V.com weekend vote: How well do you play by ear?

November 16, 2018, 12:48 PM · One could argue that all violin-playing is "by ear," dealing as we do with our fretless fiddles!

But do you actively play by ear? And how much success do you find with this?

by ear

By "actively playing by ear," I mean, are you able to take a tune that you know, and pick it out on the violin? Is this a simple and fluid process, or one that involves a lot of trial and error? And another way of playing by ear is improvising. Do you improvise, and if so, are you able to match your intentions with the sounds that come out of the violin?

Oftentimes, beginning string students start with some "rote" learning, taking a familiar tune (like "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star") and learning it by ear. Of course, even at this early stage, some people need more visual representation (a chart, the finger numbers, the actual music) than others! But often a pre-reading child will simply learn the first half of Suzuki Book 1 entirely by ear, picking out each tune simply from what they have heard.

Then things get more complicated! But the "ear learning" does not have to stop. In fact, you could simply go to your fiddle right now and try playing a familiar melody, or whatever comes to mind. I was impressed, when I interviewed the Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud, that he still starts his daily practice this way.

"Up to this day, I start every day by improvising for about 20 minutes," he said. "One of the reasons I do this is I want the path from thought to output to be instant. I'm personally against this thought of controlling everything, looking at the bow and looking at the fingers; I think the brain works best if you can sort of set it free."

A lovely thought! But it's okay if you are still working on freeing that path, or if you simply are a player who uses the music. How much "playing by ear" do you do? Please participate in the vote, then share your thoughts and experiences about "playing by ear" in the comments below.

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November 16, 2018 at 08:28 PM · Playing a melody by ear is one thing. Try notating it on manuscript paper! This is the true test of a competent musician.

November 16, 2018 at 09:23 PM · I play easily by ear. I started doing this on a half-sized fiddle in elementary school before I had my first lessons. I played the simple folk tunes I'd heard since early childhood. I'd be hard pressed now to explain how I managed to pull this off, but I did.

I had some ear-training in school and could name almost every interval on the first try -- major 6th, minor 7th, perfect 5th, minor 2nd. So the instructor felt that this course might not be necessary for me.

In my teens, I played by ear the triple-stop chords in the Brahms concerto, 1st movement -- or, at least, what my mind had registered from hearing the piece. I hadn't yet seen the sheet music. I was hearing the top two notes of each chord, so those were the notes I played. Later, on seeing the score for the first time, I saw that these were triple stops.

Previous poster's comment about notating a melody on paper: "This is the true test of a competent musician."

Agreed. Extending this point a bit: I improvise a lot faster than I can write down my improv's. A number of them remain unwritten. Fortunately, I've done some tryout digital recordings of them with my phone, lest I forget any details; so the eventual writing should go well. Will need external mic to re-do them before uploading, but that's for another discussion.

November 16, 2018 at 09:35 PM · Perhaps it is my age, being a late-starter (aged 30 at the time), a product of the Doflein method, whatever, I simply cannot hear a tune and replicate it. Give me printed music!

I've noted that most of my students avoid reading music by using their ear-skills. It isn't a bad thing but I find it limiting in that if perchance the music they listen to has something that isn't on the page, it gets incorporated into their playing and is next to impossible to remove. I've even pointed out the place on the page and more-often-than-not get a blank stare in response.

I do admire Jazz musicians who can improvise - I just don't have that skill. That being said, and perhaps because of me-being-me, I don't think it is essential.

November 16, 2018 at 10:16 PM · I play by ear when I play non-classical genres. I find that the theory knowledge isn’t as thorough in other genres and often I am the only one in the room who can read music, so I have no choice. Having perfect pitch is helpful to an extent, especially if those I am playing with can only describe what they are playing via fret numbers, or some other instrument specific terminology, but sometimes I can get bogged down and overly focused on a section of individual pitches and lose sight of the big picture.

November 16, 2018 at 10:28 PM · I was always able to improvise on the violin, but doing it on the piano opened up new horizons on the violin/viola.

