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#1970338 - 10/08/12 02:26 PM Playing by ear?
dbush2765 Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/30/12
Posts: 52
Loc: St. Louis, Missouri
Is playing by ear something that you can teach yourself to do, or is it something that you have to have a natural talent for?

I can already play a little bit by ear. I can memorize music extremely easy, usually only need to play something from sheet music once or twice and I never need to look at the sheets again. I've found that often times, I'm correcting mistakes by ear, or just playing simpler parts of the song by ear by just seeing the first few notes on sheets.

I don't really know how I'm doing it though, I just...do it I guess. I really want to buckle down and get better at it though. I actually struggle quite a bit with sheet music. I can read it, but it takes me a bit to really figure out what to play from it, and sightreading is out of the question at this point, lol.

Anyone have any experience with this? I already listen to a crazy amount of piano music while I'm at work, and I've been studying music theory in my free time. I checked out a local music store here to see if they had anything on this, and they couldn't think of anything that they had on hand.

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#1970351 - 10/08/12 02:52 PM Re: Playing by ear? [Re: dbush2765]
pianonewb Offline
Full Member

Registered: 05/01/09
Posts: 221
Loc: No. Va.
I've been a play by ear player for almost 30 years, the first 23 or so on guitar. This is something in my experience that you can learn.
I learned to do this as a guitarist playing in cover bands. You get a tape(at that time)with the song you want to learn on it, and sit with your instrument and listen, working out the notes, chords, and rythm slowly and painstakingly.
It takes time, but so does learning stuff through music sheets, IME. The advantage of reading sheet music is that everything is laid out in front of you already, and you just have to put it all together and polish it. But I have found that it is a great help to actually hear the music, even then.
Some tips, at least with pop music(I would not want to even try learning classical by ear).
Find the key of the song first. With most pop songs, it's the first note/chord of the first verse(but not always). Knowing the key can help give you an idea of where the chords/notes are going next.
Learn the first verse. After you think you have that down, go back and listen to it again without playing. There may be subtle little things you missed.
Then go on and learn the chorus. Again, after you learn it, go back and listen without playing, until you're confident you've got it right.
Move on to the second verse, which usually is like the first. But there may be little subtle differences there, too. Start by listening(without playing) before you begin.
Once you have that, then using the same method, work out any bridges, breaks, the intro and ending, etc.
Listening is the most important tool you have. Listen to music ALL THE TIME with an ear towards the way it is structured.
Once you've learned all the parts, put the song together and play it through. Don't stop when you make a mistake, just keep going. Then go back and relearn those parts you are having difficulty with.
Hope this helps.
_________________________
Mike
Casio Privia PX 120

The only thing nescessary for evil to thrive is for good men to do nothing.


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#1970384 - 10/08/12 04:20 PM Re: Playing by ear? [Re: dbush2765]
Starr Keys Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/07/09
Posts: 1010
Loc: california
One of things I did the first year with almost every song I worked on by ear was to listen to Youtube versions of the song in phrase bites until i learned it the way Mike described. I memorized the rhythmic pattern's by memorizing the lyrics and using them as markers. Once you can feel the changes in the harmony and what the accents and groupings are in the rhythmic patterns, you need to have enough theory to understand which tones in the melody are basic chord tones (triads or dominants} and which are color tones because you can voice even basic progressions in a variety of ways. I agree with Mike, most songs, and almost always the simple ones {and I started with simplest songs} start and end on the tonic chord, so If you can get the key right away, it's much easier to pick out the melody and recognize the harmonies.

Then, you need basic chord theory to know when to change the chord because the melody moves to note that is no longer in the tonic chord -- which chords harmonize with the new note. its trickier than this, however, because the new note must be of long enough duration to warrant the change in harmony {not just be a passing tone, preparation, or anticipation tone, etc. to add interest and color}. A feeling for the lyrical phrasing, it's rhythm and cadences and which words in the lyric mark these is key to this process. You get this by listening to a lot of songs and trying to imitate their sounds. After doing this for a while, you know immediately which notes in the melody give a feeling outside the major harmonies, ie. wistful, dreamlike, tense, sad, etc. .
These are the unstable tones in a harmony that need to be resolved and which notes don't, and which are even more unstable because they go outside the diatonic scale {chromatics}, etc..

