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#1137959 - 01/24/06 12:58 PM Re: How to play by ear?
nickd Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/06/05
Posts: 146
Loc: France
Hi Bob,

I think you're right about people not realising that people who can improvise have "paid the dues". When I was in university I did at least 2 hours every day, of which at least an hour was without music (improvising, trying things out...). And I already had a very good base of classical piano and theory,as well as jazz theory/harmony.

You're also more than right about people not listening when they're playing from music. This is my major criticism or most classical music education - it can produce wonderful musicians, but far too often it produces technically-competent typists. Sorry if this offends anyone, but it's something I feel strongly about.

Perhaps people just need to be "liberated" (sorry if this sounds too new age) and to learn to let their "innerself" take over.

My neighbour plays and teaches the Breton bagpipes. He can't read music, he's never had a formal music lesson in his life...but he can play literally all morning "by ear" and can pick up pieces at an astonishing rate. I'd love to know what percentage of the planet's competent musicians are in the same position.


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#1137960 - 01/24/06 02:18 PM Re: How to play by ear?
Bob Muir Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/01/03
Posts: 2653
Loc: Lakewood, WA, USA
I've mentioned this before. I think the vast majority of the folks who can play by ear, learned to do that first - either due to financial circumstances that prevented them from going with a teacher or some other reason (shyness/lack of time/obstinancy) they didn't want to deal with a teacher. They just LOVED plunking around on the piano, hour after hour. You put enough hours in plunking and pretty soon you're pretty darned good at it!

We learned to talk long before we learned to read. I've been thinking that it would definitely NOT be a bad thing to learn to play the piano before learning to read the notes. Unfortunately, very, very few teachers will (or even can) teach to play by ear first.

I bet many a great composer of popular music learned to play by ear first.

#1137961 - 01/24/06 04:08 PM Re: How to play by ear?
swingal Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/31/05
Posts: 1094
Loc: England

Thanks for your clip of 'new age music' I see what it is now. And I guess there are plenty of varients. All good stuff in my book.


#1137962 - 01/25/06 07:32 AM Re: How to play by ear?
Les Koltvedt Offline
3000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/13/05
Posts: 3198
Loc: Canton, MI
I have played stride for almost all of my life (49) and can only play with music in front of me. Attended a blues/boogie woogie affair a couple of times and was in awe how they could play with each other, with never having played together before. This set the wheels in motion and last week I started lessons to learn "playing by ear". I feel like a kid again, learning and expanding my mind in all kinds of directions. New doors have opened up and I CAN'T BELIEVE I have played for so long without it.

I handed my old upright on to my great niece and nephew (ages 4 & 2). I will[/b] be teaching them to play by ear before they learn to read. I can only think that this will set them up for success.
Les Koltvedt
LK Piano
Servicing the S. Eastern Michigan Area
PTG Associate

#1137963 - 01/25/06 08:41 AM Re: How to play by ear?
Bob Muir Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/01/03
Posts: 2653
Loc: Lakewood, WA, USA
Awesome and very cool! I'm sure they will appreciate it, although I doubt their parents will as they hear the Sponge Bob song for the gazillionth time on that old upright. \:D

#1137964 - 02/01/06 03:36 AM Re: How to play by ear?
swingal Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/31/05
Posts: 1094
Loc: England
I agree with Bob, above with the following aside views as well.

I certainly think it's good to let youngsters or learners loose on the piano and let them try and pick out simple tunes first, without any help at all! If they have the 'ear'-keys-sounds ability, as a natural inherited ability, they may only need lessons on scales and fingering. The piano keyboard has to be mastered, a complete octave is all that's needed for sounds of course, in the beginning.

Although it is obviously an ability one is born with, just as some people are born singers or ball players on the pitch, whatever. This maybe their calling in life and they cannot be taught what is a completely natural mental ability, that of converting a sound in your brain to a key/chord on the piano.

Yes I know Piano-Magic do show people how to learn this ability and that maybe another avenue to walk. But why not try and see if youngsters age 4 or so, have this 'in-born talent'?

Practice will be then be the greatest factor of progress.

I do not know how many people have this ability of course and if only it were possible to analyse it. There are,it appears,two ways of playing by ear - 'taught and natural' as born with.

It's of course wrong to expect a pupil wishing to have a professional piano career not to be fully trained in ear (non-natural way) and theory as normal. There may well be degrees of ear abilty so the whole topic is somewhat nebulous.

All I was saying here is, there are others that have this natural ability and if they do not want to go further than jazz and popular songs, to any serious music, they have to develop their own ear to keyboard playing naturally.


