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Playing by ear

Who relies on ear playing over reading?


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Taz

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Several people have expressed an interest in a thread on playing by ear and, after showing off, it would appear that this is my penance!

I'm just kidding, actually I'm quite keen to help out any musicians who struggle.

This is just my take on the subject, I'm hoping that others will offer their views and opinions. In this thread no one is right or wrong. There are no hard and fast rules, so with those guidelines in place, let's get going.

Firstly, not being able to read music is something I deeply regret. I have tried, believe me, I have written the letters on the staves (if that's the right word) but it fails to stick. I can't even name the notes on the sax, so I will be referring to the number of fingers that I'm using or I'll show a picture or video if I feel the need.

I will always encourage people to learn to read music, but for some of us it remains a black art, a mystical power that some lucky people possess.

I have been playing music since I was old enough to lift a watering can! Why a watering can? I hear you ask, 'cos it was the first "musical" thing I could find, aged four! I could actually get a good few notes out of it! My parents were so impressed that they bought me a trumpet and it wasn't long before I was pushed into joining the local brass band. This was where I discovered written music and this was where I discovered that I couldn't read it! I also discovered that, because I had to play a set piece of the tune and not necessarily the melody, I found it even harder to learn the piece by ear so I quickly lost interest and quit!

The next thing I did, under my own incentive, was to pick up my sisters guitar. She had a book of Beatles hits. Instead of having to read the music, there were diagrams of the chords in time with the lyrics! At last, I could play recognisable tunes with comparative ease. My problem here was that I found it rather boring. I would learn about six or seven chords, play for about six months, lose interest and put the guitar away. I would then repeat the process six months later, having to relearn the same chords, toughen up my fingers only to quit again six months later!

After a few false starts I eventually found the sax. I've been playing since 2004 and I haven't looked back, lost interest or got bored with it in the slightest!

So, that's my history and brings me to the point of this thread, playing by ear. How do we do it, what's the secret? Well there isn't one I don't think. I was lucky with "Americam Pie" to be completely honest, it's in an easy and accessible key for a tenor sax. I already know the tune well enough to sing or humm or even whistle it. I doubt that I'm playing the melody exactly as it was written but then there's the point. It doesn't need to be. It's my version. It doesn't have to be note for note. The timing doesn't have to be spot on either, in fact I can guarantee that it'll be totally different every time I play it, but that, to me, makes it special.

The point about playing by ear is that you have to be good at listening. If you can't hear the tune then you'll struggle to play it without the dots.

The thing about playing by ear is that we don't always play a recognised tune. What happens when you are offered a new composition for instance? This is where the imagination comes in. I often practice with instrumental backing tracks that have been composed by budding musicians to help others to make their practice sessions more interesting. Now these will give the the key signature and then it's up to you to improvise over the piece. It's so important to listen to the piece a few times, to let a few ideas develop. Make sure you listen to the rhythm of the piece, not just the beat, but the feel of how the music moves and flows. Each of us will hear this differently and give the tune our own interpretation.

I'm going to leave it there for the time being. I'll have a look for some backing tracks, both known and unknown and I'll do some recordings of both. If you have any pieces in mind or that you are struggling with, then this is the place to pull them apart and find out how each of us takes on the task!

Happy listening!
 

gladsaxisme

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Here's hoping this thread goes well for you Taz and I actually manage to find out how it's done
 

fibracell

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Actually having the theory and what not helps you play by ear, and hear chord changes.

i'd always advise doing both.

maybe the starting point is learning to hear the bass notes (to get the key) and how they relate to simple diatonic tunes.
 

jbtsax

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My mentor in college used to say, "If you can say it, you can play it". Of course he was referring to rhythms. My version of that is, "If you can sing it, you can play it". The components of "playing by ear" are:
  1. Being able to hear the melody in your head.
  2. Being familiar with all the notes of your instrument.
It goes slowly at first, searching for the fingering that produces the note in your mind, but it gets faster with practice. The old joke about the marimba player who doesn't play very well is that he uses the "hunt and peck" method of playing. This is how you start to play "by ear"---hunting for the note. Eventually you will start to think "intervallically" and learn to recognize scale patterns in the songs that you already have under your fingers. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Start with "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and move on from there. It is not that difficult.
 

U CAN CALL ME AL

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An interesting topic @Taz. In my repertoire there are a number of songs which are played by ear. I have no dots for these because they were not available or pressure of time would not permit their aquisition. As a result of learning them by transcribing by ear I know them inside out because they have been 'internalised', I always feel more confident playing these particular melodies and that they are performed better than those where I have to rely on the dots.
There are though those familiar tunes where I know large chunks and could probably play unaided but the dots are there as a mental crutch in case of momentary lapses of recall.
It is interesting that the exam boards all expect the fundamental scales arpeggios etc. to be played from memory but they all make money publishing the dots.
I suspect that most of us, not professional performers, use the dots as an insurance against our personal musical insecurity and lack of belief in our own ability.
 

jbtsax

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Can we have a nice easy starter note for a Bb sax ;)

Jx
Pick a key (scale) and play Mi Re Do Re Mi Mi Mi etc. No key is really any easier or more difficult than any other once you practice and become familiar with them.
 