You also need to know when the harmony moves to an unstable chord even as it resolves to a stable tone in the key, because sometimes the chromaticism is not reflected in the melody. For instance, you can have a very simple tune like Blue Christmas based on the simplest of progression, the I V throughout, but it resorts to secondary dominants to keep it interesting, which means it goes out of the key and uses different chords even though they have the same harmonic functional relationship in another key. Therefore, recognizing the sound of certain chord progressions and the feeling you get from it is key (pun intended). So, start learning to recognize the stable and unstable aspects of these in the I V or I IV or IV V and their reversed orders.

After this, you can move beyond simple major tonalities and learn to recognize harmonies based on minor, modal and blues scales. All it takes is a lot of listening and a little bit of theory.

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#1970395 - 10/08/12 04:44 PM Re: Playing by ear? [Re: dbush2765]
EdwardianPiano Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 07/29/11
Posts: 753
Loc: Liverpool, England
I found this site helpful:

http://www.hearandplay.com/

All free!
_________________________
"Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend."

"He who divines the secret of my music is delivered from the misery that haunts the world."


Ludwig Van Beethoven

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#1970396 - 10/08/12 04:47 PM Re: Playing by ear? [Re: Starr Keys]
Farmerjones Offline
Full Member

Registered: 05/25/12
Posts: 202
Loc: USA
Originally Posted By: Starr Keys
One of things I did the first year with almost every song I worked on by ear was to listen to Youtube versions of the song in phrase bites until i learned it the way Mike described. I memorized the rhythmic pattern's by memorizing the lyrics and using them as markers. Once you can feel the changes in the harmony and what the accents and groupings are in the rhythmic patterns, you need to have enough theory to understand which tones in the melody are basic chord tones (triads or dominants} and which are color tones because you can voice even basic progressions in a variety of ways. I agree with Mike, most songs, and almost always the simple ones {and I started with simplest songs} start and end on the tonic chord, so If you can get the key right away, it's much easier to pick out the melody and recognize the harmonies.

Then, you need basic chord theory to know when to change the chord because the melody moves to note that is no longer in the tonic chord -- which chords harmonize with the new note. its trickier than this, however, because the new note must be of long enough duration to warrant the change in harmony {not just be a passing tone, preparation, or anticipation tone, etc. to add interest and color}. A feeling for the lyrical phrasing, it's rhythm and cadences and which words in the lyric mark these is key to this process. You get this by listening to a lot of songs and trying to imitate their sounds. After doing this for a while, you know immediately which notes in the melody give a feeling outside the major harmonies, ie. wistful, dreamlike, tense, sad, etc. .
These are the unstable tones in a harmony that need to be resolved and which notes don't, and which are even more unstable because they go outside the diatonic scale {chromatics}, etc..

You also need to know when the harmony moves to an unstable chord even as it resolves to a stable tone in the key, because sometimes the chromaticism is not reflected in the melody. For instance, you can have a very simple tune like Blue Christmas based on the simplest of progression, the I V throughout, but it resorts to secondary dominants to keep it interesting, which means it goes out of the key and uses different chords even though they have the same harmonic functional relationship in another key. Therefore, recognizing the sound of certain chord progressions and the feeling you get from it is key (pun intended). So, start learning to recognize the stable and unstable aspects of these in the I V or I IV or IV V and their reversed orders.

After this, you can move beyond simple major tonalities and learn to recognize harmonies based on minor, modal and blues scales. All it takes is a lot of listening and a little bit of theory.


indeed, if it's an old standard that i can sing, i simply adopt a key, and sing along until i hear the first chord change. Granted, the chord progression isn't the melody, but the melody can be many times, within the chord tones. Some ragtime tunes that use a 'round the horn or circle or fifths motif. I'm lazy. I'll glean the chords from one of the many websites, but never trust them to be accurate. The most valuable tool, i use, is to have a good "model" of the song in my head. By the time it's ready for public consumption, it's pretty well ingrained. That's probably why i can't learn a tune i don't like.


Edited by Farmerjones (10/09/12 08:40 AM)

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#1970538 - 10/08/12 10:19 PM Re: Playing by ear? [Re: dbush2765]
Sand Tiger Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 03/25/12
Posts: 1086
Loc: Southern California
Talent helps, but practice will also help. For ear, the years before 7 years old tend to be much more critical than for sight reading. Exposure to music and to a tonal language will help a great deal.

However, an adult can still learn to play by ear. Those with a "tin" ear may have to work five times as hard as an average person. A few with serious hearing problems or other impairments may not be able to do much.

Those with some natural ability or an early start, will tend to learn it five times as fast as the average person, 25x as fast as those that struggle with it. It is likely that the original poster is some what average and can learn it, if they take the time to do so. How much time and effort a person dedicates to the task will in large part determine how far they will go with it. The caveat is that natural aptitude tends to make the slope steeper or easier.

