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"playing By Ear"?


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#1 JimLucas

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Posted 04 July 2005 - 06:33 AM

Considering the possibility that this topic may take on a life of its own, I'm attempting to split it off from the "Developing a Style" discussion, where it originated.

I always considered playing by ear to mean that you hear a note and can say - that is a C.

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That's what I would call perfect pitch, and it's pretty rare. I personally don't know anyone with perfect pitch.

Agreed. That's "perfect pitch", not "playing by ear", though being able to identify individual pitches simply by hearing them can certainly help one to learn and remember tunes by sound alone.

I know a few folks with perfect pitch, and it comes in many variations. A few people can hear any pitch and know what it is. Many more can recognize particular pitches, e.g., a violinist may "remember" the sounds of the open G, D, A, and E strings, but not be able to identify an F# (e.g.), except by mentally comparing it with the sounds of those open strings. And some can tell the difference between A440 and A438, while others will simply identify both -- and in fact anything less than halfway to the next note -- as "A".

To me playing by ear means playing without score in front of you. This can be accomplished by feats of memory (i.e. learning the score) or by picking the tune up and learning to play it that way.

To me, playing from memory is not the same as "playing by ear". This is particularly true if what you've memorized is an image of the written music, but also if you're remembering the physical movement of your fingers without "hearing" the music.

To me, "playing by ear" is the ability to connect the sound -- either real or "in your head" -- of the music with the muscular movements which duplicate that sound. Its most often discussed form is the ability to learn music, whether immediately or slowly, simply by listening to it, without the intervention of written notation (or of someone explicitly naming each note). Learn it by listening to it a hundred times? Make mistakes that don't sound right, and figure out what buttons to push to get the right sound? Those are playing by ear, just as much as being able to hear a tune once and then play it back note for note. (That latter is something my fingers are sometimes capable of, without my being aware in advance of the names of the notes that I'll be playing.) It is possible, though, to learn a piece from printed music, yet subsequently remember how to play it by remembering what it sounds like. That latter is still "playing by ear", in my view.

But after years of playing by ear the most I can mange in terms of recognising note values is a reasonable guess (right 75% of the time) as to whether a new tune heard in a session is in G, D or C.

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Ask me the key of a new tune I'm hearing, and I'll have no idea. But a good third of the time my fingers will find it first try, if I don't try to direct them, whether it be D, Bb. C minor, or (les reliably) one of those klezmer or Swedish scales with jumps of a minor third (e.g., A-Bb-C#-d-...). I guess that's "by ear".

...let's not talk about the relative minors!

I suppose not. None of my grandnieces and nephews plays the concertina, though a brother in law and his son both play PA. ;)

#2 David Barnert

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Posted 04 July 2005 - 08:58 AM

FWIW, my understanding of "playing by ear" coincides completely with what Jim has said. As I've always understood it:

Perfect pitch it the ability to recognize a note out of thin air, or to be able to sing a named note without hearing a reference pitch.

Relative pitch is the ability to come up with (or recognize) a given note if the pitch of another (reference) note is already known. Another way of saying this is that it is the ability to recognize and reproduce intervals.

Playing by ear is the ability to reproduce a tune (or a complicated multi-voiced piece) after hearing it (however many times) but without ever seeing it on paper (or hearing the notes named).

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I can play by ear and have a pretty well-developed sense of relative pitch, but only fragments of perfect pitch: I'm listening to "The Capitol Steps" on the radio right now and have no idea what key they're singing in, but if they announced that the next program was one whose theme music I've heard a thousand times I might (more than 50% of the time) be able to sing the first note before it appears on the radio.

As a classically trained Cello player, however, I can also read music pretty fluently and firmly believe that whether playing by ear or from music, it is important to remain flexible, listening and responding to what the other musicians are doing, constantly making decisions about how to play what comes next (even when playing alone).

#3 JimLucas

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Posted 04 July 2005 - 09:06 AM

You mention guessing the key of a new tune at about 75% of the time.  Pretty good.  Perhaps you have as I do relative pitch (most of us do).  I discovered it by realizing that when I sing a song or whistle tune walking about, more often than not I am on the money.

