Play-by-Ear Tip #1: Know your reason

Play-by-Ear Tip #1: Know your reason admin Mon, 06/27/2016 - 13:36

For most people, learning to play music by ear is not an overnight process. It takes regular, dedicated practice and a LOT of motivation. Without a strong reason to keep up your ear training and music theory study, you are not likely to get very far.

So why bother developing your musical ear in the first place? Different people have different reasons, and it's important to know and remember what that reason is for you. Perhaps you'd like to create songs out of the melodies you hear in your head. Or you might want to be able to play along with other musicians who gather for informal jam sessions. Maybe you just want to pass your university course in ear training.

Whatever your motivation, if you have a strong enough reason WHY, you are much more likely to figure out HOW to develop your ear. In addition, by keeping that reason in mind as you practice, you'll find it much easier to continue with your training, even when it feels like you're not making much progress.

Here are some of the benefits that have traditionally motivated musicians to improve their play-by-ear skills: - stronger ability to improvise music - able to play along with songs quickly after hearing them - freedom to express the music they hear in their minds - better able to remember music and anticipate chord changes - able to learn songs and play without sheet music or tablature - bigger musical vocabulary and range of expression - better understanding of how music 'works'.

For me, it was primarily a strong desire to improvise solos on the guitar that drove my ear training practice. At first, I could see absolutely no connection between learning to identify intervals and improvising a guitar solo. Still, I had a strong belief that by developing my ear, I could somehow unlock many of the mysteries of improvisation, and this turned out to be true.

By constantly keeping that reason in mind, I was able to maintain enough motivation to work through a pretty extensive course on relative pitch, which in turn opened the door to a whole new level of musical freedom and discovery. So what is it that makes YOU want to become more of a 'play-by-ear' musician? Know your reason, and you'll find the journey becomes much more enjoyable and rewarding.

Play-by-ear Tip #2: Learn your scale numbers

Play-by-ear Tip #2: Learn your scale numbers admin Mon, 06/27/2016 - 18:49

There are many different styles of popular music - rock, jazz, R&B, country, heavy metal etc. - and you will find many big differences between these styles. The one thing they all have in common, though, is that they are tonal - meaning that the music centers around one particular tone, called the tonic or the 'one'.

When you hear the tonic in a melody, you feel you are 'home'. It is the most stable tone used in a melody, and usually it is the tone on which the melody ends. All melodies in tonal music can be represented by a numbering system in which each tone in the melody is assigned a number indicating its distance from the tonic.

To do this, take a major scale and simply number the tones in the scale from 1 to 8, where 1 is the tonic and the other tones ascend upward to 8, which is the octave. For example, the C major scale would be numbered like this: 1: C 2: D 3: E 4: F 5: G 6: A 7: B 8: C The first phrase of 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' in the key of C consists of the tones E - D - C - D - E - E - E. This would be represented as 3 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 3 - 3.

Notice that when you change keys, the names of the notes change, but the numbers stay the same. By hearing and understanding melodies in terms of their numbers, it becomes much easier to transpose melodies to different keys. In fact, understanding the relationships between the tones and numbers is a big part of what relative pitch is all about, and is a key skill for playing music by ear.

The next time you're listening to a song, first see if you can find and sing the tonic pitch. Then see if you figure out the numbers for some of the phrases in the melody of the song. It is possible to transcribe a melody in terms of its numbers without even knowing the key of the song.

Our game Paddle Pitch is designed to help you learn to hear the tones of major and minor scales in terms of their numbers. This will give you a foundation for building your own sense of relative pitch:

Play-by-Ear Tip #3: Recognize the Patterns

Play-by-Ear Tip #3: Recognize the Patterns admin Mon, 06/27/2016 - 18:53

Have you ever wondered how some musicians can play the chords to a song after hearing it only once? Or how others are able to jump right in with the band and play along on a new song they've never heard before? In most cases, to perform this kind of feat, a musician must call upon her knowledge of PATTERNS in music.

