I like to tell my beginner students that there are three ways they can learn piano music.
You can learn piano music by ear, by rote, or by reading.
Our aim as teachers is to ensure our students can play music all three ways, isn’t it?
A well-rounded education will give our students the ability to play all kinds of musical genres. Wouldn’t it be great if they could jump into a band and play with people?
Today’s blog post will explore those three different ways to learn piano music, and how your students can recognise patterns, harmonies and rhythms in music.
Teaching and learning music by ear is so often overlooked in a ‘traditional’ piano music.
It’s often seen as just a small part of a musical exam.
But knowing how to play a piece of music by ear is a skill so many musicians value.
I was never taught how to play by ear, but came back to it as an adult.
Playing by ear isn’t just a natural talent, although it can be for some, but it’s also something that can be taught.
Start with easy tunes for complete beginners – check out Tim’s 5 Easy Songs to Teach Any Student for a good start.
Once the basic melody is learnt we’ll transpose it into different keys, finding the different patterns of black and white notes on the keyboard. We’ll talk about the concept of the key or the ‘home’ note – the one that makes it sound finished. And then we’ll learn to harmonise.
Start simple by harmonising with two notes, and then I’ll progress to more complex pieces.
Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is a popular choice for older students, and uses four-note harmonies.
By teaching harmony we also learn about pulse – because not only do we need to know what note/chord to play but also when to play it – and the answer lies on the strong beats.
Keiva is 7, and here’s how she played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star all by ear!
I also like to transpose harmonised pieces with my students to enhance their knowledge of chords and what notes to play in different keys.
Students quickly see how different songs use similar chord progressions, and even chords sometimes.
Teaching and learning music is all about making connections! And isn’t it great seeing that ‘click’ moment your students have.
You can even encourage your students to play ‘mash-ups’ between two different songs with similar chords and harmonies.
Creative tasks are great ways to get your students learning new skills and helping them to truly understand music.
Here’s Jem, 8, playing a mash-up of Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill and George Ezra’s Shotgun – both of which he learnt by ear – accompanied by a backing track app which I often use in my teaching.
Teaching by rote is becoming more popular, but it has been traditionally criticised
Some see it as teaching students to play more difficult pieces they aren’t ready to read, and therefor discouraging them from learning to read music.
But, I like to make it clear right from the outset with a new piano student that I teach pieces in three different ways.
Managing expectations is important, so my students never feel that learning by rote is the only way they should learn music.
Rote teaching encourages students to become familiar with patterns on the keys.
I also teach chord shapes and scales early on so students recognise patterns and can relate this to pieces they are learning.
Rote learning encourages them to use the whole of the keyboard and not just a few notes around middle C. Often they also use the pedal to great effect.
Here’s an example of one of my students performing a rote piece Thunder Showers by Paula Dreyer at my student concert after only three months of lessons; this is Madeleine, 8, who had not yet started learning any notation at the point when she was able to perform this piece.
As students progress, rote learning is often combined with and superseded by learning by ear – the more knowledge they have of melody and harmony the better they can work out songs for themselves.
Teaching piano music through reading is the basis of a classical teaching approach.
But as musical education evolves, and our knowledge of what works with modern students, this has become just one of the different ways we teach music now.
Teaching beginners used to be about opening a method book and teaching them to read straight away.
This is the wrong approach now – make sure you check out Tim’s great No Book Beginners framework, which shows how you can teach students without a book for more than 10 lessons.
For many students a reading-only approach is much too restrictive and can result in putting them off the piano altogether. It’s not a creative approach and can limit the skills they learn.
I don’t teach notation to beginners for at least a few weeks of lessons.
I always begin with rote teaching – so that they learn about the piano keyboard; and ear pieces – so they learn the basics of melody, harmony, beat and rhythm.
This is all re-enforced with improvisations and maybe their own compositions. When notation is introduced they find it easier to relate it to what they already know: they can see that the contours of up and down in the notation mirror what they already recognise in terms of the patterns of up and down in pitch and on the piano.
I explicitly refer to the pieces that they are learning by notation as their ‘reading pieces’ so they understand that these are invariably simpler (to begin with) than other pieces they may be playing already.
Here is Nathan, 9, playing JS Bach’s Little Prelude in C. This is a piece full of broken chord patterns so his ability to be able to identify these chords when first seeing the piece really sped up the learning process.
As I teach students different types of music – often pop songs or pieces from films – I often find myself combining all three types of teaching methods.
Tailoring these teaching approaches to the individual is vital. Work with each student on which method resonates with them the best, or with what they might need to work on.
Get your students to work out basic melodies, harmonies and chord progressions by ear.
For students who find reading easier, I also use sheet music to prompt their learning along.
Notated arrangements of pop songs are often complex – primarily due to the rhythmic syncopations – so I encourage the students to use this as a guide only to assist them in playing what they hear. They may also use the chord symbols to help with the chord progressions.
But I rarely encourage them to play exactly what is written – rather to create their own arrangements suitable to their ability level and tastes.
Here’s Gabriel, 10, performing his own arrangement of This is Me from The Greatest Showman. This is an arrangement that involves playing the melody by ear and block chords in the left hand.
He worked this our primarily all by ear, with some help from rote teaching.
Here is Elizabeth, 9, who had only been having lessons for six months when she performed this arrangement of Jar of Hearts at my student concert.
We transposed this into they key of C to make it easier for her. She learnt this mostly from rote with some aspects of learning the melody by ear.
Just a note on how these teaching methods and a creative combination of the three ties in with exams.
The majority of my students do not take exams. See here for more on exams.
I hold concerts each year to provide my young students with a chance to perform.
Clearly when preparing for exams, the learning is predominantly via reading. However, the students’ knowledge of scale and chord patterns gained from rote and ear work certainly speeds up the process of interpreting the dots on the page!
Breaks between exams – and decent ones of more than nine months – is important in my studio.
This gives students a chance to explore musically and focus on other ways of learning pieces.
This does mean my students tend to take longer to go through ‘the system’ of exams, but that’s okay, because my focus is on providing them with a holistic education.
Even more importantly I think there is less chance of students’ giving up the piano altogether when they are given a variety of ways to learn the music that most interests them.
My primary aim in teaching is to encourage a lifelong love of playing the piano and I find that this way of teaching offers the best chance in meeting this aim.
How do you teach your students? What role do you think these three methods have?
Leave your thoughts below.
Rebecca is a piano teacher based in Teddington, South West London, UK. After spending 15 years in the corporate world as a Finance professional she left to set up her own teaching practice five years' ago. She now has about 50 students - about 30 children and 20 adults. She is committed to providing all her students with a well-rounded and varied musical education. She is also a keen, but novice, gardener.