Do you play by ear, or do you sight-read music?

That question is too simply asked, when presented as either/or.  If you mostly play by ear, then a better question is:  Do you use chord charts or fake books or other notated musical “hints” as you play by ear?  Or, if you mostly sight-read, a better question is:  How much do you use your ear when you sight-read?

There is a wide spectrum between playing by ear and sight-reading music.  At one extreme of this spectrum is the performance of a musical savant who can play on the piano with amazing fidelity some complex music he has heard for the first time.  At the other extreme is a professional Holloywood musician who can play his part upon first reading as though he had been practicing it for weeks.  Most instrumentalists play somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum.

I’ve observed that some musicians who are fairly far out at one end of this spectrum or the other hold a surprisingly degree of awe about the musicians at the other end.  I’ve heard musicians who play very well by ear discount their skill and express envy of the musician who can more literally play from sheet music.  And I’ve heard musicians who are excellent sight-readers express envy of those musicians who play by ear.  These must be cases of grass looking greener on the other side of the fence. 

All musicians deserve credit, however, for playing by ear, more or less.  A musician who is sight-reading is not some sort of computer with an optical scanner reading the sheet music and sending signals to his arms, hands and fingers to press this or that key with so much pressure.  There’s a brain operating in the middle of all of that, which adds rich musical interpretation, based on prior musical experience and overall life experience of emotions.  The musician is telling a story in sound as he is playing.  He is playing by ear, even if he doesn’t give himself credit for that.

Still, I must confess, I envy musicians who play well by ear.  That shouldn’t be easy for me to say, since the name of my business is Notation Software.