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No, Mark. If you're consistently producing the same pitch without any external reference pitch (besides memory), that is "absolute" (or "perfect") pitch, not "relative" pitch. Being able to name the pitch isn't what makes it absolute versus relative. Having good relative pitch would mean that if you know a tune/song in D and someone else starts it in F, then you could whistle along in F, probably without noticing, and not try to shift it into D.

An interesting variation on "absolute" pitch is something I've noticed in more than one Irish singer. Singing unaccompanied, they always sing their songs in precisely the same key. And if they're having problems on a given day, they may stop and say something like, "I'll have to take that a little higher," and then start again in precisely the same key, though believing that they've changed key.

Edited by JimLucas, 04 July 2005 - 09:32 AM.


#4 Alan Day

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Posted 04 July 2005 - 09:13 AM

I was discussing this subject recently with Mel Stevens who collected all the French tunes for his two books (Massif)on the subject.He can listen to a tune and almost instantly wrlte out the music and it is how he compiled so many tunes.By the time the player or group had finished Mel had it written down.I asked him how he managed it ,as I would have to learn the tune, play the tune and then write it out,average time about two months per tune.
Mel explained that he was taught at an early age the system of Do, Ray, Me, Far, etc Each being a certain written note.He quickly transfers the tune to this method and writes it down.I can tell you it is almost immediate.He puts it all down to his music teacher,it just shows how one person can almost influence your life and interests.
Al

#5 David Barnert

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Posted 04 July 2005 - 09:20 AM

Mel explained that he was taught at an early age the system of Do, Ray, Me, Far, etc Each being a certain written note.He quickly transfers the tune to this method and writes it down.I can tell you it is almost immediate.

I do the same thing, but without the "do re mi." I just know what the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc., notes of a scale sound like in relation to the key. If you tell me a tune is in G and I hear a 3rd, I write a B. Of course (not having perfect pitch), if it's really in Bb, I will write a B when hearing a D.

That's how I transcribed your (Al's) tunes for the Anglo Tutor.

#6 JimLucas

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Posted 04 July 2005 - 10:07 AM

...I think there comes a point whereby so long as you can hear a tune in your head, your ear will tell your fingers what to do in order to play it and you don't really have to intervene. I'm sure there's a much better way of explaining the cognitive phenomena that occur but I have no idea what they are, I just know it works :)

There are more detailed explanations ("better" is a matter of opinion), but as with how a concertina produces sound, they won't necessarily help you make better music.

Your description, Stuart, is excellent.

Knowing that the control of the process shifts to different parts of the brain as you learn won't help you to control it, any more than knowing that there are a lever and a pad between the button and the reed will help you to push the buttons in the right order. There's an even deeper level, but what's happening there is as uncertain and contentious as how to produce a desired tone quality in a concertina.

...the power of a well-developed sense of "relative pitch" (i.e. hearing how different notes relate to one another) as opposed to "absolute (perfect) pitch" (being able to say "that's a G") is enormous. And everyone, apart from the few unfortunate souls who are genuinely "tone-deaf", has a sense of relative pitch - otherwise you wouldn't be able to enjoy listening to music, as any differences in pitch would be meaningless to you.

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As with absolute pitch, there are various degrees and refinements of relative pitch. I've only discovered one person who was so "tone deaf" that if two successive notes were played on a piano, he couldn't tell whether they were the same or different. And even he could enjoy popular music.

Some folks' perception of relative pitch is much rougher than others'. Have you ever noticed somebody whistling or singing a tune, which was recognizable, but wrong? At one extreme is a fiddler/violinist who once told me to stop playing along on my concertina, because it was pitched at A-441, and to her it sounded out of tune with her violin. Another fiddler I've played with recently has memorized all the tunes and parts and can tune his open strings to perfection, but he seems oblivious to the fact that his finger positions are so far off that my own fingers start reflexively searching for other buttons, in a futile attempt to find the "notes" that he's playing. His standard for "proper" intervals is far more approximate than my own, and even our perceptions of "same" and "different" seem to be at odds.

#7 Mark Evans

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Posted 04 July 2005 - 12:25 PM

At one extreme is a fiddler/violinist who once told me to stop playing along on my concertina, because it was pitched at A-441, and to her it sounded out of tune with her violin.  Another fiddler I've played with recently has memorized all the tunes and parts and can tune his open strings to perfection, but he seems oblivious to the fact that his finger positions are so far off that my own fingers start reflexively searching for other buttons, in a futile attempt to find the "notes" that he's playing.  His standard for "proper" intervals is far more approximate than my own, and even our perceptions of "same" and "different" seem to be at odds.

