The question of these two approaches to music learning and which is better has long baffled students and teachers alike, and let’s face it; we are always students and teachers anyway! The way we learn is in my opinion, really based on who we are, and what makes us tick, and that can be a million different permutations, for sure! I know that this also may simply be a “right brain/left brain” kind of thing, and we are usually predisposed to learning and reasoning music learning in one of these two distinct approaches.
I guess the main thing with music is that without an ear there’s certainly no kind of learning that could ever really “take hold” with any player or student, but there’s also no doubt that this is something that can be further developed and helped throughout the learning process. I know from my own experience that when I drive this idea home long enough with students, they eventually and finally understand the sound and note relationships, otherwise known as intervals. Theory is of course what all music is really made of, and a very good way of understanding what it is you are hearing, or what you want to play, but it’s certainly something that is always left up to debate among musicians, and is in no way truly “etched in stone.” Rather, as many sciences are, it’s a constantly evolving discussion that continues to in a way, re-define itself. It’s a little hard to explain, but it’s akin to the way we can take a group of two or even three notes, and still have a discussion over which chord these notes really are defining! In a similar way, people who are into theory can always be found discussing just what key a song is really in! This has happened to me many times, and I can honestly say I’ve been able to even convince composers that their songs were in a different key than they originally thought! This kind of thing is a direct result of combining theory knowledge with ear knowledge and recognition.
So really the bottom line to me is that both theory and ear training are “joined at the hip” and you can’t have one without the other. Music is a language, and the vocabulary of this “language” has developed and changed and continued to evolve over the centuries. People simply always made music, and one day, someone figured out that creating written music would be a good way of “recording” and taking down this information in a translatable form, so others could learn to play or sing it. At some point during this period, I believe the whole “theory” idea started to take shape, as the combination of having it written as well as being heard made the discussion of theory a reality.
Regardless of your leaning on this subject, or your opinions, it’s clear that we can’t avoid theory in music…..the only thing that makes it all possible however, is ear training, and simply developing the best instinctual approach to actually hearing what is going on theoretically within the music you are either playing or listening to! It’s the ultimate musical journey, so go along with it, and enjoy the ride!