Once, in my department, a Welsh consultant surgeon (my boss's husband) was discussing something with the boss of a parallel department (who had allowed me to collaborate with him in producing a publication), and they were saying to each other, "We'll play it by ear". I missed the opportunity to mutter (audibly) "Can't you go and play it somewhere else?"

November 16, 2018 at 11:10 PM · For a country/western tune, one piece of software slowed the song down while a music notation program added cumulative timing to 1/1000 second to each empty bar. It took a while to transcribe one measure or more at a time. Finally created the sheet music after a few hours.

November 17, 2018 at 12:12 AM · So 70% of us can play by ear? Really? I can't.

The fact is of course that the reflexes trained in classical lessons go from the from the picture on the paper to the fingers, not from the tone. If they don't I can't see any sight reading happening.

I can read a melody and know how it sounds but I have to have the notes to play it easily.

November 17, 2018 at 12:38 AM · I can pick up something new with some trial and error, if I can hear it in my head. Once I know something, I can play by memory, which is somewhere in between really.

November 17, 2018 at 01:12 AM · My musical training is mainly piano and composition, so I play by ear quite easily as long as the music is tonal, though I get lost sometimes if the music is going through unusual chord progressions.

I also transcribe single lines or two-part harmony quite fluently, to an extent. My short term memory isn't good enough to hold a second line in my head for longer than two or three measures.

November 17, 2018 at 03:54 AM · I play almost exclusively by ear because my disability prevents me from reading standard sheet music (I require it in a special format, which is very hard to obtain).

November 17, 2018 at 01:24 PM · I can play by ear but it didn't come naturally to me, I've had to really work at it intentionally over the course of my life. Fortunately I had a good (jazz) piano teacher in high school who taught me a few specific ways to work on it, none of which is really surprising (call-and-response with a partner, transcribing solos, etc.). But the main thing is to actually deliberately work on it.

November 17, 2018 at 03:27 PM · Albrecht wrote, "So 70% of us can play by ear? Really? I can't." Well, maybe it depends on what one is trying to play. If you turn on the radio and listen to a pop tune, can you play back at least some of the melody? It's like any other skill. You start at a basic level and move forward from there, and some folks have more native talent for it than others.

November 17, 2018 at 04:05 PM · For me, the easiest way to learn the violin was initially by ear. I believe this is by far the simplest way to learn the violin and guitar, (trombone too). I learned almost exclusively by ear. I didn’t even know what a scale was until I heard someone play one. Then I replicated what I heard.

Later I found that learning to read music opened many new opportunities. I have attended several rote learning workshops that take hours repeating over and over one fiddle tune passage by passage, phrase by phrase until the class gets some of it, even most of it; but not exactly the notes that are intended, because there are trills and other ornamentation lost in the rote learning process.

By reading music I can learn 10 little fiddle tunes by the timeout it takes a rote class to go through one piece. Next, I listen to the tunes played and interpreted by expert example. Then I start memorizing, adding stylistic qualities, ornamentation and just playing what comes from the heart. Keep it simple, play by ear.

November 17, 2018 at 05:32 PM · I've been playing for 18 months. I've had little play-by-ear training. The other night I took my sheet music and tried an Irish jam for the first time. Well...........let's just say it was a bit of a reality check.The majority of the other players were picking up the tunes by ear. If anyone has any suggestions, websites, methods for learning this technique, or constructive thoughts, I'd appreciate some suggestions. I'm hoping to go to the Centrum Fiddle Tunes Workshop in Port Townsend, Washington, next summer. http://centrum.org/festival-of-american-fiddle-tunes-the-workshop/ I would like to blend in with the others and play, rather than just sit there and stumble through the songs. Thanks.

November 17, 2018 at 06:35 PM · Like Lieschen Muller I play most nonclassical music by ear. I love to jam and improvise. Usually most of the people I jam with can't read sheet music. I can easily pick out a tune I know in my head, but some genres, such as Scottish fiddle music, are very complex ,and I have trouble learning them by ear.

I teach beginning students some songs by ear. It is a useful skill.

November 17, 2018 at 07:39 PM · A fiddle jam is not a good way to test your mettle for playing by ear. That would be like testing your scales by sitting down to sight-read the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture with the NY Phil.

