There’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed. I only recently heard a term for it. As you practice something, there slowly comes a transition. At first, your mind is doing all the work, remembering or seeing what the fingers need to do next. Then, as you practice, it is as if your fingers simply take over, and your mind can concentrate on other things. I call this muscle memory. It’s the point at which your fingers begin doing more of the work than your mind. At the higher levels of muscle memory, a person reaches the point at which they can sing, daydream, or even have a conversation while they are playing. I still struggle with conversing as I play, but many people are very accomplished at it.
As you begin learning by ear the melody and chords of a piano piece, muscle memory improves at about the same rate as your ability to reproduce what you are hearing. If you get up and leave for a few hours and return, you may have forgotten some, but when you repeat the process, the parts you’ve already learned will come back rather quickly, allowing you to continue to get better at the piece. Do not get frustrated at how slow you are playing it. You will be surprised at how much faster you will be able to play these simpler parts by the time you’ve learned the notes and chords to the rest of the song. As you get further into the piece, you will find that there are distinct patterns in the piece. Often chords will be the same finger movements starting on different notes. This is helpful, because while the melody is easier to hear, you will find that the chord is a little bit easier to play. Those new or unpracticed with the piano will soon find the greater challenge to be in playing both hands at the same time. This is also a practice issue, and will develop in a relatively short time. This is a challenge that occurs at every level of piano learning. I still can’t play a melody too well with my left hand while my right hand tries to play chords.
This process can also been referred to as programming. As you begin to learn a piece of music, you will slowly accustom your fingers to certain movements. It is as if your brain is programming your fingers to do a certain task that has very particular actions. At first it may only be a few notes that you will program your fingers to do. Then as you get further into the piece, you will find that programming works on every level of the piece.
This is helpful to keep in mind, because the more programs your fingers learn, the faster you will be able to learn new programs. This is the case with different pieces of music. Every piece that you learn increases your database of abilities. Each of these increase your capacity to learn new music quickly, and without much effort.
I know many people who have learned to play piano completely by ear. My sister is one of these. She has also been an artist for as long as I can remember, and is very accomplished at it. I was speaking to her one day, and she mentioned an interesting point. When she draws, she draws from sight, meaning that she draws from what she sees, whether from a photograph or a view in front of her. She’ll draw a simple sketch of the whole thing to get proportions correct, and then she’ll begin the actual drawing. She says it’s not about looking at it, getting a basic idea of the picture, then setting the picture aside and drawing what she remembers. She will start with a tiny area, perhaps the corner, and begin to draw exactly what she sees in that spot. She doesn’t pay so much attention to the picture around that tiny area. Where there is a line, she’ll draw a line. Where there is a slightly darker shade of blue, she’ll draw a slightly darker shade of blue. If there is an incline of color from one to another, she’ll draw it exactly as she sees it. As she finishes one tiny area, she’ll continue on to the tiny area next to it. She’ll continue this way, stopping only occasionally to see it in the context of the whole picture. At those times she’ll fix what needs to be fixed, or continue on with another tiny area.
One time we were talking about a picture she had drawn of a couple of guys sitting down, one with a cigarette in his mouth. I made mention of the cigarette, and she said “Did he have a cigarette in his mouth?”
On the picture, it was obvious. But she had never noticed, because she was duplicating what she saw, not necessarily her version of what was happening in the picture. Other than the times she’s just drawing a cartoon or something fun to pass the time, this is the way she always draws a picture. And when the picture is done, she inevitably gets compliments on the detail, the feel, and the quality of the picture.
The point she was making when we talked about this was that she was surprised to find that art and music are developed the same. When she learns to play a piano piece, she takes it a tiny bit at a time – She starts with a note or two; then a few more, and so on, until she has learned the whole thing. Usually this involves rewinding and playing dozens of times until she feels comfortable and confident that she has found the right note. You may be thinking that this could hardly be called learning by ear, since it is done one single note at a time. Consider, however, that everything we learn to do in life starts first with the most basic, fundamental principles, and then branches outward. Michael Jordon doesn’t need lessons on how to dribble a basketball. He learned that many years ago, and became so masterful at it that he needs no conscious thought about where his hand needs to be in order to retrieve the ball as it bounces up from the floor. A driver does not need to remind him/herself which pedal is the gas, and which is the brake. That lesson has already been learned and conquered. When we first begin a new skill, we do it from the very most basic, and work up. By the time we can do something fluently, we become almost totally unaware of the hundreds of little fundamental principles we are engaging in.