Eye over ear

I’ve been looking through elementary school band method books. I’ve by no means looked through every method book out there, but I find something curious about the ones I have seen, and I’ve confirmed my suspicions with a few music teachers.

The books are filled with diagrams of instruments, some music history, definitions of musical terms, and pages of staff notation for memorizing the relationship of fingers on the instrument to dots on the page. 

But nowhere have I found any mention of or exercises for the ear. None.

Now, I’m not referring to jazz, just general music education. I’ve often written about our obsession with technique and mechanics, and my observation about the seemingly exclusive focus on eye over ear within these elementary band books points to a possible cause.

I’ve been contemplating a book for beginning music students that suppliments the eye/mind obsession of early music education materials. I think that ear-based exercises would not only be helpful in developing the core music skill of hearing, but if done well, would also be more fun for both the teacher and student.

Why aren’t we training the ear from the very beginning similar to Suzuki?

Many of you are teachers, so I’m very interested in your thoughts on this.

18 thoughts on “Eye over ear”

  1. When I played in the high school band we marched without music. I absolutely faked every song even our school song which we practiced a huge number of times. The director never tested anyone to see if they’d actually memorized the music. I wonder if forcing me to play without the music would have made a difference.

  2. Mike, I guess it is correct that almost all band method books focus on teaching early musicians to “operate” their instruments “properly,” read notation (it’s a band after all), play together, maybe follow a conductor, and learn how to act/behave, stuff like that. It’s what music books are designed to do.

    A teacher COULD find time to ask young ensembles to play back what they hear, shorter figures of rhythm and melodies. A teacher COULD tell students that their next audition for seating and placement will involve playing “these several tunes, in these keys” accurately and musically.

    You’re right indeed, playing by ear, or playing by memory, is not getting taught in bands, instrumental classes, and almost never in lessons either. I taught it, you teach it, and there must be others out there.

    1. Tom, I’m thinking of simple things to start like playing a note for a student then a new note and asking if the second note is higher or lower than the first. Or playing a triad and asking if it is happy or sad (major or minor). Further in the evolution of this type of training, asking the student to play Three Blind Mice starting on this note…

  3. Avatar
    Forrest Padgett

    You must have heard the name Edwin E. Gordon somewhere along the line. He wrote “Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory.” I’ve only read his material independently – it was never a part of any academic curriculum – but as a player who came to teaching later, my quest to “teach better” inevitably led to Gordon’s work (and others). To nurture musicians to be attuned to any real fullness of musical expression (including the ability to improvise), there has to be a strong focus on the ear, the earlier the better. Learning to read music is more meaningful with listening and connecting notation to sound. In my experience, some conventional music education has seemed slow or completely negligent regarding development of the ear. But any musician who remembers learning to play “by ear” first will eventually grapple with this in some form. I have met some younger teachers who studied Gordon’s work as part of their training. And I would hope anybody who graduated from Berklee and teaches young people would be incorporating ear training in their programs. The understanding of the importance of music hearing and the ear has GOT to be getting out there through younger teachers, though it may not be accurately represented in most elementary school band books. Just some thoughts.

  4. Mike:

    I think you stack a few stones at once with young folks. Listening in general – rhythm (and them taking part) – and hearing music. What instruments do they hear and how they make up a band. Their sounds and rhythmic cadences.

  5. Check out an online program called “Improvise for Real.” It really works for training the ear and drawing out our natural musicality. It’s a different approach that will bring true musical freedom to those of us who are tied to the page. You will really come to understand how music works, and feel it in your body rather than have it be purely a mental/visual experience. As someone who was extensively traditionally trained, I find this process and material amazing! Google it, and really investigate it. Yes, it still takes effort, but it’s way less frustrating, way more fun, and will ultimately get you to where you want to be. I have no stake in promoting this method, except that I have found it to be an authentic path to musical expression, and the world needs fewer frustrated musicians.

  6. Totally agree with you Mike!
    Music / instrument teachers must embrace more on helping students develop their ears better. The focus is so much on reading the notes unless you are embracing alternative methods like the Suzuki method. But having gone through both my kids high school music band curriculums, it is so much note driven with little focus on development of the ears. As I am teaching piano to my students I always have a part of the lesson geared towards encouraging development of the ear. Listening to a tune and then habing them playing, transposing the tune so the student learns to associate the harmonies and patterns rather than just reading the notes on the page.

  7. I couldn’t agree more and I like your ideas on the beginning exercises you mentioned. I’ve done the 1st level Suzuki training for trombone and am teaching my new students this way. Of course there are other things that are needed, like the ear training exercises you mentioned and rhythm work as well. At the school where I teach, all of my colleagues start out with reading so my kids don’t get into the bands as early. My next step is to figure out a way to have a beginner ensemble based on playing by ear and improvisation.

