The traditional path is to teach reading sheet music from the outset.
The reason this is done from the beginning is because there is so much to learn! It is introduced from the outset so the student can gradually come to grips with how each musical concept or device looks on the page when they first learn about it. This is a great way to teach reading music, but it is not the best way to teach understanding music and piano playing to a deeper level.
In this traditional method, music theory and reading music are taught hand in hand. For some people seeing how something is represented on paper helps them to understand an idea. But for me and for many others, understanding comes from doing and experiencing the concept first hand.
Reading sheet music is a skill. But it is often confused with the skill of piano playing and they are not one and the same. Pianists who only learn pieces from reading sheet music can have a 1-dimensional understanding of piano music - they will understand how to follow instructions read off the page, but all too often they don’t understand the harmony behind what they’re playing, or how to expand on what they’re playing. If you took the sheet music away, could they interpret the music to take it in their own unique direction? Maybe not.
The only way to learn the piano without reading music is to learn by ear.
It essentially means to learn to play a song by combining a knowledge of music harmony (essentially, chords) and active listening to identify patterns and intervals (the relationship between notes in distance).
If you are learning piano material and concepts by ear then you are internalising the process - your having to think about what you are doing and what it means rather than simply reading what someone else has told you to play, verbatim.
Just as we learn to speak and listen before we learn to read, we need to do the same with music to become well-rounded, multi-faceted pianists and musicians.
There are three main areas that new pianists need to master in order to understand music and learn songs by ear, without the need for sheet music: Scales, Chords, Ear-training.
You can go far with a good knowledge of basic major and minor scales. There are other scales and modes to learn further down the line, but these two main types will set you up to understand the majority of popular songs.
Learn the pattern for building these two main scale types and you have the blueprint to playing both, starting from any note on the keyboard! That’s 12 scales for each main scale type (12 notes in the octave), 24 scales in total.
Learning scales has several applications. Scales are what constitutes a key of a song. Every song is based on a scale essentially but we call it the ‘key’. In written music this is indicated at the beginning of the song in what is called a ‘key signature’. If you were learning written music you would learn how to identify the key of a song based on what the key signature looks like, but when we are learning by ear we don’t need to know what it looks like on paper, just what it looks like on the piano.
Learning to actually play scales requires some special finger work. Learning how to use your fingers in specific orders to play each scale smoothly and comfortably develops your finger techniques and dexterity. It is also a handy exercise to develop your speed and agility by learning to play scales quickly but with consistent weight.
Like the main scale types, we have two main types of chords: major and minor. Again, there are other more complicated types of chords to learn about but these two main types (each consisting of three notes) will set you up for a lot of popular songs.
Learning about chords is learning about harmony. Harmony is the way the chords are put together to create a certain feel within a song. You may know the term ‘harmony’ in relation to singing: where a backup vocalist might ‘harmonise’ with the lead vocalist who is singing the melody? This applies to the reference to harmony within songs too.
The harmony within a song is what gives the melody a base. Without harmony, a melody is left bare and without context. The decisions of which harmony (collection of chords) to put behind a melody can make or break a song, the choices made here can vary so significantly as to create completely different feelings even if the melody does not change. This is why harmony is so important to learn about - it is the cake to a song, while melody is the icing.
Again, like the scales, if you learn the pattern to building major and minor three-note chords, you have the blueprint to 24 different chords. That’s a major and minor chords for every note in the octave. Once you know the chords themselves you’ll need to learn about ways of putting different chords together, this is called a chord progression. Throughout history pop music has drawn on the most reliable, comfortable sounding chord progressions, that will sound very familiar to you. You’ll need to memorise the blueprint for these common chord progressions so that you can play them in any key.
This process of learning the blueprints for the two main scale types, the two main chord types and the several main chord progressions will set you up for learning the vast majority of popular songs today and throughout history. It’s that simple. By learning these blueprints you will understand songs more quickly than those pianists who simply learn to read sheet music alone.
Learning about these scale and chord blueprints is the first level.
The second level is training your ear to identify these things. And in many ways, this is the hard part. Because instead of just using your fingers and your memory, you now need to use your ears.
The good news is that you already recognise many of these things just from listening to music all your life. The way certain music makes you feel, even when you take the words away, is a result of the harmony of the song. The chords have been chosen and designed in a certain order to elicit an emotional response from the listener. You’re essentially emotionally manipulated whenever you listen to music! But we can take that emotional response and use it to identify the chords that we hear.
At a basic level - when you hear a major chords your emotional response is to feel happy, or right with the world. When you hear a minor chord, your emotional response is to feel sad, melancholy, or just not as happy as you did before.
At the next level we can train our ears to recognise chord progressions by starting with the most common ones - we can recognise the way we respond to the change in chords and listen to, not only the harmony of the song, but listen to our inner-reactions to that part of the song.
Using a mixture of listening to our emotional responses, and using what we know about music theory we can combine the two to decipher the harmony of a song.
Training our ear to recognise intervals is less emotional and more about repetition.
What is an interval?
An interval is the relationship in distance between two notes. How far away are the notes from one another? If we can recognise the interval then we can go from one note to the next and decipher entire melodies.
If you are familiar enough with scales you will be able to hum them without playing them. If you can hum a major scale, then you can effectively work out an interval. The distance between C and G is an interval of a fifth, because if I hum a major scale starting on the C, I will hum 5 notes to get to the G. I won’t go into the names too much here, but just to explain that this is something you’ll need to learn about.
Recognising rhythm and being able to replicate it is the next phase of ear-training.
Before you get to the rhythm however, you will have identified the notes in the passage by using the intervals as above and played the notes without rhythm.
Next we want to identify the rhythm without worrying about the notes. So tap the rhythm with your hand on a table or surface.
Once we can tap a rhythm with our hand, we need to assign the rhythm to the appropriate fingers we’ll eventually use to play the notes. This is best done on the keyboard first to identify which fingers will play which notes in order, then the rhythm is brought in but still only tapping a surface at this point.
So as an example - if we have a riff - listen to the audio of the song:
I hum, then figure out the notes of the riff without any concern for the rhythm.
I tap it out with my hand on a surface, sometimes using a metronome for a steady beat can help. Go over it until you feel the rhythm naturally, don’t overthink it.
I go to the keyboard and identify the fingers I need for this riff and assign the rhythmic beats to each finger appropriately. Still only tapping on a surface.
I then apply the rhythm to the appropriate fingers on top of the relevant keys.
Identifying rhythm by itself is one thing, but allocating the rhythm to different fingers and having them cooperate is another. It will take time and practise to get your fingers used to dividing up rhythms. BUT for each rhythm you learn how to separate in your fingers, you will save that up in your ‘riff-bank’ which is what I like to call your memory of riffs & rhythms, and you will find your ‘muscle memory’ will know what to do whenever that rhythm comes up again.
Remember: Reading Doesn’t Mean Understanding. We want to understand music! And to do that we need to develop the three major areas of Scales, Chords & Ear-training first and foremost when we’re learning the piano - before you learn how to read sheet music. The result is you will understand music before you learn how to read it off a page.
Much like we learn how to listen and speak before we learn how to read and write, we take the same approach and become music-fluent before we become literate.
It’s easier to learn about music theory and harmony using online resources such as my Piano Picnic courses unencumbered by also having to learn what everything looks like. It frees you up to develop your passion and comprehension of music without having to learn what a demisemiquaver is and which part of the stave it belongs on.
Reading music is a valuable skill to learn but not essential to learning piano songs and as such, should be treated as an upskill, rather than a foundational one.
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