#1137965 - 02/01/06 10:42 AM Re: How to play by ear?
Bob Muir Offline
2000 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/01/03
Posts: 2653
Loc: Lakewood, WA, USA
"There may well be degrees of ear abilty"

Hi Al, I strongly suspect that there are only two degrees of "ear ability". Those who can learn and those who are literally tone deaf. But I obviously can't prove it. \:\(

Those who learn to play by ear on their own, I think, have a very strong musical bent. They are drawn to making music the way most kids are drawn to playing sports or riding bicycles. Some of these children are "fortunate" enough to have parents willing to pay for lessons, (they probably won't learn to play by ear because they're focussed on the classical training), while others are just as lucky (in their own way) to have a piano in the house they can plunk on for hours at a time.

The rest of us non-tone-deaf folks either never had lessons or access to a piano or were forced into lessons at a young age that didn't match what we wanted to play.

Most folks believe that one must be a child to learn how to play by ear. That's because the people they know, who can play by ear, learned as a child. I think that's where the "natural ability" preconception comes into play. I think the reason that most people, (who learned to play by ear), learned as a child is because it's as a child that one has the most free time. With free time and lack of inhibitions comes the freedom to experiment at the piano for hours at a time without structure.

Adults need structure.

#1137966 - 02/01/06 11:52 AM Re: How to play by ear?
PianoMentor Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/23/06
Posts: 28
Loc: RI
Hi MDespot,

The reason I liked the question is because I offer my students a pretty easy, yet, systematic approach to this. I won't write a book here, but I will tell you that becoming familiar with the Diatonic System of chords could very well be the way to go for you. Yes, there are many, many angles to playing by ear and I will not discredit ANY of them - what works for you works, plain and simple. Studying the diatonic system will lead you to opening your eyes (and ears, of course!). Even if you don't know what it is, get curious about it. Some out there know what I refer to:
Cmaj D- E- Fmaj G A- B-(b5) (key of C major)

Play them - listen to them - you'll make distinctions as you listen, which is what "Training your musical ear" really is (making sound distinctions). A song in the key of C major will generally pass through many or all of the chords above, as they gravitate back to the "home chord" or "tonic" C major... it's so "ear-opening" as you get going with this, I have my students writing their own tunes with the principle in a matter of weeks.

When I'm coaching people and first present this, there is generally a huge look of confusion across their face, but then they realize, as it is explained further, that it's not so difficult to grasp onto. So much can be said about this, but just getting curious enough to get involved with it and beginning will be a step in the right direction for you...
Online Piano Coach, Performer
~ "Chord Butler" ~

#1137967 - 02/01/06 03:08 PM Re: How to play by ear?
PianoMentor Offline
Full Member

Registered: 01/23/06
Posts: 28
Loc: RI

There is a lot you can learn on your own for sure. Naturally, hiring an instructor will help you accelerate progress - just be sure to interview the person first, asking certain questions regarding his or her knowledge of modern chord theory. Ask what methods are used, ask how this person would handle "ear training" with you. There are many, many traditional teachers who have great reputations and are very good at what they do, who also do not know too much when it comes to how to distinguish the difference between a Cmaj7 chord from an Fmin9 chord. Many new students run into a "brick wall" of disappointment when they quickly learn that the teacher doe not leave the book that's in front of them for more creative/explorative information. Usually, it's because the teacher doesn't understand it. Yet, the student finds it hard to believe that the teacher doesn't "know it all." Teachers need to be asked before hooking up with them. When you ask questions, be aware of how direct the answers are when you ask these questions, too - and seek details regarding the approach before you invest.
I, personally, have had numerous students whom I've helped who came to me after years of traditional training who were never exposed to the kinds of things I provided. Being a pop/jazz specialist, that is what I do. And the "classical" only teacher may be very good at what he or she does, too. It's a matter of the teacher's experience and what the student is looking for.
Online Piano Coach, Performer
~ "Chord Butler" ~

#1137968 - 02/15/06 01:30 AM Re: How to play by ear?
swingal Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/31/05
Posts: 1094
Loc: England
I still cannot really define playing by ear, as I find it. To my analysis it is just something I do. The piano keyboard is an instrument like a sound producer in my mental approach. All the keys have sounds which I subconsciously relate to a progression and I do not stop to think what the fingers do next but they just move on to the sound that I have in the head and as part of the melody of the piece I'm playing.

For instance, if playing along to a tape or cd ( that is well known as a melody to me)I simply follow as it goes and my fingers are ready in advance of the next note to play, so that there is no confusion (generally!)I want to be ready to progress.

In playing without 'alongs' which is usual, I also find the improvisation progresses quite naturally, as the fill-in harmonics are a simple part of the melody embellishments.

The well known jazz people must have done, and still do it that way too. Sort of thinking ahead of how to 'fill in' with scales runs and arpeggios. But all part of the progression. Just that by ear people like me, who have no training, have to rely on some undefineable sense. If that is of any sense!

Erroll Garner was the best exponent of by ear jazz playing the world has ever known in my opinion.

Thanks for any further enlightenment of this style of playing the piano.


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