  8. You are correct. I used to have my students try to match the pitch I played on one or two tries. I also had them learn a short pattern and play it starting on different notes. I am retired now from public school teaching. I can tell you that the main obstacle in teaching to “hear” better is time. I could do some if it, but with concerts to prepare for and limited rehearsal time certain things fall through the cracks. Why the method books don’t include this more I’m not sure.

  9. I agree and one thing I have recently started doing is teaching students songs by ear. I am doing a holiday performance and all the holiday songs that we will do will be learned by ear.

  10. Hi Mike, Are you aware of the “new” approach being taught by Leonardo Caminati, an Italian musician? It seems revolutionary, as he teaches recognition of the scale number (Roman Numeral) of each pitch, within a diatonic scale. He says that research has shown that teaching interval recognition or solfeggio is actually antithetical to ear training, and will inhibit one’s progress. I’ve watched a few of his presentations, though not signing up for the full course, and it seems to me superior to what is now being taught. If I had been aware of this when I retired–it only recently has been introduced–I would have gladly paid the $400 price. Ned Kuivinen

  11. Mike, I think that you have hit on a real problem here.

    There are YouTube guitar teachers that state unequivocally that ear training is a waste of time. In the gypsy jazz world this is especially true. Learn licks, job done. The expertise is in how many you can quote and how fast you can play them. The results can be pretty spectacular but strangely empty. The connection with what Django was about is (at best) left hanging by a thread. The participants enjoy it, and why not? I can see the sense of accomplishment.

    But where do you hide when your young relative asks you to play a simple nursery rhyme and you can’t find it because you can’t hear it? How do you communicate emotionally with your audience when you yourself aren’t connected to those qualities in the music? What depth of enjoyment can you achieve if you are limited by an underdeveloped perception?

    I think you would be doing a very great service to those with a nascent interest in music if you wrote this book. It seems strangely typical of the human condition that it needs saying that the study of music should involve the study of sound, but you are the man to do it.

  12. The Jump Right In series is an ear-based method for band, strings, and recorder, based on the philosophy of Edwin Gordon. It is available from G.I.A. Publications.

  13. Man, this is such a tough cookie. I teach trombone classes for after-school programs on the west coast. The format is usually, most students get 2 classes a week with me, (M/W or T/TH etc) and some have been approved for private lessons. Over the last few years, I’ve learned I have to focus on developing one aspect of their musicianship per semester. This fall (2022) happens to be the ear, as it pertains to rhythm and pitch. We’re doing a lot of call and response rhythm, pitch singing, singing solfeggi while moving slide, buzzing mouthpiece, and playing. Taking happy birthday through all keys. Then learning a song/pattern by ear that’s appropriate for that level.

    My particular challenge is multi-faceted. With already limited classes, if a student has poor attendance for any reason, they’re lost, and I have to adjust the lesson plan accordingly. There’s a limited amount of time before their performance (VERY beginning of dec), add in a week off for thanksgiving, cancel class for halloween or event going on at campus where we teach, and we gotta throw the plan out the window.

    I find with my most advanced students (high schoolers), they have the worst attendance and thus have the hardest time implementing these practices into their daily practice. They’re also the shyest (embarrassed) about their voice and always hesitate to sing for me. I realized some students won’t learn a song by ear unless I drag them through it. Which I am perfectly willing to do, in order for everyone to LEARN IT and HEAR IT. It just cuts into so much more of what we could get done in our already limited classes.

    We could get into personal responsibility, environment, habits, etc. But these are YOUNG STUDENTS who have 99% of their life away from me, with poor impulse control, overcommitted in activities, overwhelmed, overstimulated, and sometimes the parents are completely unaware. I want to develop their reading skills and performance skills as well. It’s a matter of how much time we have, their effort/commitment level, and how can I make the student most successful for their performance at the end.

    I find it’s not always laziness that affects the commitment. Students (or parents) are overcommitted to activities, and can’t do any of it well because of a lack of practice/homework. They’re signed up for school band, marching band/football (fall), after school music program with me 2 days, winter drum line, drivers ED, 3 AP courses, Soccer, and Swimming practice. WHAT!?!?!? HOW!?!? (YES ALL ONE STUDENT). We’re also fighting against the culture of teaching to the test, in which the student just wants the memorizable answers for the test rather than LEARNING/hearing the material. It’s no wonder they’re not practicing outside of my class. A byproduct of being overcommitted to these activities is not knowing how to work hard at ANYTHING. These kids don’t need to be brilliant at any one particular thing, but they need the opportunity and space to learn how to work hard at something. They don’t have that chance if every second on the calendar is filled in. They’re overwhelmed and stressed at the thought of working harder at anything they’re signed up for.

