Printer-friendly version weekend vote: Can you play by ear?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: December 22, 2013 at 5:35 PM [UTC]

In the last few days, I've found myself next to several living room pianos, playing Christmas and holiday music by ear, for gatherings of friends. In one case, it was with a pianist who easily transposes any tune to any key, for the sake of those who would like to sing. Not always comfy on the fiddle, but okay, I like practicing this skill!

At one of these gatherings, someone said, "It's nice you can do that -- a lot of classical players can't play by ear!"

What? Actually, I think she might be right. I don't know if it's classical training, or personality, or environment (having the opportunity to practice doing it). I very often volunteered to play for my parents' friends, when I was young. With unjustified confidence, I'd say, "I take requests!" and so I would play anything they wanted to hear, as long as I knew the tune. Not that I didn't make a ton of mistakes, I did! I've gotten a bit better at it by now, and I still like doing this. When students come to my house for a holiday party, I always invite them to play along. Some are happy to dive in and experiment playing by ear, some really want the music.

Playing by ear, particularly with a bit of an audience, can be riskier business. It's like anything, the more you practice it, the better you get at it. And you can practice it without an audience or a band to jam with, just try to play any song that you love, for which you don't have the music. It's a pretty fun exercise, and a nice way to get you away from the written page.

So do you play by ear?

Posted on December 22, 2013 at 6:18 PM
I have a degree in music education on violin and viola and could not play by ear. I started learning "fiddling" at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and the only way I could memorize the tune was to record it, write it out on staff paper and by the time I finished writing it down, I could play the tune. Now, 25 years later, I can play any tune I've ever heard by ear, in any key!
From Kevin Keating
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 7:23 PM
YES! After over thirty years on guitar with little to no actual training, I've learned to find my way around almost any jam or improv. Although I'm much less experienced on the violin, I still like to try tunes out by ear. Worst case scenario, I can usually fake it or chop chords or something simple while someone else plays the melody. Being able to improvise opens up a HUGE aircraft hangar sized door of opportunity as a musician. It sets you free!
From Mendy Smith
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 7:29 PM
It's how I learned to play > 35 years ago-ish - picking out the notes one at a time to the LP of the original Star Wars movie.
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 8:25 PM
I learned playing violin leading worship. It gives me freedom to worship freely. It took time to get away from written page,but now I play freely and love it.

Posted on December 22, 2013 at 9:22 PM
Yes. In fact, that's how I survive!
From Jim Hastings
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 9:44 PM
I first played by ear on a half-sized fiddle. Prior piano training and interval recognition undoubtedly helped. Then I got hold of my first violin instruction book. Then I started lessons.

The little geek in me always nerved me to experiment with playing by ear the repertoire I aimed to study -- even when I wasn't yet at the level for it. As kids, we often haven't yet heard that something is hard -- or that it can't be done. So we just do it. By mid-teens, I started playing short passages of the Brahms VC, 1st movement, by ear -- imitating what I'd heard on recordings. Well, with the sheet music to study from several years later, I saw there was A LOT more to the piece than I'd thought -- e.g., those aggressive chords are triple stops, not just the top two notes my ear and mind had registered before I had the printed score in hand.

To this day, playing by ear -- or a combination of ear and memory -- is a large part of my routine. Afternoon practice is with the sheet music; but evening sessions are for recreation and review and improvisation, so that's when I lay aside the printed page.

From Sander Marcus
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 9:45 PM
I have never been able to play even the simplest music by ear. But my fingers know where to go when I see the notes***

***Actually, I don't play be ear; I play by fingers.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on December 22, 2013 at 10:55 PM

I don't play vla, but I can play the opening solo of the Walton vla concerto on vla. By ear. Great fun, especially the stupendously horrified looks given by any real vlaist within earshot.

Similar to Jim, I started on piano. During the short window of time from when I got my violin to my first violin lessons, I had the most marvelous fun figuring out my favorite piano tunes by ear on violin. The sound, though...

Good times.

Merry Christmas, Laurie, and may all your Bleak Mid-Winters be in F Major.


