Playing by ear is a useful tool which for some comes naturally, while others have to work at it. When I was younger, I used to play almost all music by ear. I would glance at the music to see the key, and then play without looking at the music again. As a result, I was “accused” of not being able to read music. I could read it just fine. I just didn’t need to. There have been times more recently, when my daughter and I were playing together that she would stop and laugh after I played something different than what was written. “You were playing by ear again, weren’t you?”
The purpose of this post is to give you some ideas on what needs to happen for you to learn to play by ear.
There are different levels of playing by ear, depending on what you want to do:
- Being able to hear, and play the melody – required to be able to play string, woodwind, brass, or any other primarily melody instrument by ear.
- Being able to hear, and play chord changes – required to be able to accompany someone with a guitar, autoharp, or any other instrument that is primarily chord based.
- Being able to hear, and play both melody and chord changes – required to be able to play piano, guitar, banjo, or any other instrument that makes use of both melody and chords.
Let’s consider melody first. In order to play melody by ear, you must first be skillful enough to know how far you need to go to get from one note to another. What is the distance/number of frets/number of keys to go a major 3rd (for example to get from a c to an e)? If you know the distance on your instrument, you can transfer that from your mind to your instrument when you hear it. The same goes for any interval. Once you are comfortable with the basics of your instrument, then “listen” to the melody in your mind. It’s a lot like humming, or whistling. If you know the tune, you can transfer it to your instrument. It takes practice to get good at it. Try humming simple tunes and then duplicate them on your instrument. The more you practice, the easier it gets. Eventually you can add embellishments. Just “listen” to them in your mind first. Another way to practice this is to play along with a recording or with a group of friends from time to time. Just “jump in and hang on!” Remember, playing by ear is a special skill worth learning. In fact, if you want to join in a jam session, it is almost a necessity. Some of the more dedicated Irish fiddlers look with scorn at a player who can only learn from sheet music. If you want to play with a group, but don’t know the song, try just playing the root of the chord (the bass note) until you learn the melody.
Speaking of bass notes, that brings me to the second part of playing by ear – using a guitar or other instrument to accompany. Doing this is a little easier than playing melody. Learn to listen for the bass note in the song. The bass note will almost always be the chord you want to play on your guitar. I am assuming that if you play guitar (or another chorded instrument) you already know what the chords are and the basics of changing chords. Learn to listen to the chord change in your mind, and match it up on your instrument. Start with simple, three chord songs and then move to more complex music.
Melody with Chords
The third level is probably the most difficult of all – playing by ear on an instrument that uses both chords and melody. Try one half at a time. Start with chords. Hum a melody and accompany yourself with the chords on the instrument. If using a keyboard, use just the left hand to do this. Once you have that down, try playing the melody with the right hand. A single note at a time is fine for starting – you can add right handed chords to your melody later. Once you can play both the chords and the melody of your song, put the two together. Again, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. Eventually you won’t need to break it up, because you get a feel for what your hands are doing.
Remember, no matter which level you are trying to accomplish, you must hear the song in your mind first. You can’t play it if you can’t hum it. One of my favorite ways to practice this is to make up a tune on the fly. If I’m playing my guitar, I hum the tune as I match the chords. If I’m playing my violin, I just make up the tune as I go. It is both relaxing and satisfying to play a melody no one else has ever heard. I forget most of them as soon as I’m finshed, but occasionally, I will memorize or write down a tune I particularly like. Of course, I love getting together with other players and having a jam session or having my own jam session by playing along with a recording. I hope you’ll try doing the same!
For further reading: