet are able to easily pick up and play a song (including the chords) entirely by ear. The ideal situation is to become proficient at both "playing by ear" and "sight reading." The reality for most of us though is different. Typically, formally trained players who learn to play music by reading music, are weak at playing by ear, while players who play strictly by ear, can't read music very well, if at all.

I started piano lessons at 4 and began to read music even before mastering the alphabet and reading words. Though I eventually learned to sight read and play almost any piece of music put in front of me, it was always a struggle to play a song by ear. It wasn't until I got to college and took musical ear training and music theory classes that I finally began to develop "playing by ear" skills.

Even so, I now still feel more comfortable having a lead sheet (single note melody line and chords only) at hand, even when performing, to provide a road map (chord progression) of the song, making it possible for me to successfully perform audience requested tunes that I may not be as familiar with. In order for me to perform a large repertoire of hundreds of songs beyond my core memorized material, I rely on fake book style lead sheets to help me out. Still, I'm very careful never to position the music stand or music to block my view of the audience (or them of me), and always keep 98% of my attention on the audience, with the lead sheet acting only as an on-stage cue card to glance at when needed.

Realizing there is no one right or wrong way to approach keyboard playing, I'm curious to hear how others of you (both pro and amateur players) learned how to play the keyboard, and what method(s) you use when learning new songs, playing at home, for friends, and gigging out professionally. Do you play strictly by ear, play only fully memorized songs, utilize a lead sheet (with melody line and chords only), or prefer playing from sheet music which includes a full arrangement (both right and left hand)?

Everyone's input and feedback greatly appreciated.

Graham UK
01-27-2003 12:12 AM

Scott, I can play only from sheet music, which gives me a lot of pleasure. The downside is I can not improvise very well, which I would like to do, if I had started playing by ear I think the improvisation would have come naturally.

DonM
01-27-2003 12:48 AM

I have many songs memorized. I have a stack of books containing charts that I've made over the years. Many nights I never open one, but as Scott says, they are often worth a nice tip or two. They have lyrics with chord names over, or in front of, the words.

I used to use fake books a lot, but not much any more, because most of them aren't really true to the recordings. I learned to read the lead line from playing trumpet in school.  I plan to get a laptop very soon so the books will be history as soon as I get all the songs transferred. The ones from the past few years are already in computer, but there are still many I have to enter.

MacAllcock
01-27-2003 01:13 AM

I think I must be lucky -- I can play by ear, but I can read as well. The reading is frankly rusty because I don't do it very often. I have a few "melody + chords /lyrics" books around for all those songs everyone knows the first line to, but I only use them if I have to for requests.

For "popular" stuff I prefer melody + chords to full transcriptions, especially given that there's an awful lot of dodgy transcription out there (have a look at the sheet music to Diana Ross - Why Do Fools Fall In Love - its just the Frankie Lymon version with Diana's picture on the front -- and even then its still wrong!).

If I may be so bold, a related topic about how we remember tunes.  I find once I know a song properly, I can usually play it in any key because my brain seems to remember the song in a "start here and then the changes sound like this.". Even stranger, I play bass pedals with my left foot and even if I totally lose the plot with my hands and can't remember the tune, I just keep playing the bass line until the rest of me catches up! Weird or what?

cam8neel
01-27-2003 04:56 AM

Not proud of it, but I play totally by ear, although I can read charts also. At a very early age, I was able to listen to a song a couple of times, and then duplicate it on organ or piano. My parents thought I was an alien, since I started doing so at the age of four!   --Angelo

Pilot
01-27-2003 05:25 AM

I used to read music and then play from memory and also play by ear, but these days my memory ain't what it used to be. I can remember the tunes but not always the chords so I use fake books as an aide memoir.

RicFreak
01-27-2003 05:29 AM

I mainly play by ear, because I am not able to directly read-and-play.  Only when I have to learn something difficult or when I want to play exactly what's written, I start reading musing and learning.  But it is a long process.

Maged
01-27-2003 05:33 AM

I started off playing by ear when I was 5 years old, then, at the age of 15, I started taking music lessons to learn how to read music notes.  After 5 months I was able to read and play, but I felt that I was loosing my ear sense of music because I had to read everything I played. Then at the age of 17, I decided to go back to playing by ear (till now). I think I did the right thing because every time I meet one of my old colleagues at the music school, I can tell from their playing style that they haven't improved a lot over the last 20 years.

