Listening to music is fun; playing music is more fun; playing music by ear is the most fun of all. If the player remembers the music he is playing by means of his ear, he is playing by ear. But most players who have learned to play by the traditional method of reading notes on a page and then punching keys on an instrument do not trust to their ears to tell them what is coming next. Instead, they remember the notes by name or by their chord name, or they have a visual memory of how the notes look on the page, or they use some other nonmusical system of recall. Naturally this turns their attention from the sound of the music and encourages the habit of watching keenly the mechanics of playing with almost total disregard for the music itself.
Practicing music is not fun. So say most of the children who are taking lessons and many of us adults who once took lessons but "wouldn't practice." But practicing is indeed fun for many children. Listening to music is fun; and when listening to music is the chief activity in practice, practicing is fun. This is even truer for adults than it is for children; children get pleasure from the intellectual and physical exercise involved in practice. However, when practicing the music, and not the mechanics, the result is fun!
People who play by ear are generally considered to be especially talented. This is entirely a fiction. They do not play by ear because they are talented; rather they are talented because they play by ear. They use their ears in determining what is correct to play, and this constant activity develops their ability to manipulate musical sounds.
In contrary fashion, the person who never plays by ear frequently renders himself less and less "talented." When this neglect is perpetuated year after year, the individual does become one-sided and cannot play even the simplest little tune by ear. This does not mean, however, that he cannot learn to play by ear but rather that he particularly needs to use his ear and overcome his weakness. If the advanced musical performer is unable to play by ear, he can improve his performance decidedly by learning to play by ear - even if he learns this method of playing only to a rather small extent. The musical feel and insight which this develops is commonly considered talent.
Anyone who can hear can learn to play by ear. Nor is a teacher necessary. Learning to play by ear is much like learning to talk; one fools around with the various keys or finger positions until he strikes a combination that he wants or likes, and then he knows how to get it again. The basic nature of such learning consists in forming an association between some muscular pattern and a pleasant response. The pleasant response of a musical sound or phrase associates itself with the finger pattern that produced it, and when we have learned this we have learned how to get that musical idea whenever we want it.
The boy whistles and the girl turns round. The next time he wants the girl to turn round he does not say to himself, "Now I must whistle"; nor does he stop to think how he holds his tongue or what particular inflection he needs in his whistle. He just whistles. The bond between his desire and the muscles of his mouth is firmly established. He could have learned to do this by imitating someone else; we can learn to play by ear this way, too. He could have been told how to make this particular whistle, or he might even have read how in an instruction book; but in that case his whistle probably wouldn't have been effective. I doubt if the girl would have turned round.
So it is in music. When we couple the musical effect we are seeking with the feeling in our muscles, the bond is much more efficient than when it goes through intellectual and other nonaural channels. Notation and technique tend to interfere with this process. You are your own best teacher for ear playing.
If You've Ever Wanted Free Piano Music... Imagine Learning To Play By Ear, You'll Never Be Stuck For What To Play Again!