Learn To Play By Ear

As a wind instrumentalist, you'll often be in a situation where you may be given an opportunity to play with a group. If you don't already have the ability to play by ear, it is essential that you learn to do it.

If you're reading this article, you might be one of those people who feels you're not good at it. Perhaps you can't do it at all. If you've always only played from sheet music and you can't play by ear already, you might wonder if it's even possible to learn to play by ear.

But you can.

It just takes some practice. There are some people who seem to learn how to do it much more quickly than others. But anyone who can play an instrument by reading sheet music can learn to play by ear.

Let's consider some common myths and assumptions about playing by ear.

"Semi" Myth: people who can play by ear are born with some innate talent that people who can't do it simply don't have.

This is only a "part truth." The fact is that there are some people who are born with more natural ability to play by ear than others. But if you're talking about people who are really good at it - people who can not only play a melody line on their horn but improvise over a melody line, then the reality is that natural ability only takes you so far.

Just because someone is good at something doesn't mean they always were. And it doesn't mean that if you're not good at it by now, you can't be. As Julie Brown said, "I've known lots of people that are talented and nothing happens. It's not about talent, it's restless drive."

Anyone who is really good playing by ear has been working at it as a learned skill to do it well - especially if you're talking about improvising, which is just an "extended skill set" of playing by ear.

So, how much is playing by ear a gift?

It's hard to say. But after many years at this, I will tell you that beyond the starting gate, when you get to a point of excellence, no one is gifted enough to not have to do some work. Some people just have to work harder than others. The bottom line is it doesn't matter how hard you had to work to get there. As long as you're enjoying the journey, the juice will be worth the squeeze.

"Semi" Myth: people who don't read music are too lazy or too undisciplined to get a "real" music education.

Ultimately, whether you're playing off a sheet of music or playing by ear, the audience is always hearing by ear. Your goal is to play a musical idea so that others can hear it and to be moved by it. And whether you produce that melody line by looking at it on a page or by recalling it on demand from what you have heard before, the goal is to play music.

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Sometimes, people who don't play well by ear will develop a technical ability to play some pieces they can read off the page really well. But again, it is a learned skill.

And typically, classical music education has centred around learning by using sheet music.

But a good, well-rounded musician should be able to play well off a written page or by ear. It just makes you more versatile.

Is it "better" to be able to play by ear or to be able to read music?

I think that realistically, this is kind of like asking if it is more important to be able to eat food or to drink water. In the long run, they're both important. You could make a point that you'll die faster without water than without food; but without both, your quality of life quickly suffers.

And it's not something that has to be an either/or, anyway. It is a bit of a curious question.

As Suzan Stroud says, "The question I get is usually, “Which is better?”  I’ve noticed, however, that usually the asker is looking for confirmation of their already held position." Sometimes, there is ego in the way in this discussion. As Greg Howlett says, "I think a lot of problems could be solved with showing a bit of respect."

It's actually "better" to be able to play by ear and to be able to play from sheet music.

It's nice to be able to pick up an instrument and to be able to play a song you've heard without having had to learn it from sheet music; or, to be able to play it if you don't have sheet music with you. Playing by ear sure comes in handy.

On the other hand, if you're playing with other people (as wind players typically do) then being able to play from sheet music is vital if you're playing a piece where precision between the players is important.

While you might be able to ad-lib over a melody line if you're the only horn, it quickly gets chaotic with more than one of you in the group. And being able to play from a chart solves this problem.

What are the differences in playing music by ear vs reading music?

Very simply, the skill of reading music involves a type of hand-eye coordination. Your brain determines from musical symbols on the page what a note is and quickly connects that pitch shown on the page to a fingering combination on your trumpet or flute. 

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Playing by ear is more of a skill of "hand-ear" coordination. So, you are anticipating a pitch that comes next after the one you are playing, and your brain learns to associate what you "hear" next and calls up the fingering combination on your instrument.

At least, that's the "simple" explanation. But in short, playing by ear as opposed to playing off a sheet of music are different brain functions. For a more technical explanation,

The skill of playing by ear is technically referred to as "audiation."

According to Wikipedia,

Audiation involves hearing sounds mentally, although on a different level than just "hearing a song in one's head". The skill of reproducing those sounds involves the ability to mentally hear and recognize rhythms, tell the interval between a note and a reference note in a melody, play a specific interval between a melodic note and root note.

So playing by ear is more of an "intentional" listening and analyzing. It's a skill. And it's a different skill than playing from sheet music.

But here is a significant point.

These "hand-ear" and "hand-eye" skills are inter-related.

Or, at least, they should be. And if they aren't for you yet, you will benefit greatly by getting there. If you want to learn to "play by ear" to a point of being able to improvise, you'll have to learn to move interchangeably between "seeing" what comes next and "hearing" what comes next. Because that is part of the skill set you'll need to improvise well. You see,

Improvising is something that builds on playing by ear.

And if you can't run yet, let's start by teaching you to walk. You see, improvising is just learning to play by ear what you hear "around" a melody or "instead of" a melody. So if we can get you to play by ear, we will have helped you develop some of the skills you need to improvise, too.

Sounds good? I hope so. 

But let's deal with the first part of this - learning to play a melody you hear in your head on your wind instrument.

So, how do you learn to play by ear, anyway?

If, for some reason, you're merely interested in learning a particular song from memory - maybe to do as a solo performance or something - then you're probably able to do that eventually by constant repetition. And that's not a bad thing. It won't hurt your ability to learn to be able to play by ear. But it's just part of the puzzle.