Jeanette

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Pick a key (scale) and play Mi Re Do Re Mi Mi Mi etc. No key is really any easier or more difficult than any other once you practice and become familiar with them.
Tomorrow's challenge then...

Jx
 

Bernie

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Actually having the theory and what not helps you play by ear, and hear chord changes.

i'd always advise doing both.

I have a certain amount of theory, I don't find that it has any relevance to the way I play by ear and hear chord changes. I recently attended a series of ten workshops on improvisation where the tutor's approach was to discuss the theory of the piece we were to play. He would talk for several minutes about a sequence of chords, perhaps saying that this kind of chord wants to resolve to that kind of chord, or that you might use the Dorian mode, and he'd explain what the Dorian mode is.

I could follow the explanations, if I concentrated, but when I came to time to actually play and improvise I wouldn't think about any of that stuff at all.

I know that theory has many uses, but in a thread about playing by ear I think it's worth emphasising the fact that you can play by ear and hear everything that matters in music without knowing any theory at all. The sound is what is essential, and all the necessary information is there in the sound.



maybe the starting point is learning to hear the bass notes (to get the key) and how they relate to simple diatonic tunes.

Taz says there aren't any right or wrong answers here, so I'll just say that isn't anything like what I do. I do what you do when you whistle or sing a pop song or a hymn or a football chant you've heard, but instead of your voice you use the instrument. Like what you do if you are unfortunate enough to be involved in a karaoke.
 

Taz

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@Bernie, most of my backing tracks are Karaoke tracks so you could be onto something there!
Thanks for all the comments folks, I didn't realise that this thread would become so valuable.
 

Andrew Sanders

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My reading skills are adequate but I tend to play by ear mostly.

Having taught myself guitar, banjo, sax and a bit of piano, I can hear intervals quite accurately and as @jbtsax says
if you can hum it you can play it.

I learned to read the dots to try and understand what I was playing, to understand the theory of harmony.
It's good to be able to look at a score and hear the notes in your head without having an instrument in your hand.

I wish I'd learned to read music earlier but guitar music can be complicated with rhythm and melody written on the same stave and it puddled my young head. One note at a time is much easier and playing sax has really helped my reading.

Start reading early but don't rely on it. Use your ears as well.

Good topic Taz.
 

jbtsax

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Here is how "theory" works for me when I play a tune by ear. Suppose I want to learn Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" in a new key. I already know the melody.
  • I recognize the beginning as a pentatonic scale ending on re or the 9th
  • Then I hear segments of a descending major scale re, re, do, ti--- do, do, ti, la--- ti, ti, la, sol--- la, sol, fa
  • Then I hear a 4th from fa up to do, an octave down to do and then do, re, mi
If one is familiar with intervals, scales, and yes even modes and can recognize these in a melody then there are melodic fragments than can be put together like walls of a house rather than building the structure brick by brick or board by board.
 

Bernie

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Can we have a nice easy starter note for a Bb sax ;)

Jx

You've heard from the voice of reason in the person of jbtsax, can I just add that from my rather more anarcho-sociopathic perspective you can start it on any note you like, you can try starting on different notes to see what difference it makes. Make things easy for yourself at first.
 

Bernie

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Here is how "theory" works for me when I play a tune by ear. Suppose I want to learn Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" in a new key. I already know the melody.
  • I recognize the beginning as a pentatonic scale ending on re or the 9th
  • Then I hear segments of a descending major scale re, re, do, ti--- do, do, ti, la--- ti, ti, la, sol--- la, sol, fa
  • Then I hear a 4th from fa up to do, an octave down to do and then do, re, mi
If one is familiar with intervals, scales, and yes even modes and can recognize these in a melody then there are melodic fragments than can be put together like walls of a house rather than building the structure brick by brick or board by board.

You already know the melody and I'm sure you have a fully developed non-theoretical grasp of intervals, so I am left wondering what contribution is actually made by categorising the beginning as a pentatonic scale, etc. Would you not just play the tune in a different key?
 

jbtsax

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You already know the melody and I'm sure you have a fully developed non-theoretical grasp of intervals, so I am left wondering what contribution is actually made by categorising the beginning as a pentatonic scale, etc. Would you not just play the tune in a different key?

Being able to identify, write and play intervals IS music theory. There is no such thing as a "non-theoretical" grasp of intervals. Knowing the sound of and how to construct a pentatonic scale from a major scale IS music theory. Knowing which notes to play in a given key IS music theory. What if someone claimed to be able to do calculations and solve equations with a "non-theoretical" grasp of mathematics? Would that make any sense?
 

richardr

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Suppose I want to learn Gershwin's "Someone To Watch Over Me" in a new key.
This is the way for someone who knows his stuff. I don't so I just play it, hunt and peck. Over the past few months, particularly when I switched from tenor to alto for a while, then back to tenor, I've been doing plenty of playing pieces in different keys and while I'm not ace at this it comes much more easily than it used to.
 

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