The Pro
01-27-2003 06:32 AM

I can play by ear especially well and can read music proficiently, but I rely on hearing more than sight and imagination more than either. Improvisation is my specialty, "sight reading" is probably my weakest area but I can do it when I have to.

I started playing about the age of five totally by ear and could play anything I heard. I began lessons at the age of nine. By the age of 14 I was playing both solo and in bands professionally and I never stopped. I had a great high school music teacher that taught real theory and composition classes that helped solidify my reading and writing comprehension a lot. I won several talent shows and competitions in my youth and have performed as guest soloist with major symphonies.

I rely equally on memory and on single and double-page lead sheets as Scott does, but mostly I have created my own rather than rely on the Hal Leonard variety (print is too small for stage use). Recently, I found a fake book I love: Warner Brothers "Just Jazz Real Book."  These lead sheets are easy to read and can be copied and used right from the book. There is a "Just Standards" in this series too.

tony mads usa
01-27-2003 06:38 AM

I wish I had the natural talent or training to play by "ear." I admire musicians who can hear where the chord changes are going.  Obviously, except for a ton of songs I've memorized, I play with music, mostly lead sheets with lyrics, lyrics with chords over them, or fake books.  I make up my own "book" of tunes I play by making copies from the books I purchase.  I have found that using the arranger keyboard (KN6000) my ear is getting better, especially if playing along with a midi file, but I'm not going to be doing any "open mike nights" anytime soon smile

PS A lifetime ago when I was teaching accordion, an adult came to the studio saying he wanted to learn how to play by reading music. After a few weeks, I felt he was still relying on his ear, even though he denied it.  So I wrote out something like "Mary had a little lamb" but titled it "Popeye the sailor man."  Sure enough, one week later the student gave me a great rendition of "Popeye." -- t.

matias
01-27-2003 07:01 AM

I began formal musical training by the age of 8 and never had "play by ear" lessons. I learned to play by ear much later, by the age of 17/18, and all by myself. Later, I developed an interest for jazz/latin music, listened to a lot of records, and took some lessons (for a short time, unfortunately) with two jazz pianists.

My approach to learning songs is the following. Most of the songs that people expect that I play, are Portuguese pop, Portuguese popular, Brazilian standards, latin, and some international [English/American pop, some country, mainly] and have a rather simple chord structure / melody. I normally easily memorize the chord progression (no "complicated" chords are needed; minor, 7ths, 6ths are usually enough) and the main melody line, from hearing a record of the song (or 2/3 different versions). All I have in front of me when I play live, are the lyrics (no chord table or lead sheet), except in the case of a more unusual progression that I tend to forget (in that case I write a note near the lyrics). The exceptions are jazz or jazzy tunes, Jobim tunes, etc., that require more refined chords. In these cases I always have a lead sheet with chords. My audiences -- in parties or clubs -- generally prefer "easy tunes," however, when in a lounge venue, I play mostly by lead sheet w/ Chords.

Examples: Girl from Ipanema, One Note Samba, Tenderly (lead sheet w/ Chords); I play a country medley - Blowin'in the Wind + Take Me Home, Country Roads - entirely by ear.  -- Josť.

travlin'easy
01-27-2003 07:19 AM

Though I've been trying to learn to read music for three decades, there has always been a mental block to the translating of the symbols in the cobwebs of my mind. I began playing music at age 4 when I sat down at my aunt's piano and plinked Tennessee Waltz in the key of C. Instantly, my mother insisted that I take piano lessons, which I did for just over a year. Unfortunately, I never was able to comprehend sheet music, but for some strange reason, I've always been able to hear a song one or two times and then play it. My wife says I could have taken Dustin Hoffman's role in Rain Main. These days, I still have to glance at the lyrics once in a while (the mind was the second thing to go in the aging process), and I'm still trying to learn to read, but every time I look at the sheet music, the song just pops into my head and I play it. I may miss a chord or two in a progressive run, but most of the time, unless you were an accomplished musician, the audiences never know.

