To Read Music or Not To Read Music? What’s the Best Way To Learn To Play the Piano?

To Read Music or Not To Read Music? What’s the Best Way To Learn To Play the Piano?

play piano without reading music

Learning to play the piano has always been on your list of accomplishments to achieve — but the idea of learning to read sheet music is intimidating. 

Can you learn to play the piano without reading music? 

Although learning to play the piano by ear takes a special kind of interest in music and the learner’s attitude, it could be possible to master the piano without sheet music.

Learn the pros and cons of both, helpful tips and tricks, and simple steps to how learning to play the piano by ear is done.

Table of Contents

Can You Learn Piano Without Reading Music?

Yes, you can learn how to play the piano without reading music and learn by ear, but there are also great advantages to learning how to read music. 

Some new musicians have an ear for music, and it may be second nature for them to sit down at a piano and easily understand the notes, chords, rhythms, and more. For others, this sounds utterly complicated. 

Northwest School of Music provides quality musical education to musicians young and old. If you’re interested in learning how to play the piano and read music, Northwest School of Music can help.

how to play the piano by ear

Playing the Piano Without Reading Music: Learning How To Play the Piano By Ear

Reading music is a learned skill, but learning how to play the piano by ear also requires great skill. If you have great listening skills, this could be easy to do.

We learn how to interact with music by listening — that’s what makes many musicians so great. When you listen to the material you want to learn, you can internalize the notes and sounds that you hear and then translate them on the piano. 

This mechanical exercise helps connect you to what you’re playing so you can best communicate through your music. 

can you play piano without reading music

Understand That Playing the Piano and Reading Music Are Two Different Skills

Just because a pianist can read sheet music doesn’t mean they are an exceptional piano player. 

While reading sheet music is a skill — there are many chords, notes, rhythms, and more to decipher — so is playing the piano. 

A pianist who can only play by reading sheet music often produces one-dimensional music. They simply translate what they’re reading to their instrument. They may not truly understand what it is that they’re putting together — harmonies, rhythms, and more. 

How can you expand on what you’re playing if you don’t understand how to play without reading sheet music in front of you? 

The Advantages of Learning To Play the Piano by Ear

If you can read sheet music, you’re likely good at following instructions. But learning to play the piano by ear is advantageous in many ways:

  • Your ability to “figure a song out” is higher, leaving room for spontaneity.
  • You have room for more creative opportunities and can likely better improvise.
  • You may develop better muscle memory to play a song without music in front of you.

On the flip side, just learning how to read music could do more harm than good.

What happens if you can’t access your sheet music? Now you can’t play. A pianist who can play by ear and is well-practiced in doing so can likely reproduce a near-perfect rendition of the piece they were intending to play.

When you learn how to read sheet music, you may be simply learning music. When you learn how to play the piano by ear, you’re understanding music, and there’s a big difference between the two. 

5 Areas of Understanding To Master When Learning To Play the Piano by Ear

Can I learn to play the piano without reading sheet music? Probably! But first, you need to master these five areas of music to understand how.

#1: Scales

Scales are the building blocks of music and help you to identify different keys. Basic scales can be major and minor, and learning how to play them and manipulate them is essential when learning how to play the piano by ear. 

Scales constitute the key of a song. When reading music, you’ll see the scale indicated by a key signature at the beginning of the piece. 

For those learning how to read music, simply finding this key signature will tell you the key to play. For those learning the play by ear, you must learn to identify it. 

#2: Chords

Similar to scales, there are two main chords — major and minor. These chords are built off of scales and begin to bring harmonies into music. 

Think about singers harmonizing when they sing together. The same is true for playing songs. The harmony is what gives the melody context and can make or break a song — the entire mood or meaning of the piece can differ if the harmony is incorrect. 

Learn how to build major and minor three-note chords and you can create 24 different chords — one for every note in the octave.

An understanding of this blueprint and how chords work together will help pianists who learn by ear better understand their songs quicker than those who only learn to read sheet music.

#3: Ear Training

If you understand scales and chords, training your ear is the next step to learning how to play piano by ear. 

Luckily, if you’ve had an interest in music all of your life, you’re already attuned to recognizing harmonies and how different songs elicit different emotional responses. 

Now to tie it all together. 

Major chords tend to bring feelings of happiness and joy while minor chords typically bring sadness and melancholy. By recognizing these feelings, we can more easily decipher the chords, recognize chord progressions, and ultimately decipher the harmony of a song.

How so? Through repetition.