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Perhaps this needs it's own thread as well Jim. I've enjoyed playing with a fiddler in his early 70's for the past two years now. We have the best time and I look forward to seeing him once a month. The man knows every Jimmy Rogers yodel ever done and is fearless at subduing unknown fiddle tunes as they are thrown at him.

Unfortunately He spends the winter in Arizona and upon his return we have to start all over again with pitch matching. The intervals he plays are generally flat to my concertina. I never say a thing about it and it takes an hour steady playing before he little by litte brings up the pitch consistantly, then it is very fine indeed each month until his winter retreat.

I've occationally encountered a rather well known fiddler who tends to pitch her high notes well to the sharp side. That and her habit of "stretching every line on a ballad or lament without regard or communication with others attempting to make music with her has prompted me to exit the room when she shows up.

Edit on Absolute Pitch: I'm rather suprised. It was my assumption that my body somehow has a memory of pitch once encountered. I can't give it a name (that's G sharp) but I remember where it is. It is also very difficult for me to read say a piece of music in the baritone key while an accompanist plays it for me in the tenor key. Makes my skin crawl.

Edited by Mark Evans, 04 July 2005 - 12:33 PM.


#8 Robin Madge

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Posted 05 July 2005 - 06:23 AM

I think that you will find that some fiddlers do not have an "even tempered tuning" scale in mind when they play.
I have found this on Tom McConville's CD of James Hill tunes. When he plays solo he is using a different scale from when he is playing along with Chris Newman.

Robin Madge

#9 JimLucas

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Posted 05 July 2005 - 07:08 AM

I think that you will find that some fiddlers do not have an "even tempered tuning" scale in mind when they play.

Absolutely. I've mentioned before the fact that fiddlers in Pennsylvania have apparently managed to keep distinct "temperaments" or intonation-scales on separate repertoires of tunes over generations covering 200 years or more. (Tunes that were once popular as fife tunes are played by the fiddlers with a sharpened 4th in the scale, something for which fifes were apparently notorious. But other tunes are played by the same fiddlers with a flatter -- i.e., normal -- 4th.) And orchestral violinists will adjust their intonation on a note-for-note basis to form "purer" chords within the music.

I have found this on Tom McConville's CD of James Hill tunes. When he plays solo he is using a different scale from when he is playing along with Chris Newman.

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But he can tell the difference and can adjust to a tempered scale when playing with Chris. That's quite different from a fiddler who seems unable to perceive the difference, even when the two discordant notes are being played together. :(

#10 Chris Timson

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Posted 05 July 2005 - 07:52 AM

To me playing by ear means playing without score in front of you. This can be accomplished by feats of memory (i.e. learning the score) or by picking the tune up and learning to play it that way.

To me, playing from memory is not the same as "playing by ear". This is particularly true if what you've memorized is an image of the written music, but also if you're remembering the physical movement of your fingers without "hearing" the music.

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Actually, I agree, but I have met an awful lot of people who do regard this as playing by ear, and who regard picking tunes up in sessions (which I do all the time) as at best a black art and at worst not actually happening. When I made the statement above I was being non-contentious. Perhaps I'm feeling grumpier today.

There are a couple of regulars at our session who I am endevouring to wean off the crutch of musical score (either in front of them or in their heads) but it can be a slow process. I think they are afraid that without the score they will make mistakes. I have to get them over the hump of accepting that of course they will, we all do. It's just a stage on the way to learning a tune.

I think that along with all the other techniques we use when learning to play by ear, an acceptance of the possibility of making mistakes is possibly the most important and the most underrated.

Chris

#11 Mark Evans

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Posted 05 July 2005 - 10:07 AM

[
I think that along with all the other techniques we use when learning to play by  ear, an acceptance of the possibility of making mistakes is possibly the most important and the most underrated.

Chris

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Hear hear! Mistakes will happen and sometimes from them comes an unexpected suprise of something that can be incorporated into an ornament.

Regardless the grenre of music I'm messin' about with, the sooner I leave the sheet music (if I have collected it that way in the first place) the sooner I "own" the particular piece of music and feel at ease responding to others in a session. It just makes good sense and is were the fun really begins.

