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Learning By Ear - The next step -Beyond Sheet Music


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Friends-I have been playing my English concertinas a year now and in retrospect I am happy with my progress. Through my initial Skype lessons with Pauline DeSnoo, lots of practice and advice from many of you I have become comfortable with reading music and being able to navigate the buttons albeit more practice is needed timing, tempo, expression and playing in a group as I don't have anyone in my area.

 

My question now is how to begin to learn (in the most expedient way) to play by ear? I know that this skill must be learned to fully internalize oneself with the instrument and vice versa. I have scoured the Internet and read many an articles from "high faulting" music theorist with all the music jargon to other with a more practical approach. Don't get me wrong as I have learned a hell'uva alot from reading, lessons and here on CNET. I am not a musical person by occupation but more by vocation and heart :) ; meaning the less theoretical the approaches would appeal most to mm, while I do understand that it will take a combination of both. :blink: I have done many online searches for learning by ear software, so any advice in that direction would be appreciated. I would love to receive ya'all's (a Texas term) advice and seek your assistance once again. Stephen in Texas[/size]

Edited by StephenTx
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Well Stephen,

there are three ways, as I see it, to learn a tune by ear;

 

firstly as you are reading music, you can memorise the tune by recalling in your head how it sounded and from yesterdays work with the written notes. So sing the tune in your head whilst searching for the buttons.

 

Secondly.. play a tune totally from memory, something from your childhood perhaps or a Christmas Carol, in other words a tune that is already in your head.

 

Thirdly take a tune that you have a recorded source for, or have another musician teach you by playing it to you, phrase by phrase.

If you hear a tune that you like and wish to aquire, get a recorded source for it, preferably a solo instrument performance. Now play the desired piece over and over again untill it begings to stick (or makes you sick). An early experience of doing this, I recall, involved jogging the needle back repeatedly to the start of a track on a Record,oh what do people call those things today ?.... Gramaphone... well, Vinyl perhaps.... anyway, with Concertina in hand and my third hand jogging back the needle... this process could take all day. My first time had the added problem that either the Turntable speed was incorect or the recorded instrument was not in pitch with mine.

 

All this is much easier these days what with 'repeat' buttons, A-B phrase repeat on many electronic devices, Slow downer software etc. I did, at one time use a three speed tape recorder to slow tunes down, so then everything comes out an octave or two lower and half or quarter speed!

 

The way my wife and I do this today is to teach each other tunes. When we lived in the West of Ireland and it rained all winter my wife would learn four or five tunes a day just to keep herself amused, then teach them to me in the evening when I came in from work.

We got so good at picking up tunes 'on the fly' that we can learn them as they are being played. The trick to this is not to try to get all the notes at once but to pick up the framework notes and fill in the rest gradually, perhaps later from a recorded source or by logic or knowledge of the genre.

 

So, use any device at your disposale. If you do not have a teacher at your side then use recorded material, slow downers and repeat buttons and practice doing it.

 

I tend to agree with one of your points here that when playing from sheet music you can feel like a musical instrument operator but, being able to play by ear gives you the freedom that can make you feel more in-charge... make you feel that you are really a musician.

 

I hope this is of some help,

Geoff.

 

PS: I feel I can see exactly where you are with your playing because I have been learning the Maccann Duet for the last 12 months and with that new keyboard I am more comfortable having the sheet music in front of me but after an hour of trying a new piece I can pick up my EC and just play the new tune without reference to the score and put into it what I wish to... it is just a matter of time and getting comfortable with the instrument and for that "learning by ear" is very helpfull.

Edited by Geoff Wooff
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Here's what I do (similar to Geoff's third method):

 

When I find a tune I want to learn from a recording, first I listen to it straight through a few times and really pay attention. What is the A section? What is the B section? Is there anything unusual going on (are there C, D, or more sections, key changes, or anything else that differs from the usual AABBAABB pattern)?

 

Then I go back and work phrase by phrase (making the phrases as small as necessary). Listen to the first phrase until I can sing it back. (Don't skip the singing. That's how you know that the tune is actually in your head.) Work out which buttons to push to play what I'm singing on the concertina. Then do the same with the second phrase. Then put the first and second phrases together, then move on to the third, etc.

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This is a pretty cool Ear Training program: http://www.miles.be/software/34-functional-ear-trainer-v2

 

It has a lot of options. You can decide to focus on a limited number of notes, or a full chromatic scale. It's also free :lol:

 

As for playing a song by ear, I, like Johanna, have to really get a tune into my head to be able to do it. If I can't sing or hum it, I haven't listened to it enough

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Hi Steven

 

What I do.

 

1. Listen to a recording of a tune I like and want to learn, many many times. It is going well when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't stop the tune from swimming in my head.

 

2. Using "amazing slow downer" software I learn first the a part,then the b part. I do this phrase by phrase. As I am learning how to play it on the Anglo concertina I am figuring out the best fingering (which notes..to push or to pull). I guess you don't have that step!

 

3. Once I know how to play the notes, and know how the tune should sound I very patiently play it over and over again until the playing is in my fingers. Over time you might move towards getting it up to speed.