Though I wish I could read, there is a lot to be said for those who cannot. I have several friends that read and they do not have the ability to ad lib, extend the length of a song when the dance floor is filled to capacity or play a song in any key other than the one on the sheet music. Those of us that can't, have all those things going for us.

Maybe one day I'll learn to read, but it's sure tough when you reach Social Security age to teach an old dog new tricks.   Cheers,  -- Gary

btweengigs
01-27-2003 09:05 AM

Being able to read has always been on my wish list, along with wishing to be taller, slimmer, better looking, etc. But the fact is, I was invited to cease piano lessons as a kid due to the generation gap between me and my teacher. Her idea of music and mine were miles apart.  I doubt the words "Rock and Roll," "Country" or "Blues" were in her vocabulary. But, I loved music and, through shear tenacity, learned to play by ear.  Where there is a will...... -- Eddie

Starkeeper
01-27-2003 12:32 PM

I started playing organ in my early teens using sheet music. My teacher taught me music theory as well. I quit after three years, not sure why. Just took up keyboards again in my early 50's. I looked for contemporary Christian music that I wanted to play on the Internet and found only lyrics and chords. Since I heard these songs many times before, I played the melody by ear. In a few months I had accidentally taught myself to play by ear. Still need to know what the chords are though. This means you can teach yourself to play by ear: put the sheet notes away and force yourself to figure it out. I will have to put the chords away to teach myself to hear the chords, but I'm sure this can be done.

Alex K
01-27-2003 01:22 PM

I play mostly by ear/from memory. Although I can play in most easy keys (up to 4 sharps or flats), I find it easier to play in one or two keys. Lately, though, I find myself performing a lot more, and as I expand my repertoire to the music which is not all familiar, I find it comforting to have lead sheets to remind me of how it goes. Except for the most harmonically-challenging pieces, I do not use the chords on the lead sheet, but play my own harmonies, though I am talking about popular/not so popular music, not Debussy or Stravinsky.

Regrettably, I am not able to read music in real time, while playing the keyboard with the accompaniment going, though I could do it for clarinet (that was my musical training), decades ago.

Bluezplayer
01-27-2003 03:32 PM

I started playing organ at about age 4 and, although we had music books and something similar to the fake books described, I was not able to read them at that point. I was able to read a little music, and real words as well, by the time I started the first grade, but I soon found that that I derived a lot more pleasure when I played by ear, and subsequently that I was better at that than playing from notation.

Today I can read standard notation, but I'm not particularly good at doing it in real time. As I grew up I found that reading music did help me to learn the proper fingering / notes for the complex chords and scales, but I still prefer "ear" play. The other thing that has helped me though is reading and understanding midi notation. Those who still believe in learning by standard notation might want to disagree, and that's OK too, but with midi technology at the forefront, (particularly for me as a keyboard player in today's world), midi notation has been instrumental in helping me to write music and to better understand (and use in real time) different timings and patterns in general.  --AJ

trtjazz
01-27-2003 07:03 PM

Pete Seeger once said when asked this Q in an interview, "Pete, do you read music?" Pete's reply, "not enough to hurt my playing."

I agree with his reply and prefer to be a better ear player for improvisation reasons, which to me is where some of the most happenin' music comes out. People just jammin' freely sans the confines of charts.  Jam on, --Terry

Bob Gelman
01-30-2003 09:15 AM

I can't play be ear at all. I always use mostly Fake Books and improvise a bit, although my playing is rather primitive, given what I could/should have learned over the years. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

People who play and can't read music are really "illiterate," aren't they? However, music is an auditory medium, not a visual one. Does anyone sit down and enjoy reading a good music book? No, we listen to music. I'm always astounded that some of our very best musicians (believe me, some are fantastic) who send us songs in our PSR Songs Group sheepishly admit that they can't read music at all.  I've often wondered why. How could it be that someone would be so focused on music to play that well would not bother learning to even read a simple melody line.  Reading some of the responses here gave me some clues. I had never thought that the written music could come between a musician and the music. Interesting.

Chuck Piper
02-07-2003 03:50 PM

Hi Scott, How are you my friend? Guess I'll be the one to resurrect this thread. I just dropped in from the Technics Forum to browse and discovered the thread you initiated some time ago. I have enjoyed reading all of the responses. They are so interesting.

