Learning to Play-by-Ear

May 3, 2010 at 06:37 PM ·

Has anyone learned to play the violin by ear?  If you had just one suggestion to make what would it be?

Replies (26)

May 3, 2010 at 08:20 PM ·

 Do you mean learning without sheet music or learning without a teacher?  Technically nothing is impossible but I wouldn't advise either.  I'll address each scenario:

There are so many things that can go wrong physically when learning to play the violin that you really need the guidance of a someone who knows what they're doing.  I've seen many students with inadequate teachers who have been messed up in ways that seriously impede their progress so I don't think flying solo without any instruction is going to work.  When I was a little kid I tried to learn on my own because we couldn't afford lessons and it really didn't work so I'm speaking from experience here.  I ended up having to wait until I was tall enough to lie about my age so I could get a job washing dishes to pay for lessons.  I spent the first 6 months correcting bad habits that I had taught myself before I could actually get started for real.  I wouldn't still be playing if it weren't for those lessons so in my opinion I recommend doing whatever it takes to afford it.

If you're talking about learning without sheet music then you'll miss out on basically all of the pedagogical repertoire that is pretty much required for attaining real proficiency.  Learning to read sheet music is pretty easy.  Most students just pick it up naturally while they begin learning the basics.


May 3, 2010 at 08:40 PM ·


it must be terribly frustrating for anyone who really wants to play the violin and cannot afford lessons.   If you look back through the many old posting on this subject there are ideas on how to get around this problem to some degree.

As to your question itself it really depends exactly what you mean;)   In a sense one can -only- learn the violin by ear.   First we use our inner ear to imagine the kind of sound we would like and then we listen carefully to what we are producing and make a comparison,  adjusting on the basis of this comparison.  The process of adjustement is dependent on kinaesthetic feedback.  To understand this process better I recommend you go to youtube and watch the many clips of Simon Fischer teaching tone production to stdunets.  You will not get much better demonstrations than these.

If on the other hand,  you mean `can I leanr to play the violin satisfactorily without a teacher?` then the answer is basically `no.`  I am assuming satisfactoritly to mean with few or no errors in stance,  use of instrument,  appropriate choice and sequencing of materials so tha one constantly improves and does not have to backtracjk to dela with problems that shoudl not have occured in the first palce . Such thta in for exmaple , three years one isplaying quite advanced cocertos ad can sit comfortably in a decent community orchestra or actually enjoy chamber music with like minded colleagues.

It is actually rather sad to remeber at times that learning to play the violin has ,  I think I`m correct in saying,  been defined as one of the hardest colections of motor skills assembled for one specific purpose ever dreamed up by man (woman probably).  The implication of this is somewhat contraversial but I have no qualms about stating the following.

One cannot learn satifactorily and in a way that gives the -best posisble-satisfaction without a teacher.  Not everyone agrees with this.  Nonethless,  ever professional teache ron this list who has commented on this stuation,  myslef included has experienced being cntacted by intelligen adult profesisonals who have been teahcing themselves for a while and finally decided to take lessons.   In many instances the self assured adult has suggested thta they don`t really have any techncial problem but need direction etc etc.  In my experience and the coments of the above, =ever singleone- of the self taught classicla adults is doing a whole slew of things incorrectlyand requires time consuming and frustrating corretcion or errors that need not have occured.  Even the ost die hard `I don`t need a teacher I`m going to experiment` guy on this site (cool dude by the way) everntuall cocnded after a year of going hither and zither while helpfyllu documentinh what he was doing on this site, finally conceded that he would have been much better off starting with a teacher.

Learning to play the violin is actually a combination of two streams running in tandem: first one is leanring a set of seemingly straightforward skills (not actually) and second at the same time one is -not doing anythign wrong=. It is this second more abstract realm where the teahcer is crucial and it is the degree to which one -does nothign wrong- thta dictates the level one ultimately achieves on the instrument.

Does this mean you shouldn`t strat the insturment? Not a all.  If you truly desire ot pay the violin then you should pick it up and go ee If you don`t have lessons.  But before you start invest your time in studying and restudying all the beginner type websites that now proliferate all over the web. Also listen to cds of the violin for at least an hour a dya to build up you inner cocnept of sound.    By doing this it may help you to get some apsect of playing right that pre technology players could not.

Whatever, its a fun journey and people with a real desire to play the violin usually end up doing it one way or another.

Bets of Luck,


May 3, 2010 at 08:40 PM ·


Michael and I seem to agree although his spelling is better.