 

4. Over time I hope the tune can turn into music in my hands.Playing along with the original recording is helpful.

 

Richard

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Stephen,

I have been playing the English concertina for a year and a half now. At first I just used sheet music to play (mostly folk songs). Recently I have tried to play by ear or memory. I have been more successful with songs that I know well like Christmas carols. I made a list of carols with their key and starting note to help me. It also helps if they have a melody that moves in small steps (like a scale or by thirds). I find it more difficult if the tune has big jumps, although I managed to learn "Believe me if all those endearing young charms" by ear since it is one of my favorites. I have tried to play some Irish slow airs for memory that I learned from sheet music, but I haven't done that very well yet. Acquiring this skill seems to be one my biggest challenges.

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I am not a musical person by occupation but more by vocation and heart :) ; meaning the less theoretical the approaches would appeal most to mm, while I do understand that it will take a combination of both. :blink:

 

 

Stephen,

 

Learning to play by ear is for me forst and foremost a practical thing!

 

Most of us - probably you, too - started learning songs by ear as soon as we could talk. Nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, that sort of thing. We did this with no knowledge of music theory and without the ability to read (either tune or lyrics!). The method we instinctively used was listening frequently, then trying to sing along, and then trying to sing them by ourselves. Our first attempts were a bit off tune, but as our voices developed, and we got more accustomed to using them, our pitch improved. That is, we learned how to work our vocal cords to get the precise interval to the next note. We could sing the first 4 notes of "Baa,baa, black sheep" long before we learned that the interval between note 2 and 3 is a fifth. Having the tune in our heads allowed us to check whether we were doing it right.

 

With a new instrument - I just recently star5ed learning teh Crane Duet - I just add a step to that. Listen often, hum along until I can do it confidently by myself - and then take the instrument to hand!

What then happens is what small children often do when singing - I don't hit the correct next note! But, having the tune in my ear, I notice whether I'm too high or too low, and can find the right note and correct it next time round. I just keep doing this until I can play the tune through without hesitation.

 

Then I take the next new tune, and find that it's easier than the first! This is because some of the jumps between notes are the same as in the first tune, and you know how to play them. And the more tunes you try, the more situations you will recognise when you start a new one. Practice builds experience, and experience is perhaps the most important aspect of playing by ear. When you've learnt, say, 20 tunes from a particular genre, a new tune from the same genre presents hardly any challenges that you haven't faced before.

 

The goal is to be able to take a tune that you've got in your head (i.e. that you can sing, hum or whistle) and play it through for te first time on the instrument with only a few mistakes first tim round, and only one or two mistakes second time round (there will probably always be a couple of places that remain "difficult" for quite some time!). This goal is by no means unrealistic - it just takes daily practice for as long as it takes.

 

Of course, as an adult, you can make use of theory to underpin your practice. For example, it's easier to find the right next note if you exclude all the potential wrong notes, for a start. That means learning scales. If you play the tune in G major, then you will only need the notes of the G-major scale, and the next note must be one of them. It's also good to know that there are tunes that start on the tonic note (e.g. G in the key of G), and others that start on the note a 4th below (e.g. D in the key of G).

Another essential trick is to always start an attempt at playing by ear by playing the tonic chord of the key you want to play it in. Playing by ear is, as the term implies, guided by your ear. And your ear needs a point of reference to work from when judging where to go from where you are, and whether you've done it right.

 

You being an EC player, harmonising by ear is probably not as important as it is to me as a Duet learner - but here, too, the principle is the same: listen often, chord along until you can follow the lead, then play the chords by youself while you or someone else plays the tune. The more tunes you learn this way, the easier it gets.

 

In short - just do it! It's a very practical process, but it takes time and frequent practice. Little and often is better than much and seldom.

 

As to breaking the tune down into phrases and learning each phrase separately: I wouldn't do that when starting to learn a new tune by ear. I'd try to play the tune through as well as I can. The breaking down into phrases helps when you've already found out what notes you need, and are trying to get your fingers to play them in the right sequence at the right tempo. But that's not about playing by ear - it's about playing from memory, and applies to tunes you learn from the dots, too!

 

Hope this helps,

Cheers,

John

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Stephen, congratulations, you're looking to make a big leap from being "paper trained"! I've known classical musicians who absolutely could not play a single note if you took away the dots, and that's very sad. Ideally, you want to be able to play both ways. There's lots of good advice here already, but what works for me is to get the tune in my head through obsessive listening, practice it over and over with the music (sometimes I avoid this step altogether on simpler tunes) and then just start trying it without the music and struggle through. A lot of trial and error, and you will probably have to go back to the music for the tricky parts, but eventually you'll be able to leave out the visual step and just have tactile and audio. Much easier on folk tunes, so start there first!

 

Gary

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Getting your head round the 3 chord trick helps in the keys you commonly use. Also using Do Re mi for the scale helps youi put tunes into any key and is worth working on by singing or lilting the tune, particularly a familiar song, words seem to help a lot even doggerel, as morris and other dance musicians found. Also I notice ear players tap their feet much more than dot readers.

 

I agree about listening and playing along even if you miss some notes out it drives you along and you get the skeleton and the rhythm.. Ornamentation and chords come later, let the melody drive you at first.