#4: Intervals

The distance between two notes is called an interval, and recognizing an interval can help decipher a melody. The good news is that if you can hum a major scale, you can work out an interval.

Here’s how:

Take the notes C and G, for example. On a major scale, they are five notes from one another, so the distance between C and G is an interval of a fifth. If you start at C, you will hum five notes to get to G.

Being able to hear those five notes will help you decipher an interval.

#5: Rhythm

In music, rhythm is defined as the placement of sounds in time. When listening to a song, you might find yourself tapping your hands along to the rhythm.

Identifying a rhythm is important, but then you must allocate the rhythm to different fingers that correlate with keys on the piano to effectively play it.

Here’s an example of how to do this with a riff, or repeated sequence of notes and chords:

  • Listen to a song and hum it to figure out the riff.
  • Listen to it again and tap your hand on a surface or use a metronome to determine the rhythm.
  • Use a keyboard to identify the fingers needed to play the riff and assign rhythmic beats to each finger still while tapping your hand on a surface.
  • Apply the determined rhythm to the appropriate fingers on the keyboard itself.

Tips To Learn How To Play the Piano by Ear

You haven’t counted out the idea of learning to read sheet music, but given the benefits, you are interested in learning how to play the piano by ear. 

Similarly to reading music, learning to train your ear takes practice. Follow these tried and true tips to help learn how to play the piano by ear:

  • Learn the musical alphabet – Just like with reading, there’s an alphabet in music that’s extremely important for playing the piano. It starts with A and ends with G and then starts again.
  • Understand intervals and what they sound like – By knowing what these sound like, you can quickly find melodies and chord progressions. The best way to learn intervals is to listen to them and play them.
  • Practice by using songs you know well – By using a song you know well, you can more easily recreate the melody. 
  • Find the key – To do this, sing the last note of a song’s chorus. Often, the chorus ends on the song’s key. You can use diatonic chords to double-check that the note is the key.
  • Use lead sheets and chord charts – If you already know how to read sheet music, use chord charts and lead sheets to provide some structure but still leave room for creativity.
  • Read sheet music while listening to songs – This helps with visualizing what you’re hearing.
  • Test yourself – Consistency is key. Set a routine that includes musical instruction and practice. Test yourself regularly to see how far you’ve come and what still needs work.
you can play piano without reading music

Is Reading Music Necessary To Learn How To Play the Piano?

No, you can learn how to play the piano without knowing how to read sheet music. Can it be helpful to learn how to read music, though? Yes!

There are advantages — mainly the infinite music theory knowledge — and disadvantages to learning to read sheet music. If you only know how to read sheet music, you may lack the chance to show creativity and more.

If you have an intuitive ear and prefer to create music by hearing it, there may be no need to read music. 

There are times when reading sheet music is crucial, though, like playing in an orchestra or ensemble or providing accompaniment. 

Whether you’re interested in learning to play the piano by ear, learning how to read sheet music, or both, Northwest School of Music can help. We offer piano lessons for beginners at any age, taught by trained and experienced teachers.

Should I Play the Piano by Ear or Learn To Read Music?

There is no right or wrong answer here — both can be very beneficial. It just depends on what kind of learner you are and what you want to get out of learning to play the piano. Although it’s more difficult to learn how to play the piano by ear, some learners respond better this way.

For example, you may want to learn how to read sheet music if:

  • You want to learn classical music.
  • You have access to sheet music for the type of music you like.
  • You see sheet music as a guide. 
  • You are a visual person who likes symbols.
  • You want to get into composing music and like to write music down in standard notation.

On the flip side, you might not need to learn how to read sheet music if:

  • You want to learn pop or jazz music.
  • You can’t access sheet music for a song you want to learn.
  • You get anxious and frustrated with sheet music.
  • You have an intuitive ear and prefer recreating music by hearing it.
  • You want to compose music but are comfortable using music production software.
play piano without reading music

Northwest School of Music: Offering Piano Lessons That Prioritize Your Goals and Enjoyment

No matter which route you choose to go — learning to read sheet music or learning to play the piano by ear — learning the piano can be difficult to do but very rewarding once it’s done. 

At Northwest School of Music, we offer piano lessons for learners of all ages taught by our trained and experienced teachers. Choose private or group lessons from our convenient class schedules and let us know what you’re interested in learning. 

Contact us today for information on music lessons at Northwest School of Music.

how to play the piano by ear
play piano without reading music
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503-999-4343​ | office@nwschoolofmusic.com​

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503-999-4343​ | office@nwschoolofmusic.com​

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