May 3, 2010 at 10:21 PM ·

 I generally start beginners on All for Strings. While it would be difficult for a child, an astute adult should be able to use a book like this and teach themselves to read. Everything is spelled out, either in words or pictures--where to put the fingers, what the notes and rhythmic values mean. There's no reason an adult with half a brain couldn't learn to read by using a beginner book such as this.

May 3, 2010 at 10:58 PM ·

It is possible to learn "the notes" and get to the point of playing simple pieces via self study.  I started that way.  Its very unlikely that you will play well, fast, very slow, expressively, etc. without a teacher.  Violin technique is just too complicated.  The obvious moves are sometimes wrong, and the best moves are often not obvious.  If you can't afford lessons, but you are determined to proceed, I'd suggest Todd Ehle's lessons on YouTube, and Greg Irwin's finger exercises on YouTube.  Good luck.

May 3, 2010 at 11:43 PM ·

 You should google violin fingerboard chart. Learn the fingerboard and 1st hand position. You do goto youtube, lessons are free.  I think bowing is the most important part, so - hold your violin up, and make full bow strokes on open strings. As you bow, the bowing needs to always be horizontal to the bridge.   After you get a good foundation, the rest is up to you.

May 4, 2010 at 03:22 AM ·



>iolin technique is just too complicated.  The obvious moves are sometimes wrong, and the best moves are often not obvious. 




May 4, 2010 at 05:44 AM ·

Back when I could view YouTube I found the old black-and-white TV series for the BBC, by Yehudi Menuhin, basically the first 6 violin lessons. Now that I can't get YouTube any more, I may see if I can get a book store to get the DVD for me. I can still play DVDs (I have to pick 'em out with tweezers when done though lol!) .

I'm in the same boat, I had some lessons, and have some idea of how to proceed, and what to watch out for, but I may or may NOT be able to afford a teacher. The problem is, bad habits can get trained in. It can take an exraordinary person to avoid them or train them out again.

May 4, 2010 at 05:47 AM ·

BTW playing by ear is TOO EASY that's the problem! 

For myself, I will try to get all the material I can, and if I can afford a teacher at all, I know that's the best.

Mr Pijoan washed dishes to pay for a teacher, I think he had the right attitude.

May 4, 2010 at 10:05 AM ·

 It's not impossible for one to teach themselves, but a lot of people don't have the talent to do this.First of all you have to understand what the basics are, and then you need to correct yourself constantly to get them right .If you you haven't bought yourself a good book that outlines the basics ,or a good dvd that will help with this ,and just pick up the fiddle and start playing,  thinking that you will figure it out as you go.Well this type of thinking will set you farther back every month you play.To play the violin you have to think first ,then play.I f you don't get this basic understanding right , you will always sound horrible. 
Practice ,practice practice, or practice makes perfect are misleading  terms.If your doing something wrong it won't correct itself with a lot of practice ,or over a period of time."understanding and then correcting" is they way to learn.

May 4, 2010 at 12:28 PM ·



the best site out there for FREE music, but in your case you need music that is notated.

May 4, 2010 at 12:40 PM ·

perhaps i am missing the point here.  i thought the preaching has been,,,try not to learn by ears. learn by reading notes and understanding more fully how the original music is supposed to be played,,,

May 4, 2010 at 12:47 PM ·

Many players of fiddle music are non-readers, and use what some call "invented" technique. Some of these folks are very successful in their area of interest & expertise. If a fiddle style is what you aspire to play, you might be able to teach yourself by learning to listen deeply. Only a few fiddlers seem to make a successful cross-over to classical playing; I suspect  by way of lessons to build conventional technique. But if you don't aspire to playing classical lit., or eventually being in a quartet or community orchestra, go to it.  Also don't rule lessons out w/o checking out the market. There may be someone near you giving a group lesson; who will give a block of 4 lessons, then once a month, or some such; is willing to barter chores, etc., in lieu of payment.  Sue

May 4, 2010 at 01:14 PM ·

 As an aside to the question, playing by ear is something that is seriously lacking in violin teaching generally. So, even if you do get a teacher, do teach yourself to play by ear in addition to reading. Most teachers won't teach you or even mention it and you could become one of the many advanced players who can't play a note without sheet music in front of you.

May 4, 2010 at 02:27 PM ·

I started self teaching myself violin at 22, but by that time I already had 10 yrs of guitar in. Starting out I got a few basic lessons such as how to hold it. But I was always into just rock /blues/ jazz improvisation so I had no desire to read. It's that old debate about classical vs improv. Obviously my technique would have greatly benefited from classical training, but could I improvise over rock, blues and (some) jazz? Maybe not. I think how you approach learning depends on what of the many violin/fiddle styles you want to do. 