Music is full of patterns: Notes combine in a specific way to make a scale or chord. Chords come together to form chord progressions. Progressions combine to make verses, and so on. Chord progression patterns are especially common in popular music. As a play-by-ear musician, you should recognize these common patterns when you hear them. This skill gives you a valuable short-cut when learning new songs by ear, and also allows you to anticipate chord changes when you are playing an unfamiliar song in a group.

The first step to learning chord patterns is to learn the sound of the most common ones.For example, think of 'La Bamba' and 'Twist and Shout'. These songs are similar in that they share one of the most common chord progressions of all time: the I - IV - V - V pattern. If you can play the chords for one of these songs, you can easily play the other song in the same key. The I - IV - V - V pattern can also be heard in the refrain of Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone', the Beatles 'Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds' and countless others.

So how does this help you work out the chords in a new song more quickly? If you know the sound of common patterns and you know the key of the song, then as soon as you hear one of the patterns, you can instantly work out the chords by translating the roman numerals into the chords for that key. For example, if you know you are in the key of C, and you hear the familiar I - IV - V - V sound, then you immediately know the chords for that part are C - F - G - G.

Here's a funny video clip that shows how a diverse range of songs can be united in their use of a common chord pattern:

This band uses songs by the Beatles, Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, Aha, Elton John, Lady Gaga and many others. They then combine these all into the 'same song' by playing the common chord pattern in the same key. Can you guess the chord pattern from hearing the progression in the video?

Play-by-Ear Tip #4: Find the Key

Play-by-Ear Tip #4: Find the Key admin Mon, 06/27/2016 - 18:56

In order to learn songs quickly by ear, or to play along with other musicians on a song you don't know, you first need to find the key of the song. There are several strategies for finding the key, and eventually you will be able to do this almost subconsciously, without needing to think about the clues and techniques you are using.

To find the key of a song, you must find the tonic. In the key of C Major or C Minor, the tonic or '1' is C. The notes in a scale or key are like a family - they are all related, and they center around the '1' or the tonic of the key. This is the tone that sounds most 'at home' - the one that fits better than any other note.

If you're new to this process, just start playing notes one-by-one over the song you want to learn, and observe how they sound. The tonic will sound like it fits just about anywhere in the song. When you have a candidate for the tonic, next play the tone a fifth above your candidate. The '5' is always the second most stable tone in any key. This tone will also sound like it fits in most parts of the song, though not as strongly as the tonic.

If your candidate tonic note and the note a fifth above it both sound fairly stable, next try the note a half-step below your candidate tonic. If your guess is correct, this note will be the '7'. In most parts of the song, the '7' should sound like it is 'pulling' toward the tonic. If you feel tension when you play the '7', then resolution or stability when you play your tonic guess a half-step up, there's a good chance that you have found the tonic.

Finally, if you can't tell whether the key is major or minor, try playing the tone a minor third up from the tonic ('b3') throughout the song and compare it with the sound of the tone that is a major third up from the tonic. In general, the tonic and b3 (minor third interval) will match with a minor key, while the tonic and 3 (major third interval) fits with a major key.

The above process may take a bit of work at first if you've never done it before, but eventually you will begin to recognize the sound of the tonic quickly without having to consciously go through all these steps. Spend some time practicing with a mix of songs you like, just trying to find the key for each one. Let me know if you find one that's challenging!

Play-by-Ear Tip #5: Discover Your Voice

Play-by-Ear Tip #5: Discover Your Voice admin Mon, 06/27/2016 - 18:57

One of the best things you can do to improve your ear is to sing. Your voice forms an important link between your instrument and the music you hear in your mind. When you can accurately sing intervals and chords, you will have a much easier time identifying them by ear.

The first step is to match pitch - that is, to accurately match with your voice different notes played on your instrument. If you're not used to singing and you've never done this before, take a few minutes to record yourself as you first play a note on your instrument and then try to match your voice to it. If you're off at first, slide up or down until you have the note.

