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Lesson #27: Playing by Ear

by Tyler de Witt posted on 1999-10-17
Topic: The End Result Subtopic: General
Level: All Levels Number of Readers: 74065

Playing by Ear

I consider this skill to be extremely important and useful. If you can play by ear, you can learn from recordings and teach yourself. By listening to recordings and then playing them on your instrument, you are being influenced by whatever you are listening too, and it contributes to the end result, which is what you play.

'Having an ear' can mean a couple of things. Being able to hear a note, and then being able to mentally hear the note again in your head is an important thing to be able to do. Being able to tell which of two notes is higher or lower is also important. Being able to recognize types of chords(major, minor, dominant seventh, etc.) is important. Being able to tell the exact interval between two notes can be helpful.

I don't think I'd be able to teach someone how to hear music in their mind. But I can try to describe what it feels like for me. I can also say that I haven't always been able too. Being able to mentally replay a song is a skill which I think can be learned and improved. When I was young, songs that I heard on the radio, and then were 'in my head' would be vague. At the time, they didn't seem vague to me. This is because I had nothing to compare it to. It's only now that I realize that they were vague. Probably later on, if I improve, what I hear now will be considered vague. But it is clear enough in my head to be able to play back a song, and the most prominent parts (such as the melody) are clear enough that I can pick out notes and match them on my instrument.

Being able to tell which of two notes is higher is also a skill that can be learned. This is apparent from the fact that some guitar players who had a hard time tuning their instruments when they began can now do it in a flash. The only way to learn this skill is to practice. Tuning your guitar is an excellent way to practice.

Soon telling which note is higher or lower is easy. What's more difficult is being able to tell the exact interval between two notes. For those who have never done this, it may seem like an impossibility. It's not. Think of it this way. Can you hum a melody that is in your head, or mentally hear a melody in your head? If you can, then try to hear the melody of the Star Wars theme. If you can do this, than you can recognize a perfect fifth. The first two notes of the Star Wars theme is a perfect fifth. Every time you hear two notes, see if they can be matched together to sound like the beginning of the Star Wars theme. If they can, you know the interval is a perfect fifth. The beginning of other melodies can be used for the other intervals. The truth is though, that after a while, you'll just dispense with these melodies all together, and you'll just be able to compare what ever you hear to your own 'copy' of an interval within your mind. After a while, you'll be able to hear a perfect fifth in your head, and this is what I mean by your 'copy' of the interval.

Being able to tell the quality of chords is also something that can be learned with practice. After hearing a type of chord for a long time, you'll get an idea of what this type of chord sounds like. Then when you hear one, you'll be able to identify it. The first step to take should be to distinguish between major and minor triads. These are the two easiest. As you work your way up to 7b5#9 chords, needless to say it gets pretty difficult. But being able to tell the qualities of a few simple chords is very useful.

Generally, what having an ear really means is being exposed to the sound of a certain sequence of notes, until this sequence of notes is imprinted in your memory, and you can call it up whenever you want. At first, the sequence of notes will sound like it has no meaning, but when you've heard it enough times and understand it, you'll be able to recognize it every time you hear it, and it will have meaning. Being able to recognize other things, such as chord progressions and scales is also possible. Anything is.

I guess I should say something about perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is being able to tell what a certain note is by listening to it, without comparing to any other note. For those of you who don't have any ear training yet, this could seem like 'big deal' but once you start your ear training, you'll understand(or maybe you'll find out that you yourself have perfect pitch) I don't have perfect pitch, so I can't explain to you what it feels like. I'd really like it if someone who had perfect pitch could explain it to me, because I find it fascinating. Perfect pitch is a gift which some people have. But I'd also like to know if it can be learned. I'd don't know how you could go about doing this... if we stuck with the methods described above, what we could do is keep listening to a C note until it's imprinted in our memories. But it seems that by themselves, they all sound the same. I guess to the untrained ear, all intervals also sound the same, and when trying to distinguish chords, they also sound the same, so we could view all individual notes sounding the same as just the first step in obtaining perfect pitch. I don't know if this is true.

Anyway, some of the following lessons will deal with ways to develop and improve your ear. And remember, the reason that we want to develop an ear is so that we can hear and recognize things mentally... not only songs we hear, but also songs that our mind creates for us.

Things to remember from this lesson:

1. 'Having an ear' means being able to hear and recognize notes and relationships between notes mentally.
2. This is a skill, and it can be improved. For some it will be easier or harder, but for all, it can be improved.
3. Perfect pitch is being able to tell what a certain note is without having to compare it to another note.
4. Ear training is important for being able to replicate songs, not only from other sources, but spontaneously from our mind onto our instrument.

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