From Henry Butcher.
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 1:29 AM
I am self taught....of course I can play by ear...I also sight read music very well. As a child I heard my father play much piano. I thought he was making it up as he played, maybe because he played so much music I didn't recognize any repeated pieces, and maybe because I never saw him read a piece music, and I never saw a sheet of music anywhere, not even in the piano stool. So I believed that's how music was made. But he wasn't making it up (well maybe he improvised over a few chord progressions) because mum said he played a lot of Schumann. So, to this day, I keep my play-by-ear skills polished up by playing at open mics, and I get up and play with anyone. Last night Ray told the audience he thought I was amazing (yeah, I am sure he used that word).... 'how was that?' Ray said. 'He didn't know what the tune was going to be and he didn't know what key it was going to be in, brilliant'....Sometimes the music I have never heard before. Saturday night I was invited to accompany a singer/guitarist of original songs, I never heard his songs before and we did not rehearse them, I don't remember playing wrong note, all night. 'That was awesome'. Said Luke........So, playing music by-ear is very liberating for me and presents some magical moments. But I still love to play note-for-note my classical repertoire and the Gypsy pieces I transcribed.
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 11:22 AM
Yes, but not violin . . . piano. During the holiday I play for an elementary school choir and find the skill quite useful. What's interesting is that really, the skill is based in one knowing their chords and musical structure.

The ear part is sort of a natural ability I just take for granted. Not all that know chords can hear it in their heads. Fascinating.

From George Mitrou
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 1:22 PM
Well, I can.

I have learned a piece on the piano only by ear. (And no, it's not twinkle twinkle litle star..)

From Mark Roberts
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 1:43 PM
Has anyone worked out a systematic method to learn this skill?
From Parker Duchemin
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 2:05 PM
There are videos to help; youtube is a good resource. But the best way is to submit to the discipline -- i.e. go to a good folk musician or fiddler who plays by ear, and learn the music week by week in the traditional way. Don't try to do it with written notation, it will slow you down in learning a piece. It's a challenge for those of us who are classically trained but well worth the effort. It works a different part of your brain. I am basically a classical musician and found playing by ear hard, but after a couple of years of learning fiddle from an outstanding fiddler I have got fairly good at it, even at my age (71). It used to take me weeks to get up a new tune, but now I can do it in less than a week, or a day or two if it's an easy piece. (My teacher, by contrast, can hear a piece once or twice and play it.) This is the folk tradition. Obviously I'm not talking about learning the Brahms concerto, or the Walton, but there is an important connection. Read what Leonidas Kavakos says about it in his marvellous recent interview with Laurie on this site:
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 2:36 PM
I have always been an improvisor.
If you want to play this way then you must know the chord progression. Or a good idea of it.
And mostly think arpeggios because thats the way melodies move.
I always find the main note of the melody before I need to solo and go from there.
Knowing Pentatonic scales helps too. Major for most bright stuff and minor for blues stuff.

From David Light
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 3:03 PM
For me, it's like having an ever-increasing number of job-specific tools in my musical "toolbox". You can be the greatest with a flat-head screwdriver, but if what is needed is a hammer, you won't be much use to anyone. The world of violin/fiddle (and, indeed, of music in general) is so huge, so diverse, and so wonderfully beautiful that it's a shame to knowingly confine oneself to only one aspect, regardless of how adept one may be at that one aspect.....
From Kim Vawter
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 5:17 PM
As you learn your pieces, you learn to "sing" it as well. Knowing where in space the right note exists, you just go there. Starting with the simple tunes we already have rattling around in our head it seems to me not too much of a leap to translate it to spaces on the strings. Desire and practice drives me.

From Gene Wie
Posted on December 23, 2013 at 11:32 PM
I learned to play by ear in my Suzuki program when I began playing at age six.

In addition to private lessons and a fundamentals/theory class that focused on music literacy, we also had a group class that had lots of "by-ear" games and exercises.

This early exposure helped me immensely later in life when I worked as an accompanist in the dance department at my university. With an ensemble including piano and percussion, we collaboratively improvised around ninety minutes of music each day for Modern Dance courses, in a diverse range of styles.

From Karen Collins
Posted on December 24, 2013 at 10:44 PM
I play by ear, and have all my life. I will probably be the lone dissenting commenter in this thread when I say that I sometimes wish I didn't know how to play by ear :-) I was also taught to read music at a very young age, but my ear was so good that I could get away with not-reading, so avoided reading whenever possible.

This was fine for playing in rock bands, but now, as an adult beginner on viola, my poor reading skills are a hindrance. I wish I hadn't blown it off when I was younger.

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