Now try this exercise again, but this time pause after playing the note on your instrument and first try to hear it in your mind. Match the pitch mentally before singing it. Then see if you can sing it right on pitch without having to slide up or down. Keep doing this with notes that are in your vocal range - Don't worry about notes that are too low or too high for you to sing comfortably.

Once you can quickly and accurately match pitch with the notes in your vocal range, move your fingers to a different note on your instrument. First hear it and sing it mentally, then sing it out loud, without playing. Finally, play the note and see if you sung it right.

When you hear someone sing who is considered 'tone deaf' - someone who is unable to sing even short, simple phrases in tune - it is often the case that this person has never been taught or taken the time to learn how to match pitch. When they hear a note, they are not able to reproduce it with their voice.

Take some time to master this essential first step in ear training - sing along with a few notes on your instrument before you start practicing. Also, while playing some of the melody games on Theta Music Trainer - especially Paddle Pitch or Melodic Drops, try singing the tones and intervals as soon as you hear them.

You'll find that you're able to recognize these tones by ear much more quickly and accurately, and this in turn will lay the foundation for more advanced ear training.

Play-by-Ear Tip #6: Develop Your Powers of Visualization

Play-by-Ear Tip #6: Develop Your Powers of Visualization admin Mon, 06/27/2016 - 18:58

In terms of ear training, visualization refers to the ability to mentally 'see' how you would play a fragment of music on your instrument. Once you are able to sing a phrase you hear, the next step is to visualize how you would actually play it.

For example, if somebody asked you to start from middle C and play the melody for 'Happy Birthday' on your instrument, can you first see clearly in your mind's eye where you would put your fingers? Advanced improvisors, composers and 'play-by-ear' musicians are able to do this for a wide range of melodies and chord progressions. They can 'see' exactly how to play a phrase before they actually play it. This allows them to take the music they hear in their minds and translate it almost instantaneously to their instruments.

Most of us, however, have not yet achieved this level of visualization prowess. We hear a phrase and then stumble around on our instruments until we find the right finger combination to play it. Or worse, we might not even know where to begin. (If you fall into this second category, be sure to see Play-by-ear Tip #5: Discover Your Voice).

Like most skills, visualization can be developed with practice. As always, the trick is to start with short, frequently used melodic patterns and build gradually from there. Repetition is key! Our game 'Parrot Phrases' is designed to help you develop your visualization skills. If you haven't already, I recommend you give it a try, and start a routine today for developing this important musical skill.

Play-by-Ear Tip #7: Break It Down

Play-by-Ear Tip #7: Break It Down admin Mon, 06/27/2016 - 18:59

As you begin working out instrumental solos and other melodies by ear, you may find yourself hitting a wall sometimes with melodies that seem too complex or too long to figure out. When this happens, try breaking the melody down into phrases, and if necessary, break the phrases down even further into short fragments of notes. Then, start with the simplest phrase, and just work note-by-note through each fragment. 

Within each melodic fragment, it may also be helpful to figure out the more prominent notes first - that is, those notes which are held longer or played louder. In particular, locate any notes that are the "1" ('do' or first scale degree) of the key you are in. Now start working out the remaining tones in the phrase.

When you come to a note that is hard to identify, try using this 'pitch freezing' technique:

- Go back to the "1" tone of the key and sing it
- While singing 1, go back to the note you are stuck on and sing it too
- Alternate back and forth, singing 1 and the unidentified note
- See if you can recognize the interval (Melodic Drops will help you build this skill)
- Sing the major scale up to the unidentified note until you match the scale degree of the note

Before long, you will find that you can quickly identify any scale tone simply by comparing it to the 1 of the scale. You can also identify non-scale tones by locating the scale tones immediately above and below the unidentified tone. Eventually you will be able to do this automatically without having to sing up the scale to find the note you're after.

This may seem like a lot of work and analysis just to figure out a short phrase of music, but it is a necessary first step that lays the foundation for you to eventually recognize longer phrases without having to stop, think, analyze and compare. In time, you will be able to do this much more quickly and automatically.