On the related matter of intonation/tuning:

I attended a session yesterday and had to leave early in frustration. Two harps, tenor banjo, wood flute and poor old me. They pulled out their respective tuners and twanged away. By the end, we were still not in the same universe. I am unable to abide playing traditional Irish music in polytonality. It was suggested that perhaps my instrument was not in tune with itself. Grrr! :angry:

They asked me to start a tune and then join me. It was admitted that they were perhaps a bit out afterwards, but again a remark "concertinas sound a bit wonky anyway". I was asked to sing "Down by the Sally Gardens" which I did and bid them adieu.

I later went by a friend's house and played along with banjo and guitar. They seemed to have no problem getting in tune with me and as they went out, set it back right.

This morning for the first time since purchasing my Albion from the Button Box, I took out the tuner. She's spot on without exception.

Edited by Mark Evans, 05 July 2005 - 10:19 AM.


#12 stuart estell

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Posted 05 July 2005 - 10:17 AM

I think that along with all the other techniques we use when learning to play by  ear, an acceptance of the possibility of making mistakes is possibly the most important and the most underrated.


Certainly - and not just with playing by ear either. I think an acceptance that a performance with mistakes in it isn't necessarily a "bad performance" can be tremendously valuable in helping people free up and stop worrying about the notes.

The tyranny of the printed page, and especially the reverence some teachers have for it, can be a terrible thing if it becomes stifling :(

#13 Samantha

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Posted 05 July 2005 - 04:03 PM

If I may paraphrase Chris, and echo Stuart, I'd say ...

"I think that along with all the other techniques we use when learning to play music an acceptance of the possibility of making mistakes is possibly the most important and the most underrated."

Samantha

#14 Samantha

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Posted 05 July 2005 - 04:10 PM

The tyranny of the printed page, and especially the reverence some teachers have for it, can be a terrible thing if it becomes stifling :(

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And this was amply illustrated for me earlier in the week. Dave, my partner, asked a local folk fiddler if he ever played "classical" music as he was thinking of arranging something for [amplified] fiddle and brass band. The fiddler explained how he'd been put off classical music at school by his teachers insistence on playing exactly what was on the page, stifling the fiddler's urge to improvise. Dave told the fiddler that he was more than happy to go with his version of, say, a Brahms Hungarian Rhapsody as a basis for an arrangement.

Later in the week, we met the fiddler again, and he said that at the sound checks for his last gig he'd surprised himself by playing stuff from his "classical" repertoire, as a result of our discussions.

Samantha

PS Oh dear, I've just realised I'm guilty of massive thread drift. Sorry :unsure: .

#15 geoffwright

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Posted 06 July 2005 - 06:56 AM

I have never been able to understand why banjo players don't just get it in tune and saw the end off so it stops in tune?

#16 Pete Dickey

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Posted 06 July 2005 - 11:19 AM

That's dangerous ground I fear coming from a PA player like yourself Geoff.

(I'll just run for cover :o))

#17 Helen

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Posted 08 July 2005 - 07:37 PM

OOOOOOOOOOOO PA players fighting back, I love it.

So I'm guessing that the fact my elementary teacher told me not to sing and just mouth the words which resulted in my NEVER again singing has a lot to do with me being confused about which notes are which. And I can't whistle.

Maybe I should try humming. Yep, that might do it. Or I guess maybe I could sing.

Nope, humming it is.

#18 Chris Timson

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Posted 09 July 2005 - 01:50 AM

The tyranny of the printed page, and especially the reverence some teachers have for it, can be a terrible thing if it becomes stifling :(

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I think what we have here is the clash of two world views: the traditional and the classical, and it also exists in folk song (most clearly in the stultifying reverence paid to the words in Rise Up Singing in the States, but it also happens this side of The Pond).

Alistair Anderson tells a story about when he was working with a string quartet who we shall call for the sake of argument the L*nds*ys. While they were practising a piece he'd written one of the made a mistake. Alistair thought that the mistake sounded better than what he'd written and asked the player it continue doing it. According to Alistair this completely blew their minds - they really were not comfortable with the idea of ignoring the score and playing a mistake.

Chris

Edited by Chris Timson, 09 July 2005 - 01:52 AM.




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