Playing By Ear (Excerpt)

The following is an excerpt from my ebook “Choosing Notes”. (See links in blog header).

The words and phrases we use to describe the ability to learn music by listening are clumsy: “playing by ear”, “ear training”, “learning by ear”, “ear learning”… Ugh. None of these phrases seem to work. We could really use new words to describe this concept.

When we say somebody “plays by ear” it seems to suggest that they cannot read music and that they are not really a true musician. But this is rarely true. Most musicians that play by ear can also read music very well. There are those who cannot read music and strictly play by ear. They can be accomplished at their art and may understand music theory better than those who do read; but they have just not learned to read or write in standard musical notation.

What we need is a word that defines the concept of being able to listen to music and then play it back note for note. If I told you that I was going to read a sentence and that I wanted you to remember it and repeat it back to me word for word, you would have no problem doing so. If I played or sang a musical phrase on an instrument and asked you to repeat it back to me note for note, it would be a bit more difficult, depending on your musical aptitude. It is this type of musical skill that we need new words for. We need these words to better define the concept so that we can more deliberately study it and nurture it as part of our overall education. The closest we have is “ear training” or “playing by ear.” We will make do for now.

How many times have you sat down to learn a song from a songbook, sheet music or tablature chart only to find that it didn’t match up with what you were hearing on the recorded version of the song? If you are reading this book, it has probably happened more than a few times. The fact is, even the officially published sheet music can be inaccurate, in a different key than you need to play it in, or just downright wrong. Often the sheet music doesn’t even exist for the instrument you need to learn. The solution to the problem lies in developing your ability to play by ear.

This section will help train your ears so you can more readily learn, memorize, synthesize and, perform music with emotion, style and confidence. This is not just a beneficial goal for reasons of musical growth, but for real economic reasons as well. Sheet music is very expensive, and you can save a considerable amount of hard earned money when you learn songs by ear. Enhancing your listening and memory skills will help you immeasurably in every aspect of your musical life. You will begin to hear things in the music that you previously didn’t hear. You will begin to recognize, play and remember not just your instrument’s part, but the parts of other instruments as well. If you are a teacher the benefits will be even greater, because you can pass ear training skills on to your students. If you are in a band or ensemble, you will be able to help others with their parts when they have questions.

We have all heard the stories of prodigies who could hear a song performed and immediately play it back note for note to perfection. This ability is the ultimate goal and desire of all musicians. We are not likely achieve that here with this one book, but yes, I’ll admit it, that is the goal. If you work diligently you will not only improve your ear; you will more clearly understand song structure, and increase your capacity to remember music. How skilled you ultimately become will depend on how hard you work, your level of persistence, and how high you set your personal goals.

In today’s world the ability to play by ear is essential to becoming a well rounded musician. Even those who read music well are constantly striving to be better listeners and ear learners. This is because so many nuances of the music are not adequately captured by any written form of music. As musicians we must fill in the blanks when it comes to things like expression, dynamics and phrasing that written music attempts to describe but (because it is not the music itself) cannot adequately communicate. The information between the notes is what gives ear learners an advantage over music readers when it comes to learning new tunes.
In everyday practice most musicians use a combination of learning by ear, sheet music and tablature. I encourage you to also continue on with your sight reading skills. Traditional forms of music literacy combined with enhanced ear training is a powerful combination. In the end however our ears must take precedence over any printed representation of music. Ink on paper is not music. Music is pure sound. To learn to play by ear means to open yourself up to the power of truly listening. By learning how to play by ear you are also forming a solid foundation for how to be an effective composer, improviser and soloist.

This process does not require that you know how to read music. Exactly the opposite: it assumes that you do not. I highly recommend working on obtaining the ability to read and write music as a separate endeavor, but for our purposes here no music reading is necessary.
If you do read music, this process naturally requires that you skip looking at the sheet music, tablature or chord charts of a song and work instead to develop your listening skills.

As you improve your ability to play songs by ear you will come to depend less and less on any form of written materials, but sight reading is also important and should be pursued just as vigorously by all musicians. Each skill inevitably reinforces the other.

In another chapter we will examine the basics of song form and structure. I will concentrate on songs in order to keep things to a manageable size, but this system of ear training works for any musical form. Most musicians today concentrate on writing, studying and performing the song form. For this reason I have chosen to include information on the structural components of songs and how to “deconstruct” songs by ear. This type of reverse engineering is essential to understanding the mechanics and architecture of all music genres such as Pop, Rock, Jazz, Blues, Reggae or Classical.

I have spent many years learning and transcribing songs by ear, first for myself and then for hundreds of guitar and bass students. This has provided me with an enormous stash of hard earned tips, tricks and advice that I would like to share in this chapter. I use the word “tricks” cautiously here because there is no magic bullet that will allow you to learn to play by ear. It takes time, practice, patience and persistence as any musical skill requires. What I offer here are ideas, advice, encouragement and access to timeless, proven approaches for playing by ear.


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