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I agree with everything above, and also offer a different approach:

 

Each of the seven notes of a scale has its own identity, and plays a specific role in the shape of a melody. Work toward making these notes your friends, so you can recognize them when you hear them. I'm not talking about perfect (or absolute) pitch, where someone might recognize an F# whenever he hears one, but relative pitch, where I (and you too, soon, I hope) can recognize the 5th or 6th (or any other) note of the scale, even if you don't know what key the tune you're listening to is in.

 

Play lots of scales, and listen carefully to them. Sing along. Do it with scale fragments. 3-4-5. Play it again and sing it: 3-4-5. Now do it in other keys. F#-G-A, B-C-D, E-F-G, C#-D-E. Starting to realize you'll recognize that pattern whenever you hear it? Now do it with 4-3-2 or 1-2-3-4-5 or 3-2-1. Then move on to triads: 1-3-5, 2-4-6, etc. Ascending and descending. Each of these notes and patterns wants to be your friend. Learn to recognize them.

 

Good luck. You are starting on a voyage that will lead to a wondrous place.

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it is just a matter of time and getting comfortable with the instrument and for that "learning by ear" is very helpfull.

Geoff, You are always so generous in providing great information and mentoring. Now I have printed yours as well as the others contributions...and I am going for it. Incidentally, I received my 1865 Wheatstone EC Baritone yesterday and I LOVE IT. It is great when I sing with it. For years I have been a tenor, but I really think I must be a baritone as it was so easy to hit the notes with the baritone. What a wonderful warm sound and such a clean instrument. I bought it (won the Eba auction) from David Robertson. Now ...on with learning by ear. I can promise I will be back and seeking your expert advice.

Stephen Tx

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Incidentally, I received my 1865 Wheatstone EC Baritone yesterday and I LOVE IT.

Stephen Tx

 

 

Congratulations on your new acquisition, Stephen. But I thought your baritone serial number dates it to 1854, the same year as mine, not 1865, as you have put above. Has it got younger crossing the Atlantic, perhaps? :unsure: Anyway, I hope you get hours of enjoyment playing it. :)

 

Chris

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Incidentally, I received my 1865 Wheatstone EC Baritone yesterday and I LOVE IT.

Stephen Tx

 

 

Congratulations on your new acquisition, Stephen. But I thought your baritone serial number dates it to 1854, the same year as mine, not 1865, as you have put above. Has it got younger crossing the Atlantic, perhaps? :unsure: Anyway, I hope you get hours of enjoyment playing it. :)

 

Chris

Another variant -the A4 sheet of paper approach (before switching to ear only!

the file name should be learning not earning; but may be busking also improves yr skills faster!

Edited by Kautilya
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Incidentally, I received my 1865 Wheatstone EC Baritone yesterday and I LOVE IT.

Stephen Tx

 

 

Congratulations on your new acquisition, Stephen. But I thought your baritone serial number dates it to 1854, the same year as mine, not 1865, as you have put above. Has it got younger crossing the Atlantic, perhaps? :unsure: Anyway, I hope you get hours of enjoyment playing it. :)

 

Chris

Chris ....you know I have looked through the ledgers the serial # is 5180, what is yours? I have been unable to find the exact entry, but I only went through three ledgers. What is yours serial #? Man I love playing it more each day.

 

Kautilya

Another variant -the A4 sheet of paper approach (before switching to ear only!

the file name should be learning not earning; but may be busking also improves yr skills faster!

 

Kautilya, Is the A4 sheet of paper approach the diagram contained in the link? The diagram sums it up as practice (20 minutest a day), I think I probably play 1 hour a day. My challenge now is not to play the songs I can read fairly well but to work on the ear training. Bottom line in the article which is so true: "find what works for you". Well Stephen get to it you have received one helluva lot of great advice.

Stephen Texas

Edited by StephenTx
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Kautilya, Is the A4 sheet of paper approach

Not sure, but I think David Batty made big notes of a few bars on A4 paper and hung em up in front of him (washing line across the sitting room?!) so he had a big visual guide as well as playing them by ear - merging the two functions of ear and eye as it were.... then he built up the tune... I think....

If u want to use the dots as an up and down flow guide for your ear and to help your ear memory it is very difficult to read em off a full score on one sheet of paper...print is too small. Think the bouncing dot on song words across the theatre/cinema screen for singalongs

 

Harry scurfield did the same kind of visual thing with chords to be played with a tune, at Swaledale .... even bigger than a4 if memory serves - he placed them on the floor in front of us all.

Alas I dont seem to find any pics at the mo.....but Michael Sam may have some from that workshop :)

Edited by Kautilya
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Kautilya, Is the A4 sheet of paper approach

If u want to use the dots as an up and down flow guide for your ear and to help your ear memory it is very difficult to read em off a full score on one sheet of paper...print is too small. Think the bouncing dot on song words across the theatre/cinema screen for singalongs

:huh: Kautilya: Oh! now I know what you mean by A4! Poster paper as we call it in the States; I can see that this would be helpful with memorization of a song but how does it connect with playing by ear?

StephenTx

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