Practice Listening with Your Eyes

A Deaf Composer on How to Hear the Piano


* * * *

On a recent vacation, I watched Ilya Yakushev play Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Des Moines Symphony while following along with the score on my iPad (side note: getting approval to bring an iPad into a concert hall can be difficult; be prepared). While it’s impossible to instantly grasp every note and the complex harmonics (thanks, Prokofiev!), it’s quite easy to get a lot, especially with passionate performers. The quick strike of pizzicato, the loving roll of the hand in sensuous phrases, digging deep into a long trill—all of these are treats for your eyes. And Ilya did not disappoint.

But there are even more ways to listen with your eyes when you’re at the piano. Looking at the keyboard, you can see the rise and fall of the melody as your hand moves up and down the keys. You can sense chords by looking at the hand shapes. You can see volume in a soft caress or a hard strike.

The quick strike of pizzicato, the loving roll of the hand in sensuous phrases, digging deep into a long trill—all of these are treats for your eyes.

For the ambitious musician, you can even learn to hear with your eyes when looking at music scores. The vertical staff layout makes it easy to see high notes at the top and low notes at the bottom. And with the five-line staff design based on the most common diatonic scale, it’s also easy to see the difference between major and minor chords—especially in simple keys like C, G, and F—the difference between open chords and clusters, and a variety of inverted and other chord types.

However, processing and “hearing” all of a score in real time solely with your eyes can be overwhelming with complex pieces. It’s best for simple songs and for focusing on one or two music elements at a time, like the melody and bass line.

For truly hearing all of a piece with your eyes alone, we need advancements in computer software and a defined visual music language. This is something I’ve been working on in the past few years, having explored live frequency analysis software in art exhibits, MIDI visualizations in video installations, and about every visual music program out there.

Try listening more with your eyes and notice how much they add to your experience. Can you tell when sound is coming? What sound it will be? How fast, how long, how loud? What relationship it has to the other sounds in each moment?

The more I listen with my eyes, the more I grasp. And I begin to see that music is not just about the rising and falling notes in the moment, it’s about the patterns created over time—what patterns came before, what patterns came after, and how those patterns are interwoven or conflicting. So keep listening with your ears, your body, and your eyes. But to fully understand music, we’ll need to add one more tool to this listening series: listening… with your memory.

1 2
Copyright © 2018 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.


  1. This article demonstrates another most remarkable testimony to the indomitable spirit of man

  2. I can totally understand how is it with notes and looking at the keys! When I have to look at the notes – but also looking at the keys, I only hear the half of the sound!
    I have to play blind or from my memory to immerse the full sound in my ears. Because my brain doesn´t have any memory from piano sound because I was born with a high hearing loss and with hearing aids I wasn´t able to find out the difference from music sounds.
    Now with bilateral CI I entered a new world of hearing with my piano and thus, I can say that my ears and my brain is learning the meaning of music for first time through a CI. And I am happy for it!

  3. Glad to hear it, Andrea! Does your CI play different sounds for every pitch on the piano, or are some notes sounding the same? If some of them sound the same, like half-steps or whole steps (some CI users report sound only changing by the octave) then let your eyes help you “hear” the differences. When you play a melody, look at how far your fingers have to jump to the next note and notice when they don’t have to jump at all. As you may know, these are called intervals, and they’re divided into “steps” of whole steps and half steps. I see it like walking up a staircase. If you have to jump a lot of steps, the melody takes a leap. If you stay on the same step, the melody is on a plateau. Play around some more and let me know if your eyes are helping you. Also check out my other articles about using your body and memory. Best, Jay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>