Superior to what? How dare I claim that learning and thus playing by ear is better than… better than what? Well, it’s better than learning by visual cues, i.e. sheet music or tab, or really any kind of notation… and also by watching and copying other players’ movements directly. So why doing it by ear is better? Or is it really? Let’s see.
Is it really better?
Think about the general case of any folk or rock musician. They hear the kind of music they like, and the next step is, they try to imitate that. Check out that process: hearing music —> imitating music. How does that really work? The music you hear causes a positive feeling, so you’ll listen to it again… and again. With that lots of positive feedback and stimulation, you will learn the piece sooner or later (usually sooner). When you attempt to play it on your instrument, you already have a clear mental image of the music you want to play. By clear mental image, I mean your interpretation of the music, for the better or worse, depending on how good you are at picking out details. But anyway, you’ll keep trying to get the notes you hear in your head, and by trial and error, you’ll succeed.
Notation has its place
Does this mean I’m dissing sheet music or tablature? Nope. Back in the times before recording, if you couldn’t get to an actual performance, notation was the only way to “conserve” music. Once you read the sheet, it creates music with the help of your inner hearing. From the point your inner hearing is activated, the rest of the process is pretty much the same as described above. Of course it might take more time and patience to get the clear mental image of the music, and you really have to be a good/persistent reader to actually enjoy it. But hey, it takes what it takes.
Sight reading – a different animal
Now let’s see a third case of being a good reader and being able to play what’s written in the notation right away, whether it’s standard or tab. Doing this way means you skip the step of both getting a clear mental image of the music and thus the joy of it as well. Instead, you will play what you see. It’s pretty much what sight reading is, and it’s peculiar skill itself. Just not what I would call a musical skill. More like music related. While the processes that include activating the inner hearing teach the person how to reproduce what’s on their mind, the latter doesn’t. The former kind of learning process helps to form improvisation skills and thus composition as well. And that’s why learning by ear is better.