Some research indicates that when we actively (rather than passively) listen to music  –  in other words, when we focus and pay attention to the music we hear  –  it is processed in the same area of the brain as language. The same is true when we learn music by ear. In all respects, music is a language; a system of communication.

without sufficient prior listening and participatory exposure, learning music from notation forces us to use only the part of the brain that also processes mathematics. Although music and mathematics are intimately related (see my book Singing the Universe Awake), true music-learning should utilize also the part of the brain that processes language. If music is to be played in a way that is more than robotic, it must be learned as language is learned  –  aurally first, and then later refined through the use of written symbols. Expecting a new student to learn music notation is putting the cart before the horse. Yet most music students are handed a book of notation in their first lesson, and learning to read music begins immediately, before they’ve processed the piece aurally.

Let’s look at how one develops linguistically. Imagine a toddler living without the stimulation of hearing adults speak. Without hearing people speak, recognizing that it is a form of communication, and learning its meanings from constant exposure to it,  he or she would have no way to even begin to understand or use language. Luckily, most children are spoken to constantly, and they make noises (and even have fun with them), and over time they begin to recognize that adults and older siblings are using specific tones of voice to convey meaning. Later they recognize specific words as well as subtle nuances of meaning conveyed by the modulations and dynamics of speech. As the child tries to master this, mistakes are made, but no matter. The process is natural and stress-free. No one is judging.

Notice I said that first the child recognizes tones of voice. A voice can sound angry, happy, encouraging, and so on, and one need not always understand the words to get the gist. If you do know the words, the tone used is so important that it can even override the meaning of the words. If, for instance, you consistently said “no” in a happy way, the child would come to think of “no” as “yes”. A word’s meaning is conveyed largely by the tone of voice. The same is true in music. The meanings of the notes and the melody are conveyed by the way they are played. How can we expect music to be meaningful if we’re playing only the notes without the musical expression? The notes alone do not convey anything except a series of pitches.

Now imagine a toddler being told, “You must not speak until you can read and write.” The child’s ability to speak would be stunted forever. Language cannot be learned effectively just from the written page. It has to be heard, mimicked, and experimented with before it becomes coherent and meaningful. Yet we expect to learn music from the written page alone, and we’re told it’s wrong to learn it by ear! How insane is that?

And what if a babbling toddler were told, “Those noises are wrong. Don’t make any noise unless it’s a word.” This would be impossible. The child would give up and never speak. Yet this is exactly what we are told about learning music  –  to play only structured tunes, exercises and pieces. Is it any wonder that many people give up on learning music?

Aside from the problems associated with non-aural learning, many music students also tend to think that advanced skills should develop more quickly than they do. But how long does it take to learn good language skills? At first we speak in a way that is far from skilled. After a few years we are doing much better, and later we begin to experiment with subtleties such as slang and humor. It takes years to develop advanced vocabulary, and a long time to learn to read well. Music is no different.

Often at a first music lesson, the teacher opens a book, sets it on the music stand, and proclaims, “Here is the music.” Well, you could listen all day to that book and never hear any music. The page itself is silent. There is no music there. What is there is a tool from which music can be brought forth. It’s not just the notes and symbols that make it meaningful, but how it’s expressed. But true expression cannot be learned from the page.

Many students believe they can’t learn any music by ear. Yet when coached, they almost always do it easily. If you “can’t” learn by ear, it’s usually because no one has ever taught you how. If you were a dancer who had only ever learned ballet, how would you expect to know automatically how to bellydance? You wouldn’t. They are different skills, but when both learned, they create a richer database of experience.

Please note that I am not saying one should learn only by ear. In language if one learns to speak but never learns to read and write, one is illiterate; in other words, important skills are missing. Likewise, well-rounded musicianship involves aural and technical skills and the ability to read and write music. Learning music as a language makes one a well-rounded, skilled and expressive musician. If you’re human you can learn by ear. You learned to speak, didn’t you?