In my mind, reading music and learning music by ear are completely different. I do read music. I’m rather slow at it, so far. I have known about reading music much longer than I have known anything about music by ear. I have come to conclude that while the principles of both overlap some, the methods of practice and levels of skill are completely different. I say this for a couple of reasons. For one thing, one who is new at the piano will likely feel very intimidated to play in front of a well practiced, sheet-music reading, piano player. While you may hear and see incredible skill and agility in the hands of the experienced, know that some such players have not developed any of the most basic levels of learning by ear. They do have an advantage, even great advantage, because their fingers and minds have developed great capacity for movement and coordination, but they yet lack the skills necessary for playing by ear or heart.
The other reason I mention that learning by ear and reading music are different, is for the sake of those of you who are experienced in reading music. You do have an advantage, and likely you will learn much faster than if you had no experience. But if you have never learned to play by ear, then you must consider that you are learning a whole new skill, a whole new talent that has very little to do with the skill you already have.
Keeping this in mind as you are getting started will keep you from getting discouraged. There is a risk that you may try to learn by ear, find it too basic or too challenging, get impatient with it, and give up. You must not consider that the ability you have will help you develop this new talent. The fact is, it will help you, but if you have that in mind as you try to learn to play by ear, you will likely find yourself getting discouraged, and you’ll eventually give up. I promise you, the effort is well worth whatever time and energy it may take.
If you have practice and experience with both learning by ear and reading music, wonderful! Help others learn these skills, since there are so few who have confidence in their ability to learn these things.
Most of the accomplished musicians I have met have mastered both arts, ear and reading. They find it easy to play by heart. They can write music with ease. There are reasons for this that we will discuss later. I will say that those who learn to play by ear have a much easier time learning to write their own music and play by heart than those who only read music.