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How I learn a tune (by ear)
a quick introduction to theory for the ear player
Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 (1 votes) 
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RosinedUp
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March 19, 2013 - 12:46 am
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I can play a simple tune without sheet music, if I know what it sounds like. That is my preferred way of learning to play a tune.

When I learn a new tune, the hardest part is remembering how it goes.  Once I remember the sound, I can usually play it very soon.  I believe that focusing on intonation has given me a pretty good connection between my mind's ear and my fingers.

The first thing I do when I learn a new tune is listen.  Then I start to play it to find out what pitches ("notes" if you prefer) are in it.  If it is what I consider a well-mannered conventional grown-up tune, it will have exactly seven kinds of pitches in it.  I hope everyone can see that open G, G on the D string, and G on the E string, and all other G's, are all pitches of the same kind---all of the same pitch class.  It is not just that they go by the same name.  It is that they are physically similar, and you can hear it.  I believe that that is the most fundamental concept in music.  In the same way, F# on the D string and F# on the E string, together with all other F#'s, fall in the F# pitch class.  The repetition in the piano keyboard reflects the repetition of pitches.  There are twelve pitch classes altogether, named after the notes of the chromatic scale, but only seven are used in a given tune of the simple kind mentioned.  The key of the tune is determined by the particular seven pitch classes used in the given tune.  You can even say that those seven pitch classes are the key of the tune.

The second thing I want to know about a piece is the tonic.  That is the pitch that the piece comes to rest on.  Usually the tonic is the last note of the piece.

The other thing I want to know is the time signature.

What good is it to know those three things?  How am I supposed to know that?  I am still a beginner. 

 

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Ferret
Byron Bay Australia
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March 19, 2013 - 5:32 pm
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That is much the same way that I do it. But I haven't put the thought into it that you have.

Once the tune is in my head I just sit down and sort it exactly

Seen it all. Done it all. Can't remember most of dunno ..... What was I saying???? facepalm

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Steve
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March 19, 2013 - 10:33 pm
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I admit I'm fascinated by topics like this, in this case, learning tunes by ear. I come from the complete opposite end, having started on piano almost 60 years ago, learning to read music then and only until many years later exposed to "learning a tune by ear". Now I'm trying to learn fiddle, and the Adult Beginning Fiddle class I attend weekly tries to teach the tunes mostly "learning by ear". I can do it, I've found, but since we also have the notated music, I find I can learn the tune faster by reading the music, then eventually memorizing the tune. But over the years I've learned to pick out tunes without having the music, but I wouldn't call that "learning by ear" since I already know the tune and can play it in my head before trying it on the fiddle, in this case.

So I love to read about how others with no or minimal music-reading background "learn the tune by ear".

The way the teacher presents the tune is by playing the first several measures, then having the class repeat after her; doing this as many times as needed until she sees most of the class can play that, then repeating this for the next several measures, etc. until the whole first part of the tune is covered, then playing that whole first part, then moving on to the second part, doing the same thing. (Many fiddle tunes have an A part and a B part.)

Learning by ear is the way most fiddle music has traditionally been done. I have a younger brother who is an accomplished old time music fiddler who doesn't read music at all, and knows hundreds of fiddle tunes. So whose method is "better"? I don't know! They both have their place with probably neither being better than the other.

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Siarl Bychan
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July 23, 2013 - 7:44 pm
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I really enjoy reading and hearing music theory ideas. I don't think I could handle music theory every day but I like to have something to practice or a way of imagining the notes, the staff, and the fingerboard and how it comes together. I'm more of a visual person. If I can visualize what the relation is between each note it is much easier for me to pick up and understand when I play or listen. Thank you

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Ginnysg
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July 23, 2013 - 11:02 pm
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I don't think I have the talent it takes to play by ear.  I can hear a song in my head, but where do I start?  I think I'd have to do so much trial and error to find the right sound I'd probably get discouraged.  But I really admire people that can do that!

My husband plays guitar, some really cool and interesting riffs, but he does it all by ear... which means I can't grab the music and try it myself.

I need a sheet of music in front of me, at least until I've played it enough to memorize it.  Although with the song I'm currently working on I've added a few little tiny embellishments, trying to match some of the way I heard the song on a recording. 

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” 

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Fiddlerman
Fort Lauderdale
July 24, 2013 - 10:36 am
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Reading music and playing by ear are two different skills. Both can be learned and improved and both are fantastic to have. No one is worse of a player for not being able to do one or the other but anyone can benefit from doing as much of either as possible.
Most of the professional musicians that I have worked with in my life have not been so good at playing by ear. Obviously they need to be great at reading music since we play new programs, often even contemporary music, every week. Sometimes 2 or more separate productions in the same week.

"The richest person is not the one who has the most,
but the one who needs the least."

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Barry
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July 24, 2013 - 10:59 am
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its rare to find someone that is good at both. Like Pierre said, both can be improved upon and you'll be better because of it. Ive known players that are unbelievable at picking up things by ear,yet struggle with reading. 

Im not a great reader but Im getting better. I use the sheet music only to learn the piece and commit it to memory...works for me  

There is no shame in playing twinkle, youre playing Mozart

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coolpinkone
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July 24, 2013 - 2:44 pm
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Great topic... So many here have been playing by ear.  It has been making me feel a bit inept.  I have spent the better part of a year learning to play from sheet.  When that was accomplished ( on a small scale), the gates opened for me.   I can play so many tunes and have fun.  But I suppose for an ear person the same works for them.