    I also learned recently developing the ear can become mundane for some students. While taking “Happy Birthday” through the keys (adnvaced students), I could start to see eyes glazing over from repeating a pattern or melody, even though they haven’t truly gotten it in any given key.

    To your point Mike, the typical book/page doesn’t open up the ear. It’s hard to break students out of this paradigm that the page is the gold, that the music exists on the page, and that you must understand everything on the page. Especially if they’ve had a previous teacher who approached it with that mentality. You ever try to change someone’s mind/paradigm? lol its hard right. Change someones mind about politics and you’ll see.

    Sure they can read the Ink, but they don’t understand it, or hear it, because they’re not doing anything about the markings. It exists in the waves in the air, not on the page. The page TRIES to define it. We need to hear it, react to it, try something, do something different. What happened when you did that? What did it sound like? Now that it’s defined by ear and verbiage, let’s write it on a page using these quirky markings (staff/note heads/rhythm etc) so you can remember and describe what you’re hearing.

    this is how it feels:
    “nope. We gotta stop learning this song by ear, because you won’t do the part you need to before the performance for a variety of reasons. So here’s all the answers again, and no more growth.”

    I’m in total agreement with you Mike. My long post isn’t meant to be “this is why you don’t teach the ear.” But rather, here are possible challenges, pitfalls, and deterrents. However, TEACH THE EAR ANYWAYS. In the end, I think it comes down to time allotted by student and teacher, and a commitment by the teacher and student to make it a regular part of the class/practice. For me it looks like going hard on the hearing one semester, and going hard on the reading the next, finding ways to balance and adjust it throughout for my students. Sh** happens, just adjust…until the waves go away and it’s clear lol (drone practice).

    If you’re on this site you know music is a language. Babies “transcribe” all kinds of sounds till one of them is kinda clearly mama/dada, or yes/no. Then they learn more words, talk your ear off the next few years, socialize, kind of learn their abc’s. Years after they’ve used sentences and have learned to communicate, we finally teach them to piece ABC’s together, and make words, sentences. Sound it out. “the ball bounced down the street” and after it sounds out the kid goes “oh I know how to say that”. Musical phrases aren’t much different, if at all. Funky sounds, clear sound, note, string notes together/musical phrase, this is what it looks like. “oh I know Mary had a little lamb”. And these kids have so much music already in them. If you’re at an elementary school in America you can clap this one bar rhythm or variation (1, and uh 2 and..and 4) and they’ll clap it right back to you. Show them how to build off of their previous knowledge and pattern recognition. We don’t hand a 2 year old a dictionary and say “communicate now”. We should stop that approach with music too.


  14. Hi Mike. I agree with you 1,000%. In fact, I feel that ear training was the single most important element missing in my own musical development that would have helped me progress faster. I studied music education in college, and there was a very strong emphasis on ear training then. But, it took until that college level before any kind of emphasis was placed on it. And, even there, it was not always presented in the most accessible way for me. The stringed instruments that I was taught then were all presented to us using the Suzuki Method. I have recently been focusing on this with an adult beginner private student. I have presented him with different exercises in an effort to establish and develop a greater link between his ear and his fingers. I will have him play a note or short melodic fragment on the keyboard; then sing the note/fragment, then play the note/fragment on the saxophone.

  15. Another insightful thought Mike. You are correct about never being taught about what the ear may do for us while playing and listening to music. I also wonder what more I would have picked up on with a trained ear. I assume that training the ears would, hmmm……I want to say enhance our musical experience. I have pondered this topic ever since reading your article and am definitely intrigued. Thanks Mike!!!

  16. Hi Mike,
    You’re right. There should be more emphasis on Ear Training. I learn all my tunes by ear, starting at about 8 years old. I don’t read music. I never had any formal Ear Training. At school we were given a copy of a tune in ”do re mi” form. We’d have to remember the air of the tune and then go home with the photocopy of the ”do re mi…” and try to practice it. We would have played tunes in C, F, G at the time.
    I would recommend a book called ”New Ears Resolution – Play By Ear” (with CD) by Craig Buhler.
    It is an excellent book, well worth getting.


  17. Hi Mike, pretty simple why we don’t teach learning by ear more. Our current Music Education system is based on reading. When working with all of my young jazz students I have them playing their major scales by memory in 3rds and 4ths. I have 7th graders who can do this.
    This way they can all hear the interval of a major/ minor 3rd and 4th with a tritone added in.
    We learn tunes by singing them first with the lyrics (those that have) from vocalists. I stay away from instrumentalists at first as most of the great ones interpret the melody. Never once do we “READ.”
    Now, we will read duets together but only after the ear work is done.
    You bring up a great point my friend.
    Thanks for all you do!

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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