I think what the non reading violin world really needs are more teachers that can teach technique, theory and improvisation without reading. That would be a tall order for a teacher I would think, because they'd probably have to have gone thru both the classical and the "improv" system. I know that if I would have found some teaching like that thru the years, I'd be a much, much better player than I am today.

May 4, 2010 at 03:15 PM ·

"I think what the non reading violin world really needs are more teachers that can teach technique, theory and improvisation without reading."

That's me!


May 4, 2010 at 11:38 PM ·

Well, I'm a fiddler, so playing by ear may be more accepted in that world. I would, however, make certain to practice bow technique, intonation, and other basics more than actually trying to learn pieces. If not, you can develop a lot of habits that will frustrate you later as you try to learn more complex music.

May 5, 2010 at 02:26 AM ·

 My teacher told me of one of his mentors who was a great player (whose name I can't remember right now) basically had a failure in that he had so much tension when playing, he had to reevaluate how he was playing because his body broke down as a result.  Imagine being this great player, and having to reevaluate your playing where you have to learn what you've been doing wrong for the past 25 years.

  In essence, that's what you would be doing to yourself, only much farther off as you wouldn't have any formal instruction to point out the bad habits IN ADDITION to whatever muscular tension you have.  Something as simple as knowing when to transition from moving at the elbow only to moving at your shoulder is something that sounds fairly straight forward, but you can usually spot out somebody self taught as they have lots of shoulder movement when not necessary.  Imagine trying to break a habit like that after you've been doing it for a decade.  Your tone, timing, and bowing techniques are all connected in this manner.....yikes.  Imagine what else you could be doing wrong.

May 5, 2010 at 06:19 AM ·

One suggestion, Carol?  That's a tall order, but here goes: immerse yourself in violin, surround yourself with violinists, find yourself some fiddlers, have someone show you how to hold the bow, the fiddle, your head and hands, let someone sing to you the major scale and show you how its played, watch a master play the tune you want to learn and listen, sing and play, repeat.

May 6, 2010 at 10:02 PM ·

My teacher Javier Pinell told me to try to think like an engineer.

May 6, 2010 at 11:01 PM ·

I see nothing wrong with playing by ear, although it may help if you know a little bit of Music Theory. I learned solfège and sang in choirs as a kid. So for me, any tonal music that I hear is automatically translated into Do-Re-Mi (movable Do) in my head.  I can transcribe the music I remember, and play the notes on violin and piano (may not be in the right key as I don't have perfect pitch). When I become more proficient in violin playing, I can see myself enjoy playing music which does not have published sheet music available.  I'd think it's an asset rather than a detriment. Learning without a teacher though, is a different story - it can be done, and there have been people who are self-taught and proficient, but you are setting yourself up for a huge challenge.

Royce, could you share what your teacher meant by that?  I am an engineer... I definitely think like one - I'm analytical, methodical and meticulous in my approach to violin study, and am pretty good at problem solving for the most part. Unfortunately, I also sound like one... :(

May 7, 2010 at 01:42 AM ·

I would like to thank all of you that took your time to answer my question.  After reading all your posts, I believe my best option is to find a teacher (after washing a many dishes : )  to learn the basics, bow technique........    Then decide from that point whether to procede with a teacher or learn with what is available via the internet, books, dvd's...)  THANKS AGAIN to Everyone!   Carol

May 7, 2010 at 09:32 AM ·


I have only read a few answers, so it may have been mentioned before.

There is a fine webside here: http://violinmasterclass.com

You can watch short movies, and everything is explained in a very useful way. The name "masterclass" may be misleading, it starts from point zero.

May 7, 2010 at 09:53 AM ·


Strange, I now try a second time posting an answer (did not work the first time).

I agree on all problems that will arise.

On other hand, I can't afford lessons either. The best thing I did, was that I started teaching myself when I restarted, even though I am full of bad habits now. I prefer to play wrong, than not to play at all. Who has said 'wrong' cannot be beautiful as well?

May 7, 2010 at 12:10 PM ·

Well said Lena. And if I had'nt done the same as you I would'nt be playing today.

And if I can learn how to play the gminor adagio so can ANYBODY!

Why pay someone when you can find out for your self for the cost of a few books.

It may take a little bit longer and you'll never be concert performer........ but ya'll enjoy the journey.

I never did it by ear......you gotta read the dots.


May 7, 2010 at 12:18 PM ·

 Thanks Henry :-)

I think you can become concert performer, sort of, maybe just not an especially good one or professional :)

I play rather often on chamber music concerts with my pianist. The audience has survived it so far! 

I am less sure if they will survive us playing the Kreutzer sonata soon ... :-D

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