I suggest getting something like "American Fiddle Method" with the CD and trying to play some of those tunes by ear after listening to the first few bars a few times.

November 17, 2018 at 08:37 PM · Outside of classical music it seems a regular thing now to send you Youtube links for you to learn the tunes. If you can do this then you have extra opportunities for playing/employment. Question is, how can teachers be encouraged to incorporated playing by ear into lessons?

I had a fairly natural ability to play by ear but also worked on it by being very thorough with pitching intervals and translating that into how they sat on the instrument. There is a method.

November 17, 2018 at 08:39 PM · I do think that transcription by ear is the bridge between readers and ear players. It also works both ways - I improved my reading by transcribing.

November 17, 2018 at 11:30 PM · I play only by ear as I cannot sight read. If I can hum the melody, I can play it in several keys. I play mostly old time and church music. I can determine the note by looking but can't play fast enough by site. I learned to play by watching others play. Have never had any lessons. Still learn new tunes by watching and playing with others.

November 18, 2018 at 05:06 PM · I have absolute pitch, so it kinda functions as an auditory version of photographic memory (if that makes sense), so I can somewhat easily replicate what I hear/have heard on my viola. It is much, much more easier with sheet music, however.

November 18, 2018 at 08:29 PM · If you look at the second video in this blog about a class by fiddler Andy Reiner, this was an all learning by ear, and I found it to be so fun!

November 19, 2018 at 04:21 AM · I started violin at age 3. Loved listening to old 33rpm recordings, tapes, cd's. My musical training was with traditional violin professors. If I could not get music for a piece to be done in 6 days for my lesson, I'd buy the cd. A Seitz Violin Concerto was the first time I learned a work by just listening ... thank God it worked. It was all ready in 6 days. The only problem was I had not received the score in the mail yet for my teacher. Love classical, jazz, fiddling from all countries plus Klezmer.

November 19, 2018 at 04:24 AM · As a mariachi violinist and singer, ex- ethnomusicology major, I am very interval-oriented. I have done a lot of transcribing from recordings. When I was working on the Beethoven concerto a long time ago, one day I was playing from memory, got through about 2 pages, but the fingering seemed odd. I was playing it in the wrong key.

November 19, 2018 at 03:37 PM · Joel, does "interval-orientated" mean "so anxious for a pint that I can hardly wait for the interval"?

November 19, 2018 at 08:29 PM · @ J.R., oh yes, that too. If asked what is the difference between my mariachi jobs and my classical jobs; we leave our cases in the car, tune in the parking lot, and vocal warm-up is a shot of tequila to open the sinuses.

November 20, 2018 at 01:46 AM · My first instrument at age 7 was a harmonica, at the time did not know sheet music existed, so there started my playing by ear, you never forget those first songs. Funny some of them which I have continued to play into adulthood, when I see the sheet music, I say sometimes that does not sound right dont’t like that version. Then later on learnted to read sheet music. I am a beginner on the violin, but can still play the tunes I had learnt so many years ago on the harmonica (no sheet music) on the violin by ear. Love improvisation, keyboards, harmonica and guitar; eventually want to be able to improvise on the violin, slowly getting there. I also found I have to be in the right mood to improvise, as the music comes from how I feel rather than what is written in front of me.

November 21, 2018 at 12:31 AM · I've been thinking a lot about this lately. As a student, I grew up playing Suzuki books 1-6 almost all by ear, resisted reading, went through a rough transition to orchestral reading, and now am RICHLY blessed to have both toils at my disposal. My students, however, STRUGGLE to play by ear. I've attempted to use a balanced approach, which now has turned to students not learning by ear. I recently started having them use the program "Fiddlequest" to learn fiddle tunes by ear, and all of their playing has improved!

November 22, 2018 at 10:18 AM · Originally, I am a jazz-rock guitarist by the school (I studied it) so I have good roots of jazz improvisation, but on the guitar mainly. Also I can recognize and play all intervals by ear, which is basic to play the melody. As it was mentioned, most of my life, I was playing with rock musicians, and there I was only one who can read music, so it is necessary skill. Music is shared via strange notes on the paper or records on phones (mangetic tapes etc).

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