But I'm going to assume here that you want to develop the skill of learning to play any song you know as a general skill that you can use regularly. So, with that in mind, I'm going to offer some general tips and suggestions as well as some specific steps you can take with different songs to develop the skill set used to play by ear.

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Think of this as something in between learning to ride a bike and learning to walk as an adult.

Every journey begins with a single step. And learning to play by ear is a journey. You should remember that it is a skill which can be developed. Some people come by it naturally, but they still learn to do it. Even if it isn't so natural for you, you can still learn to do it with some good, old-fashioned hard work.

Believe it or not, your ability to work through a song and figure out what the notes are improves every time you work through a new one. But there are a number of things that you can do to muscle through it and by doing so, you'll eventually get better at it.

Don't give up. One thing is sure to help you if you've never been able to do it before: it's best to travel in stages, and start simple and work your way up. It will build your confidence, too, because you'll set goals you can hit. And that way, you'll be able to see you're making some real progress.

So how do you begin? Well, first of all,

Start with songs that are easy to learn by ear.

If you've never felt you could play any song by ear before, you'll find that once you've figured out a song on your instrument, it does become easier. But there are a number of things that you are learning to do all at once: hearing, playing, comparing what you play to what you think you should be hearing, etc..

And one thing that makes that easier is to start with a song you're already familiar with. Another thing that makes it easier is to pick a song that is easier to learn by ear.

So, what qualifies as a song that is "easy to learn by ear?"

I could list a few as examples: Jesus Loves Me, or Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, or Mary Had A Little Lamb all qualify as easy songs to learn. So does Happy Birthday. 

On the other hand, Girl From Ipanema is not so easy.

Now, eventually, we want to get you to a place where you can play "Girl From Ipanema" by ear, too. But it's not the best place to start if you're not good at this yet.

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So what is the difference? The Girl From Ipanema has a rather complicated melody line: long phrases, complex chord changes in the structure and other things that make it more challenging as a starting place.

The first ones I mentioned all share similar characteristics (aside from already being familiar to you). They have short melodies, with short phrases which often repeat. This makes them easy to track along with. You can easily remember where you are. They also have melodies that stay on the scale - no accidentals.

Remember, you're going to get better at this. But there are several skills you'll develop over time here and the less plates you have to spin on sticks at the same time, the quicker you'll learn how to do it.

Listen to the song until you can sing it back.

Playing by ear is about hearing in your head what you want to play and then being able to pick those notes out on your instrument to play what you hear.

The first step in being able to play the song is to know what the song is. And if you can't play it right away, then try singing it first. You see, singing the song is similar to playing it on your instrument - you are physically reproducing a pitch that you year in your head.

Part of that is recognizing the pitch. But the "proof of the pudding" that you actually can identify the pitch you're trying to reproduce is by actually doing it. But starting with singing it removes one part of the process and breaks it down into parts. If you can sing it, you know what the sounds of the notes are.

The second step is finding those notes on the horn.

This is an "advantage" to playing a wind instrument. You don't have to figure out which fingers go where every time you play.

As a wind instrument player (particularly as a flutist or sax or clarinet player, for instance) the eventual goal is that you want to get to a point where you hear a note and your fingers recognize that note has a certain fingering.

The "advantage" that you have as a wind player (particularly a woodwind player, but on brass, too, to a lesser degree) is that you don't have to worry about which fingers you're going to use to play a pattern on a fret board or on a keyboard.

Your choices are "limited."

What I mean is that if the note you're aiming for on a piano is a C, then you could use any finger to play the note; but which one you use depends on what notes came before and which come after. With an oboe or flute or sax, there's pretty much only ONE way to finger each note (with some exceptions, but you know what I mean).

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There is still a bit of a process going on when you are learning to play by ear.

In short, the process is that you're probably starting with (if you're reading this article) is that:

  • you're going to "hear" a note in your head;
  • you're going to figure out (usually by picturing what that note is - on the staff) what that note is;
  • you're going to recall what the fingering is for that note and play it.

Eventuallyafter enough practice with this, is that you'll get to the point of it working more like this:

  • you're going to hear a note in your head;
  • you're going to "hear" the note as a fingering and play it.

See how that works? 

You'll start out hearing a note, thinking or determining that "this note is a G" and then putting your fingers into position to play a G. But over time, as you practice, you'll get to hearing a note an then relating the pitch you want to hit with a finger combination (without that middle step). 

Start with the first phrase and go one phrase at a time if you need to.

Think of the song. Or play it. Just the first couple or few notes in the recording. Now try to find which note that is. Play that note on your instrument.

Did you find it? Great. So now, before you go listening to the next note, try to recall what the pitch sounds like on your instrument. HEAR the pitch, and find it on your instrument.

After you found the second note, go back. Play the first note followed by the second note, in sequence, without looking at the notes on the page. Just do it by finding your way around the instrument.

One note at a time. It might be brute force and a lot of string and duct tape to start out.

But the best way to learn to do it is to Listen and play. Then try to play without listening, and then listening after you play to see if you played what you are hearing in the recording.

And if you have to, when you're starting out... One. Note. At. A. Time.

Try it. You WILL get better. 

Learning to find a melody line by ear is a great first step toward learning how to improvise.

But that will be a topic for another post.

Did this help you? What would help more? Leave a comment or email me

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