For now I will continue with my sheet studies... And I will take time to develope my ear.

Excellent topic and lesson Ru.  I needed a refresher and that was great.

 

Ciao!

Vibrato Desperato.... Desperately seeking vibrato

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DanielB
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July 24, 2013 - 5:57 pm
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Whether one does it by ear or by reading (be it dots, tab or ABC), it is just a method for getting the notes.  I would not call it a talent, Ginnyg, but more of a skill one can learn and improve in both cases.

What you can do with those notes once you get them, now there is where I would say your talent will come into play. 

@Ginnyg: Ask you husband to tell you the notes he uses for some of those riffs.  Write them down if that is what you are most comfortable with.  Then you can learn them to use.  Riffs work on more than just guitar.  Start with getting him to show you some of the little ones that only have a few notes.  If he is improvising, ask him to show you the scale he is using or tell you the notes.

 

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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wookieman
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July 24, 2013 - 6:57 pm
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I honestly think that I, and probably most of us, use a combination of the two.  When I first look at a piece of music and figure out the notes (which is still an effort in itself) and then play it, you can tell right away if I read something wrong, because it simply doesn't sound right.  I think that's probably true for most of us, and for most music.  Obviously, there are some exceptions.  I believe it was Mozart that wrote a piece that's beginning is deliberately "off" sounding.

There is no failure, only results.

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Siarl Bychan
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July 24, 2013 - 11:43 pm
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Right now I'm learning two beginner tunes and one I consider not so beginner. Angeline the Baker and Old Joe Clark. Both of those I am learning by ear. So many fiddlers each have a different way of playing it. I just take one that I like the best. Learn the melody first and then begin to listen for the ornery-mentation (since that's what it feels like) and add to the melody as much as I can. The other not so beginner tune is Hell and Scissors. I listen to the recording of Rafe Stefanini over and over again for the past week. Then I try to get the beginning three or four notes (it's a fast tune) if I can and just continue to add to it from there by ear.

I did, however, hunt down the sheet music for it so that I can use it as a guide when I'm stuck. I took piano lessons back when I was a teenager so I'm not great at reading music but it helps a little.

I have this program that takes the recording and slows it way down until it sounds like a funeral dirge. It's a great program to have if learning by ear.

I have to say though, it sure is very slow going. But I just keep pluggin' away at it. One of these days I'll get it.

I really enjoy all the tips from the forum.

Siarl

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RosinedUp
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July 25, 2013 - 12:48 am
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Ginnyg said
I don't think I have the talent it takes to play by ear.  I can hear a song in my head, but where do I start?  I think I'd have to do so much trial and error to find the right sound I'd probably get discouraged. 

The first thing is to understand that when you first try to learn a tune by ear, your purpose is not mainly to learn that tune.  Your purpose is learn how to learn a tune by ear.  Of course it is going to take longer to learn the first ones.  The idea is to develop general skills for learning and playing by ear.  Your goal is the ability to make the sounds you want on the violin as easily as you sing a tune that you want to sing.  So plan to start with very simple familiar tunes, and lots of them.  Stay away from tunes you've never heard.  Start with easy ones you've heard a million times.

Next, practice in ways that will lead to ear playing.  I've identified two of those ways: attention to intonation and memorization. 

Above all, give extreme attention to intonation.  You want to build connections between the pitches you hear in your head and what your fingers are doing.  Play the note in your head before you play it on your instrument.  Get the pitch exactly right.  You'll need to hit the right pitches anyway, ear playing or not.  I play the note without looking at the tuner, then look at the tuner and correct the pitch if it is wrong, and keep playing it if it is right.  Your brain gets wired by giving simultaneous attention to the pitch you are hearing and the fine positioning of the fingers.  You will reach a point where imagining a pitch causes your finger to move to produce that pitch.

If you have learned a piece from sheet, then as soon as you can, put the sheet away.  You substitute the memory of the sound of the tune for the sheet.  You hear what you are about to play---instead of seeing written notes for what you are about to play.

Notice that the way to get good at something is to do it again and again.  After you have learned say twenty easy tunes by ear, you might be able to play the 21st one without errors, the first time.  Do you believe that?  I would not have, but I do now.

Recognize that you can't play a tune by ear if you don't know how it goes.  Learning and remembering tunes is a skill in itself, separate from playing what you remember. 

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RosinedUp
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July 25, 2013 - 1:15 am
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Ginnyg said
I don't think I have the talent it takes to play by ear.  I can hear a song in my head, but where do I start?  I think I'd have to do so much trial and error to find the right sound I'd probably get discouraged. 

IMO hearing the tune in your head is the most important requirement for ear playing.

You start by selecting a note from what you are hearing and try to match it by singing it or playing it on your instrument.  Then you 1) play or sing into the tuner to identify the note, or 2) "read" it from the fingerboard.  After doing that with five or ten notes, you can play a little snippet of the tune.  So stop and have some fun with that little snippet.  When you get bored with it go to the next note.  Do that with the whole tune.  There isn't a lot more to it than that.

After doing it with 20 to 50 tunes, you can play through a simple tune on the first try, sometimes at tempo without errors.

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Ginnysg
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July 25, 2013 - 9:42 pm
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Thanks @RosinedUp ,  that is great advice.  I am going to work on learning songs by ear. I've picked out a few, and have started.  Like you said, it will be slow going for a little while... but it was really fun!  I'll keep you posted on my progress.

“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent” 

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