By Ear or by Eye

Photo courtesy of Enokson.

When I hang out with writers or editors, conversation inevitably touches on working with music in the background. There are always listeners and nonlisteners, but the most passionate are those who never work while listening. I think I understand—they read and write “by ear,” so their “music” is on the page; additional music clashes and distracts. Those who work more visually, on the other hand, can afford to add a music track. They might listen or not; it’s optional.

Both groups seem a little defensive: Listeners seem pleased to have music as a resource that helps inform their reading and writing, that they have the brainpower to multitask, that they can take a laptop or tablet to a cafe and either ignore the Muzak or tap along with it. Nonlisteners seem to think that listeners must have tin ears, are probably bad writers, and are deaf to the mangling of fine prose covered by a sound track.

It’s my observation that readers and writers come by their preferences naturally by virtue of falling into one of two main groups with regard to their favored means of perception: visual or aural.

I discovered this in watching my sons learn to read: One of them learned by ear, having daily phonics lessons banged into his head by a determined teacher. He would sound out deh…aw…geh, dog! at the top of the page, and sound it out again at the bottom. After months of repetition, something kicked in, and he could read.

The other, who learned by eye, seemed able to see a word like dog as a kind of picture that made sense without worrying about individual letter sounds. Upon first recognition, it was learned. This boy read at an earlier age, and painlessly. Both became good readers, however, so I’m not inclined to say that one method is better than the other.

Likewise with music. My “aural” kid taught himself to play by ear; the “visual” kid requested lessons and learned to read sheet music. Each method has its advantages: Learners by ear can often play several instruments and amuse themselves without sheet music, but they are unlikely to play works from the classical repertoire where sheet music is more or less required. Those who read well, on the other hand, have access to ready-made arrangements but may be incapable of improvising.

I don’t want to overstate my division of the world into the two types. It’s not all ear or all eye. Sighted and hearing musicians—and presumably readers—have a combination of these skills.

Although I browsed online for studies on productivity and background music, I wasn’t able to find agreement—or even any very recent or persuasive studies. The paper I saw cited most often, from the University of Windsor, in Canada, in 2005, tracked 56 people for five weeks and concluded that “positive affect and quality-of-work were lowest with no music, while time-on-task was longest when music was removed.”* Another study suggested that “while background music did not affect productivity relative to no music, those hearing background music achieved greater productivity when music was in the major mode.”** (Souza anyone?)

Nor am I able to offer conclusions based on my parenting experience. I know better. After sticking “aural” and “visual” labels on my kids and predicting their ultimate success in music and art, respectively, I find that their chosen career depends more on smell and taste than on eye or ear: They’re opening a microbrewery together.


*Psychology of Music 33(2) (April 2005): 173–91.

**Psychological Reports 72(1) (Feb. 1993):171–77.


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