As you know, Scott, I am in my 70s now and am trying to learn to play an arranger keyboard. While I am pleased with the progress I've made in slightly more than a year, I know that I will never be able to play as well as I would like.

I am a reader. My musical training began at age 7 when my parents encouraged me to play a trombone. I studied the instrument formally for almost 12 years and played it well. Sadly, I stopped playing when I enlisted in the Air Force. I say "sadly" in retrospect of course.

I taught myself to play a little guitar over the years (haven't played for many years now) and was playing guitar in a small combo in Saudi Arabia in the 80s. That is where I acquired my desire to learn to play a keyboard (I always tinkered around with our piano player's Roland when taking a break during rehearsals). So I bought a little Casio board (it was the only keyboard available in the village market shop) and began to teach myself to play. Our piano player was an ear player. I bought the usual "teach yourself" tutors, but never progressed very far.

Now, I have the KN6000, a teacher, and I am finally realizing my dream of being able to play the music I love. But I'm still a reader. I use the chord symbol/melody line type of music notation. I envy those who can play by ear. One contributor remarked that ear players seem to be able to improvise more easily than readers. I would agree. It is certainly true in my case. Improvisation is hard for me although I am improving little by little. I do believe improvisation is an acquired skill whether you hear it naturally and practice it or whether you are taught to improvise. I also believe one has to be a good listener and listen a lot to musicians improvising in order to "pick up their licks," then practice them until they become a natural part of one's improvisation repertoire/skill.

All of you who have contributed to this thread have given me a great read. Thanks a lot.   Most Sincerely, -- Chuck

S0C9
02-07-2003 06:05 PM

Most people (including a number of musicians) seem to forget that there's a major difference between being able to "read" music -- which I can -- and play a particular instrument at the same time.

For example -- excuse me if this is too basic -- middle C is slap bang in the middle of the treble clef -- and the 88 key piano. But on a clarinet or flute it's not in the "middle."  And on a guitar, middle "C" can be played in about six different places -- same note!

My point is: saying that one can read music does not necessitate the ability to play directly from it. I can read music, but not well enough [any more] to "sight-read" for a piano, or any other instrument I now play. Playing is now done mainly by ear, and yes... improvising is a no-brainer once you've learnt a few basic pentatonic major and minor scales plus the blues scale. I have no trouble doing that, and most rock/country lead guitar [my main instrument now] is pentatonic based.  Can I do that on the keyboard. Well, NO! Not yet, but I'm working on it.  smile smile
Regards, -- Steve

trtjazz
02-08-2003 05:17 AM

Here's what excites me about being a by-ear player. I can just sit in with someone and play, then play the song again and do something totally different the second time around (improv). Besides the skill involved, the other thing is that it is fresh and new every time for me. I need that because I have the attention span of a 3-year-old

Oscar Peterson once said in an interview when asked if he preferred playing with the trio or solo. He said "what I don't like about playing with the trio, is that I am committed to playing a tune the same way every time and man that gets old fast."

danb
02-09-2003 12:14 AM

Written music or sheet is like a user's guide or manual, it can be a map or schematic diagram or blueprints. Once you are familiar with it, then you don't need it. I preferred ear playing. I can read notes, symbols, chords and charts, but I am not a sight reader. I can play by ear proficiently. I can identify chords progression even with my eyes are closed. I don't trust those fake books sometimes. Some chords are not correctly emphasized. I don't envy those people who can read music, but I am more impressed by those who can write notes or music even without using instruments in front of them.

trtjazz
02-09-2003 06:59 AM

danb: I don't envy those people who can read music but I am more impressed by those who can write notes or music even without using instruments in front of them.

Now add to that Beethoven going deaf and still creating beautiful music, because he heard it in his head! WOW. I just wish these voices in my head would start singing or humming melody lines to me instead of just yaking all the time.

Uncle Dave
02-09-2003 08:36 AM

I don't hear any voices in my head .........and neither do I!

KN_Fan
02-10-2003 01:52 PM

For somebody who took classical piano for six years, my reading is pretty poor. I read reaaaally slow. I prefer to just read Chord sheet and play along. I can, however, play most songs just by listening to it once/twice.

 
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