I rate myself slightly above average in ear. However, because of my poor natural aptitude for sight reading (bottom 20%, about 5x as slow as average musicians), I spend a lot of my time using my ears to learn.
_________________________
my piano uploads

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#1970586 - 10/09/12 12:06 AM Re: Playing by ear? [Re: Farmerjones]
Starr Keys Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 09/07/09
Posts: 1010
Loc: california
Originally Posted By: Farmerjones
indeed, if it's an old standard that i can sing, i simply adopt a key, and sing along until i hear the first chord change. Granted, the chord progression isn't the melody, but the melody can be many times, within the chord tones. Some ragtime tunes that use a 'round the horn or circle or fifths motif. I'm lazy. I'll glean the chords from one of the many websites, but never trust them to be accurate. The most valuable tool, i use, is to have a good "model" of the song in my head. By the time it's ready for public consumption, it's pretty well ingrained. That's probably why i can't learn a tune i don't like.

Well, I'm lazier than I used to be and often use chord charts, but the first year I was training my ear I never did, and starting from scratch with a recording in coming up with an arrangement is still my favorite form of ear training. I'm hopeless when it comes to drilling exercises, which is probably one of the reasons I never did well with lessons. I am similar to you in how I approach things in that I have to like the song a lot because I'll do a lot of experimentation or improvisation before I come up with an arrangement I like enough to hone my skills with and record.

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#1970616 - 10/09/12 01:32 AM Re: Playing by ear? [Re: dbush2765]
jazzwee Offline
7000 Post Club Member

Registered: 04/25/07
Posts: 7099
Loc: So. California
When you start getting exposed to complex music like jazz, that's when you realize that playing by ear needs to be supported by lots of knowledge of everything from chord progressions, circle of fifths, modes, and lots of theory.

In theory, jazz people are supposedly "ear players" but I'm telling you it's no easy thing.

Just to show you an example, at a gig, one of the players will play a little melody and then everyone starts responding by playing counter melody. Not so easy if it's not diatonic (within the scale). And certainly difficult with constant modulation of keys in broadway tunes/standards.

So all I'm saying is, there are no short cuts. When I try to play a melody by ear (without reading the music), I always like to see how it lays against the chords. Then you really start to learn.
_________________________
Hamburg Steinway O, Nord Electro 4 HP
My Blog

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#1970780 - 10/09/12 12:39 PM Re: Playing by ear? [Re: dbush2765]
Greener Offline

Platinum Supporter until July 22 2014


Registered: 05/29/12
Posts: 1243
Loc: Toronto
Originally Posted By: dbush2765

I can already play a little bit by ear. I can memorize music extremely easy, usually only need to play something from sheet music once or twice and I never need to look at the sheets again. I've found that often times, I'm correcting mistakes by ear, or just playing simpler parts of the song by ear by just seeing the first few notes on sheets.

I don't really know how I'm doing it though, I just...do it I guess. I really want to buckle down and get better at it though. I actually struggle quite a bit with sheet music. I can read it, but it takes me a bit to really figure out what to play from it, and sightreading is out of the question at this point, lol.

Anyone have any experience with this?


I think there is something between playing entirely by sight reading vs. entirely by ear. For example, in my case, in the early years of my playing my Father (professional pianist) just showed me how to play something I wanted to learn.

I went on to learn many pieces this way including some fairly sophisticated classical pieces. When people realized I could not read at all, they thus assumed that I played by ear. This was not the case. I couldn't just play at the level I was playing strictly on my own by ear, and I certainly couldn't read it. But, I could play it.

The challenge I had later in life was that I no longer had anyone to show me everything I wanted to learn. So, I seek out whatever method necessary for what I choose to work on next. YouTube tutorials are sometimes good. Lead sheets, -- I managed to learn chord structures along the way -- if I can find a decent arrangement, and sure, some by ear if it is not too tough an arrangement.

Now, I am teaching myself to read better. Similar to what you mention though, when I am working on material that is beyond my sight reading capability -- which is usually the case (Bach Preludes currently) --, I listen to it (for the dynamics,) read it (for the notes) and put it straight to memory.

Not sure what I am trying to tell you, but I guess what I would say is, use all resources that are available to you to improve vs. trying to focus on one or the other.

Yes, let your ear tell you when you are wrong or how to improve on an arrangement. But, it sure helps if you can get a boost from other resources that are often readily available.

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