Jump to content

How to learn to play by ear


Mary B

Recommended Posts

'Memorizing a tune' learned from printed dots and 'playing by ear' are, I reckon, two very different things.

 

Definitely!

 

In an ideal world, we don't play by ear or from dots. We only learn a piece that way. To play a piece really well, the notes have to be in the "muscle memory", so that the brain can concentrate on tempo, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing and expresiveness generally.

 

There is an intermediate phase in learning each piece where you're not quite sure what comes next. In this phase, sight readers glance at their score, and ear players go where their ear tells them to go.

 

We must also be aware that there are two radically different ways of defining a given tune. You can see it as a sequence of notes within a rhythmic structure, or as a sequence of intervals within that structure.

 

Typically, classically trained instrumentalists play the notes that are written down. This is possible because there is a direct correlation between a dot on the stave and a button, key or fingering pattern on the instrument. (Even on the Anglo concertina, I'm told!:P )

 

And typically, singers sing intervals. Notes mean little to a singer, unless he or she has perfect pitch, which is rare. So knowing that the next note is a Bb doesn't really help much. What does help is knowing that the next note is a half-tone, whole tone, major third or fifth above or below the one you're on (even though you may not be able to name the interval - that's part of the classical ear training that Rüdiger mentioned, and has nothing to do with "playing by ear". It has more to do with sight-reading for singing). Even singers who read music go by the vertical distance on the stave between one note and the next, not by the absolute position of each individual note on the stave.

 

In this respect, ear players are more like singers. Obviously, you can only learn a tune from the dots if you've got a page with dots on it. And by analogy, you can only learn a tune by ear if you've got the intervals in your mind's ear. As I see it, you're not ready to attempt to play (or learn) a tune by ear until you know it well enough to sing it.

Then you have to know your instrument well enough to interpret each interval as a movement from THIS button to THAT button.

 

I bet that even those of us who had piano lessons as children can sing lots of nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, Happy Birthday and probably their own national anthem correctly without accompaniment.

Try playing one of these, rather than copying someone's playing of a tune that you don't know! With a familiar tune, if you hit a wrong note you'll notice it at once.

 

Hope this helps,

Cheers,

John

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 44
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

I had some success learning to play by ear today! I tried the method of listening over and over to the tune of a song from a new CD. I hit pause after the first note and hummed it while pressing buttons until I found the correct one (I do not have perfect pitch). Then I just kept pausing and repeating small sections at a time.

One of many excellent tools and techniques. And as a Russian saying goes (I translate), "Repetition is the mother of learning."

 

That saying is much more general than it's often interpreted. Not only does repeating a tune or part of a tune over and over assist in learning, but the more you use the process you've described (or any of the others suggested in this thread), the easier it should become. The first time I tried to transcribe the details of an ornamented tune from a recording (using essentially the same process you describe), it took me two full days. It took me 8 hours the second time, and 2 hours the third time. Of course, the sequence eventually stopped decreasing, but it now takes much less than 2 hours (if I concentrate on the task).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

 

I bet that even those of us who had piano lessons as children can sing lots of nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, Happy Birthday and probably their own national anthem correctly without accompaniment.

Try playing one of these, rather than copying someone's playing of a tune that you don't know! With a familiar tune, if you hit a wrong note you'll notice it at once.

 

 

Today I finished learning the new song very quickly; the verse was simple. Then I decided to do what you advised. I played about half a dozen songs I had practiced many times on the guitar when I was learning how to play melodies on it this past year. On the guitar I always played with the written music, except for "Greensleeves" which I memorized for my final class performance. I was able to play that one easily without music on the concertina. Some others were so familiar to me that I tried them in a couple keys. A few took lots of effort to play correctly. I especially want to learn to play Christmas carols by ear and muscle memory because when I had to look at the music this past December, I wasn't able to sing and play at the same time (except for first verses I knew by heart).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I had some success learning to play by ear today! I tried the method of listening over and over to the tune of a song from a new CD. I hit pause after the first note and hummed it while pressing buttons until I found the correct one (I do not have perfect pitch). Then I just kept pausing and repeating small sections at a time. I was lucky that the tune moved mostly by one note steps. I managed to learn the chorus in about two hours. I checked my learning by playing it in different keys (the original was in B flat). I played it in C, D, and F (G was a bad key for singing). Now the challenge will be to see if I can remember it tomorrow and learn the tune for the verses. I cheated a little and wrote down the tune in ABC form as I learned each section, but I will try to play it without looking at the letters tomorrow.

 

Wow! If you can learn and transpose by ear you have got the tune. That do re mi practice helps.

The way my dad did with me I taught my little grandaughter the other day, You just sing the words to the scale up and down -Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do, I lost my knickers in the snow! She giggled but learnt it and then did it on the toy xylophone. Sol Fah backwards is a bit trickier but you get there if you have it written down as well

 

Anglo next (she's 2 ):) And lots of singing in the car!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...

I'm the opposite to Jim Lucas because I wanted to learn to play the English concertina in order to

learn how to read music again. On the whole this has been successful but I find it easier to learn

to play from music if I have heard the tune being played first. This is how most children are taught

to play classical instruments, the teacher plays the piece for them and then they are expected to

learn to play it from the music.

 

However as other people have said learning to play by ear is a matter of practice and memory. Here

is where technology can come to your rescue. To learn to play a tune by ear you just need the music,

a computer and a midi editor/player. I assume you already have a computer and the midi editor/player

can usually be obtained for free. You type the music into your computer and you can then listen

to it as many times as you want to. You can speed it up or slow it down as much as you want to. You

can listen to just the bit you want to listen to and you can pause it whenever you want to. You can

even transpose it into another key if you want to.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Here's the proof in the pudding, or perhaps we should say the proof in the sprouting of super cauliflowers in the baby ear (And the tiny tot bo(o)gie section is also a sign of musical multitasking :P

 

(courtesy Svantuk on Melnet)

 

 

He's not a bad violinist either.

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 months later...

I certainly think you will be able to play by ear. As has been said before, practice is the key. Also listening. I sing as well as play and agree with the idea of trying to play easy tunes, nursery rhymes, christmas carols etc. The First Noel is a good one as it runs up and down the scale. Also listening to others and picking up and remembering tunes that way (even if you are not playing). Once they are in your head they will eventually come out through the fingers. I also agree with the idea of playing scales etc so that your fingers know where to go once you have found out the key of the tune.

 

Don't be put off by anyone saying you cannot do this, believe you can, practice, practice, practice and you will.

 

Good luck and keep squeezing.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The key to playing by ear is being able to relate the sounds, or perhaps more accurately the intervals, to the buttons, so that you instinctively know which button to press without translating it into note names. It's rather like singing - you probably don't need the dots in front of you to sing "Happy Birthday", and you probably don't even think to yourself "the next note is a fifth above this one", you just know which notes to sing. Just try playing simple tunes you already know well. There may be an element of trial and error to begin with, but you should start to find that it gets easier. It helps, as someone has mentioned, that the same phrases tend to pop up time and time again, and you quickly learn to recognise these and build up a mental "library" of fingering patterns to play them.

 

Learning tunes by ear is a different matter. With me, it's down to repetition, and I'll play a recording of the tune until it's lodged in my head. However, from long experience I'm now quite good at picking up tunes quickly, even on first hearing (at least to play along with in a session, whether I remember it later is another matter). Again, this is largely down to recognising patterns and knowing how to reproduce them.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

Donate to help keep this site free and ad-free


×
×
  • Create New...