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Playing music by ear

To the vast majority of people, the most natural form of musical expression is singing. Whether its just humming along to a tune on the radio or in the shower, most people can sing or whistle a simple song reasonably in tune.

 When we sing a familiar tune, we don't need a sheet of music or any other props, we just seemingly  produce the right notes without any particular effort or practise. Manipulation of the various throat muscles enable us to change the pitch of a note quite accurately.

So if pitching a note is simply a muscular response to a note that we hear in our head, why shouldn't that muscular response be that of the fingers and not the throat muscles? Surely, there is no fundamental difference. We start singing from a very early age and have no conception of it being a difficult thing to do.

Most musicians who have learnt their instruments in the conventional way, by reading and playing progressively more difficult pieces, struggle painfully when given a simple tune to play by ear. This is mainly the fault of the standard teaching methods, and teachers who simply pass on this mechanical approach. In fact most of the standard teaching methods tend to produce 'musical instrument operators' rather than true musicians who are able to express their musical ideas freely.   (The Suzuki Method is a well known exception to this).

If you play jazz, you may have all of the technique in the world, but how can you call yourself a jazz musician if you cannot convert your creative musical ideas into actual notes ?!

O.K. - so how can you go about improving your ear-playing? The following is not a comprehensive method, but should help you to get started. It is assumed that you are not tone-deaf (can sing reasonably in tune) and have at least, a modest, but improving control of your instrument.

The Importance of Scales and Arpeggios

They always told you that scales and arpeggios would be good for your playing. Well besides helping you improve technical control of your instrument, finger, lip, tonguing co-ordination etc, they also help to provide you with a sense of tonality. If you play a scale of G major, you should be able to hear that when you play a different scale, say F major for instance, that you are playing in a different key.

Basically, a scale is a tune. It may not be a very melodic tune but it is tune that probably you can play without the need of music. Hopefully, the same can be said of some of the simpler arpeggios

The importance of a good knowledge of basic scales and arpeggios cannot be over emphasised - and this does not mean just playing them from written music. In order to improve your ear it is essential to learn them by picking out the notes by ear.

Regard a scale (or arpeggio) as a series of markers, recognised tones that you can access from a given starting point. Now try this........

Using scales - The First Step

1.  Starting with a scale of G major, play a one octave scale to the top and back

2.  Now sing the same notes but stop somewhere before you get to the top, and briefly hold the note that you stopped on.

3.  Returning to your instrument, play up the scale again until you reach the last note that you sang.

4.  Repeat these steps a few times until you're sure that you can do this fairly accurately.

By carefully listening to each note of the scale that you play, you can reach your target note by a series of easy steps.

Second step

1.  Think of a simple tune that you know (we'll use 'When the Saints Go Marching In'.). For the purposes of this exercise we'll stay in the key of G, although change it if you wish.

2.  Play a G on your instrument (the first note of 'The Saints'), now sing that note, then sing the next note of the saints.

3.  Going back to your instrument, starting with the G again, play up the scale until you reach the second note that you sang. You should find this to be a B.

4. Now sing the next note of the tune and repeat the exercise.

5.  Practise this with other simple tunes. Suggestions might be 'Morning Has Broken', 'Pop Goes the Weasel', 'God Save the Queen'. These are all tunes with their starting note on the tonic (first note of the scale) and no accidentals (extra sharps or flats).

By using the notes of the scale as stepping stones, with careful listening you will eventually find the note that you are looking for, but don't forget that first of all you have to determine whether your next note is above or below the previous one, playing up or down the scale as appropriate.

Some people may find this difficult at first but be patient and listen very carefully to each note in turn and don't be tempted to take short cuts.

Using Arpeggios

We can use arpeggios in a similar way to scales. Let's have another look at the tune 'Morning Has Broken' .

1.  Play a G on your instrument then starting on the G, sing the first line of the song.

2.  Now play a G major arpeggio on your instrument. No prizes for noticing that it is the same as the first few notes of the song.

By training your ear to notice common scales and arpeggios within in a tune, you can  identify the notes that you are looking for in your head without having to try them on the instrument first.

Obviously as with practising anything else, the more that you do this and the more that you think about the note sequences of the tunes that you are working on, the better you get. You don't even need your instrument to practise this, you can do it in any spare moment of the day. The important thing is to try to relate the notes that you 'hear' to a sequence of notes that you can already play.

It goes without saying that the more complex the tune, the more difficult this becomes, but to play fluently by ear, you do not  need any particular exceptional ability or perfect pitch  With careful thought and patience, familiarity with scales and arpeggios on your instrument and a working knowledge of basic chord progressions, you can improve your 'ear playing' very significantly.


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