Playing Guitar by Ear vs Learning to Read Music

There really is not a right or wrong answer to the question students inevitably ask regarding playing guitar by ear vs learning to read music notation. On one hand, learning how to play the guitar can be achieved more quickly with chords, scales and songs when you do not spend the time necessary to learn how to read music.

Read Music vs. Play by Ear

While on the other hand, there are some distinct advantages to learning how to read music. These are actually two very different approaches to spending your practice time too, so it is best to consider what you ultimately want to achieve and it will help to guide you towards making this decision. What you basically have is one method that allows you to draw from many existing sources, approaches and techniques quite freely, and another method which focuses more on the limitations, at least initially, of what is on the music notation sheet which is in front of you when you want to play a piece of music or a song.

For instance there are many musicians, not just guitarists, who know how to read music yet that is all that they can do. They cannot improvise or play around with different melodic ideas within scales in a creative manner because there is no sheet music in front of them. In other words they are literally tied to the music which in front of them and they cannot really play without it. This does not mean that all musicians are like this, but there are lots of them who do suffer from this type of limitation.

On the other hand guitarists who can actually read music, not just charts (yet this definitely helps), may find that there are more opportunities to be hired as a musician if that is what they are looking to do.

Having the ability to read any piece of music which is put in front of you means that as a musician you could work in any number of positions, and actually have a solid career as a professional guitarist. The thing about this approach to learn to play guitar is that there is a huge amount of time put into learning the intricacies of sheet music instead of learning the instrument and the techniques involved in playing it. Most of the students who show an interest in learning the guitar will start off learning some songs and along the way learning the guitar notes, guitar chords and other things that beginners learn. Having to learn what the little dots mean in a piece of music does not appeal to them because it is not all that fun.

However some of the most talented musicians in the world have the ability to read music and play guitar by ear. This truly is the best of both worlds and it does indeed represent a significant amount of time dedicated to learning both of these ways of playing their instrument. Many guitar students prefer to focus on the more immediate approaches to learn guitar which is essentially learning to play chords, scales, licks, songs, theory and other means of playing by ear. There are countless numbers of teachers out there who also teach this way, and they usually do not read music themselves either. For the budding guitarist the choice is usually to be able to learn how to play their favorite songs on the guitar. This is often the way that guitar lessons for beginners are structured. This provides a sense of accomplishment and can also lay the foundation for actually learning music theory along with the necessary techniques.

Over time when a student has had time to pick up what they have an interest in through several guitar lessons for beginners they will have had a good head start and can ultimately make up their mind as to which direction that they would like to go concerning playing by ear vs learning to read music. These options will include learning music charts, focusing on certain stylistic approaches to the guitar as well as specific techniques, or pursuing a formal education which will include learning not only to read music but learning a combination of all these methods.

PROS AND CONS – with Our Opinion on the Subject:

  • Learning to read music requires more time spent away from actually “Playing” yet it can provide more diversity if you get really good at it.
  • Learning techniques and how songs work (music theory) without reading music is quicker. This also provides evidence that it is definitely not necessary to know how to read music in order to play creatively and even write songs on the guitar.
  • Our opinion is that if you want to work as a professional musician for hire then you should learn how to read music. If you want to be a performer, songwriter or member of a band then it is best to focus on actually playing the guitar and the techniques which you can use to develop your own playing style.

No matter which way you go however, learning about music theory is one thing every guitar player should spend some of their practice time on.

2 thoughts on “Playing Guitar by Ear vs Learning to Read Music

  1. When I first started I took lessons from a few people. I think that after a while most people try to learn by ear. If they read music it is usually very rudimentary. That is just what I have found the situation to be.

  2. With such a limited amount of time in my day, I have to spend time working on my chops you know? I mean it does not make sense for me to try to decipher the notes on the staff because although I know how to read the music, I am slow at it. I will use things like sheet music when I need to learn a new song, but this is usually for a reason. Like I said, my limited playing/practicing time is spent on getting song parts down physically so I can play them on a consistent basis.

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