Each summer I run a music camp and have approximately 50 kids on violin, viola, cello, bass and guitar. Over the course of a week, we learn to play 5 or 6 songs.
Teaching songs to groups of kids by ear is challenging. For the first 2 days, I always find myself wishing that we were using notation.
By day 3, the songs take shape. Guitars and basses are getting the chords down, cellos are finding great harmonies in the lower registers, the violins have the melodies within grasp and younger violinists have learned simple harmony parts to complement the melody.
Notation provides control and organization that is difficult to match. When dozens of kids with instruments in their hands are trying to figure out a song together, it gives rise to the phrase “Let’s get on the same page.”
If I’m teaching by ear, I can’t say “Let’s start at measure 16.” Instead, I am saying “Let’s start at the bridge” or “Let’s look at the B part” or “Let’s start from the top again” (when I really want to focus on that 2nd measure).
It is not precise, but the students quickly learn the music structure and how to hop around in it.
Through the early mayhem of learning by ear comes music. But more importantly comes the skill of listening and learning. Students who can play music they hear and think are more likely to be playing when they are adults.
I appreciate the value of notation as a tool. Every musician should learn the skill. But an effective performance tool is not a great learning method.
Perhaps if school administrations were to measure long-term participation in music, teachers would have a reason to go through the additional effort of teaching songs by ear.