To be sure, some people use their ears much more than others. Most people have an efficient visual memory and can recall in the mind's eye just how a certain person or house looks; others do not have this ability.
Many people find this difficult to believe; they have such a vivid visual memory themselves that they cannot conceive of a person who is devoid of it. The same holds true with aural memory - the memory of sounds. Some people can hear music in their imagination very completely; others carry only a vague impression. However, anyone can develop this ability. One must begin at his own state of advancement; the one who has it the least needs it the most.
In order to understand how we reproduce music we must analyze the process. There are two big divisions in any musical performance, regardless of whether the player learns by ear or by notes: first, he must be able to remember what the music or notes or fingers are; and second, he must be able to find them on his instrument. A person may recall the notes by seeing them on the page in his mind's eye; or he may carry the feel of them in his fingers; or he may remember the names of the notes or of certain combinations of notes; or he may remember the sound of the tune and harmony - that is, he may hear it in his mind's ear. Of course this last is the most musical way; but any other way may be completely efficient. Most players use a combination.
The ear player necessarily trusts to the ear most of the time; but he may, after having discovered how to play a certain passage by ear, hold it in his memory by the looks of his hand on the keys or by the feeling of the position of his hand, etc. The important difference between learning to play by ear and learning to play by note is that the ear player absolutely must hear the music while he is learning it, but the note player may learn it without using his ears at all.
The second part of the process, that of playing the note or chord after one has recalled it, seems to give the advantage to the note player. If he knows the name of the note or can see it vividly on the page, he should have no difficulty in striking it. The ear player may hear the note vividly and still not know where it is on his instrument. But the person who has learned to play by note is unable to strike a note which he merely hears, because he has never developed this set of associations; and, therefore, he must always learn and remember all his notes by some nonmusical means. The ear player, however, has spent his time finding the notes he hears and is very efficient at it.
Moreover, if the ear player makes a mistake, he will probably play another note that sounds good; but if the note player makes an error, it is likely to be a very sour note. If you are reciting a poem which has no meaning for you, any mistake which you make may render the text ridiculous; but if you have memorized the poem by its meaning, you may substitute words and still not destroy the meaning. That is merely saying over again that playing by ear is more musical than playing by note.
These two processes - that of recalling the music and that of then producing it - develop together; but the player should discriminate as to where his difficulty lies in order that he may help himself more efficiently.
A person must begin at his own level, but the manner of development, as well as the speed of progress, varies with different individuals and with the same individual at different times. How much music have you heard? How much can you recall? How much do you enjoy? Try to recall the tunes vividly. Sing them aloud or sing them in your inner ear. This is the first step in learning to play by ear.
If You've Ever Wanted Free Piano Music... Imagine Learning To Play By Ear, You'll Never Be Stuck For What To Play Again!