The benefits of practicing by ear

You’ve heard the saying about doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? It doesn’t end well.

Let’s talk about a different way to practice from what you may be doing day after day after day.

I’ve always found it curious that musicians spend so much time using their eyes, and focusing less on their ears.

In this case, I’m referring to practicing and the obsession of so many with reading music throughout their entire practice session: books on patterns, scales, etudes, transcriptions, songs, and theory.

Those materials are all beneficial, as long as they are balanced with practicing/playing by ear.

My advice is not only for jazz musicians, but for musicians of every musical style.

Classical, pop, electronic, rock and other musicians should be able to noodle around their instrument by ear, playing technical exercises, songs in various keys, and improvised melodies-all the while calling it practicing.

I created a three-minute TikTok video this week that addresses the whole eye versus ear thing, and offers a challenge for one or more of your practice sessions.

The benefits of practicing by ear go beyond building better musicianship, but also can make your practicing more fun, and in so doing, likely motivate you to do more of it.

Practicing without music FINAL.mp4

Hit the link above and consider a different way to practice in order to mix it up within some of your normal sessions.

I’ve gotta stop because, man, is my slide arm getting tired!

5 thoughts on “The benefits of practicing by ear”

  1. I didnt get this very important concept until way too late in my development. I would read through the changes playing along to Aebersold recordings, thinking I was really improvising. In a literal sense I guess I was, but in reality I was just doing mental gymnastics of playing the notes conveyed to me through the changes I “saw” on the lead sheet. About 10 years ago I realized I really didnt “know” any jazz standards and completely did a 180 flip on my practicing, playing and improvising. I stopped taking jazz gigs for a long time, since I felt it was disingenuous to say I was a “jazz musician” if I really only could play tunes as I was reading a lead sheet in the Real Book. I started learning (memorizing) standards, and transcribing solos and phrases (not to regurgitate in a solo). I went cold-turkey on lead sheets and only use them for reference, and dont consider that I know a tune unless I know it without music. A key element in my mind-set was that I started to trust my ears, and the whole plan worked. My playing has advanced more in the last 10 years than it did in the previous 30. I only wish an earlier teacher had pushed me into this.

    1. Good for you, David, in making the transition. I like the idea that you don’t really know a tune until you can play it by ear. For myself, I don’t really know a tune until I can comp it on piano (without the lead sheet, of course).

  2. Great advice, Mike.

    I now start my practice session with an Aebersold book “Maiden Voyage : Guitar Voicings” by Mike Di Liddo. I quickly look at the music, then close the book, and comp or solo from memory. 14 Standards with great backing tracks plus or minus the guitar part (Pan selected).

    I will see where this leads. At very least my phobia of soloing seems to be fading away.


  3. I always practice with no sheet music unless preparing for a specific gig, my band or show band, hard passages that require review/practice, etc.

    But the main body of my practice routine is with no charts,
    i. e. this will keep me going for 1 to 2 hours:

    B min/Maj7 Melodic minor (ascending) B,C#,D,E,F#,G#,A# (C,Eb,F,G,A) DDL

  4. Of the four learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, reading/writing) my weakest by far is auditory. I have always struggled with memorization, so I call it “rememberization”. I will write something down often enough that it becomes imbedded. Or I will think of it enough to move it to long term memory. I excel at math but struggle with all the other subjects because my recall ability is very low. I have been able to memorize pieces of music but that memorization involves a strong visual and kinesthetic component. And I am almost completely incapable of memorizing lyrics which is important for interpretation. As a result, I do spend some time just playing without any music to try to strengthen my auditory skills. When I listen to music I am fully immersed but quickly forget the details of what I have heard. I try to listen repeatedly, sing along with what I am hearing, improvise with scat vocals. It’s a long and arduous journey but worth the effort. Thanks for this blog entry.

    Now what did my wife ask me to do today?

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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This is just a fake book example for the type of website I can build for you. Just trying to use a little humor here!