Fifteen years ago, I was absolutely blown away by a ten-year-old boy who had taught himself how to play the organ—he had downloaded Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” from the Internet, and played the pedals with both feet. All that before he had had any formal organ lessons! I discovered he had an incredible ear for music—unusual perhaps because no one else in his family was musical. That, of course, was Joey Fala, who is on the cusp of graduating from Yale University with a master’s degree in organ, and who gave the Hawaii Chapter of the American Guild of Organists an absolutely stunning concert a couple of weeks ago.
Today, I swear was déjà vu, because I met a 9-year-old boy who has been playing the organ for six years already, and has only had a year of piano lessons. Everything else he has done strictly on his own. He is in fact already the organist of his church and can play better than any of the parishioners. Oh, we have a number of technical things to fix, but I am still in awe of his raw talent and how he was able to accomplish so much, based solely on his fantastic ear.
All of which tells me that there are two basic types of musicians: those who read music, and those who play “by ear” —would you believe that there is a Wikipedia article on this?
“Playing by ear” is a term describing the ability of an instrumental musician to reproduce a piece of music they have heard, without having observed another musician play it or having seen the sheet music notation. It is the most common way to learn to play a musical instrument in cultures and musical that do not use musical notation, such as by early Blues guitarists and pianists, Romani fiddlers and folk music guitarists. Outside of the Suzuki method, playing by ear is less common in Western Classical music. In this musical tradition, instrumentalists learn new pieces by reading the music notation. Classical students do study how to notate music by ear during “ear training” courses that are a standard part of conservatory or college music programs and by the use of Solfège.
Learning music by ear is done by repeatedly listening to other musicians, either their live shows or sound recordings of their songs, and then attempting to recreate what one hears. This is how people learn music in any musical tradition in which there is no complete musical notation.
Something I discovered was the little boy I met today has only the briefest knowledge of reading music — up to this point he has done everything “by ear.” Yes, in spite of the fact that he played a Handel concerto from memory, and it looked like he was “reading” music out of the hymnbook, in reality he was playing by ear because when I asked him to sightread a single musical line with only four notes in it, he couldn’t do it. It will be my goal to teach him how to read music, and after we accomplish this, there’s no limit to what he can do.