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playing by ear - accompanying singers "on the fly"


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  • playing by ear - accompanying singers "on the fly"

    anyone here do this in your gigs??   have you got "the knack"?!

    in my duo my partner is really skilled at this. we ask people up they name a tune. he figures out a key with them and then they start singing and he nails it nearly every time...      and i dont mean Bad Moon Rising or tunes like that...  this can be jazz standards, or some of those old 60's hits where the chords go everywhere.   for example remember that one "youre just too good to be true, cant take my eyes off of you"..  really tough asks when your working on the fly..

    trouble is,  hes not a great teacher! i know i'll never nail it like he has it,  but i ask him for a few tips or tricks and he just says "i dont know what i do i just do it"...  but im sure theres got to be some pointers that can help.   i would consider myself as having a pretty good musical ear, can drop in on harmonies etc.  but where i think i fall down with this is knowing the guitar inside out..  i.e. hearing a note in my head and immediately just "going there" on the guitar.   

    anyone know of any good online youtube lessons or excercises to help improve on it?

    its a fantastic skill,, dont you think?!






  • #2

    As a musician born on the "ear" side of the street but who now does a pretty even amount of ear playing and reading, the thing that really helped me the most was slowly (VERY slowly) figuring out chord progressions of the songs I listened to and comparing what I heard with more reliable sources.  It is slow and tedious, and often times it feels like you're going nowhere, but by taking the long way around, you really start to see, hear, and understand different harmonic movements and standard progressions better.  You'll gradually find yourself doing it subconciously, and before you know it, you can not only hear common progressions like ii-V-I in music, but, more importantly, you'll form emotional and kinesthetic connections with them.  As time goes on you'll tune into less common harmonic movements (i say movements because it can be something as small as a single note moving to relieve a suspended chord).  I am not sure if you will percieve it in exactly the same way. but I know I truly have a harmonic movement in my arsenal when I percieve it as a change in emotion rather than in harmony (regardless of the key).  I have heard other musicians who percive this in a more geometric or shape-oriented fashion and others who process color, but the foundation is basically the same.  The analysis (i suggest using numbers to identify chords) helps give you something concrete to grasp, but the end goal goes far beyond memorizing number patterns.  The key is really personalizing it.  Just like you don't think "article(adj.) subject(n.) predicate(v.) predicate modifier(adv.)" when you say "The dog ran quickly." you want to think past the numbers.  On the same note, most individuals would not speak properly if they hadn't first learned the basics of grammar. (on that note sorry if both my spelling and grammar suck...) This was a pretty long-winded explanation, but as with most other aspects of music, how you percieve playing by ear and understanding the steps you are taking to improve is extremely important.  Just earing things out without understanding how the parts fit together will help you replicate music with your ear, but it is the understanding of what is happening that is key for anticipating harmonic movement when playing on the fly, and it will also give you the freedom to tweak the music as you see fit.  I'd keep going, but I've already babbled on for long enough, and someone else may have a way of learning that suits you better than mine.  Enjoy!


    • #3

      Being able to play by ear is a combination of a lot of different factors.  Memory is one.  If you can remember what a  I, IV, V progression sounds like you don't have to figure out the progression to a blues every time you hear it.  If you can remember what a  I, VIm, IIm, V progression sounds like then you will know what basic rhythm changes of a verse sound like.  It's kind of like learning a language, eventually you learn enough changes and what they sound like that you can usually tell what's going on.

      For instance the first time I learned Feel Like Making Love I had never really heard a bV substitution for the I before.  So just before the chorus... Fm / Bb / Ebmaj7 / A7b5 // then the chorus Abmaj7 / Gm-7 / Fm-7 / and so on.  You see that the A7b5 chord is really just a substitution for (or leading chord if you prefer) for an Eb7. In other words something that moves you along to the IV chord of the chorus. As a matter of fact, that song has some other good ear training progressions IMHO.

      My above point is that once you can recognize what a Flat Five substitution sounds like, you've learned another word (or verb even).  And that will lead you to recognize something else and something else again. So like the previous poster, learning a lot of songs and progressions, and paying attention to them and memorizing them is a good step.  Interval training can also be key.  Do you know what all the intervals sound like?

      Finally, don't blame you friend for not being able to explain his process.  Some people just do this intuitively - they can't really explain how they do it, they just make the connection.  Others have it both ways. And still others achieve "big ears" by hard work and sweat.


      • daddymack
        daddymack commented
        Editing a comment

        Shaster wrote:

        Finally, don't blame you friend for not being able to explain his process.  Some people just do this intuitively - they can't really explain how they do it, they just make the connection.  Others have it both ways. And still others achieve "big ears" by hard work and sweat.

        I will go out on a limb and say the duo partner has 'perfect pitch', and may not even realize it. My father has it. He could hear a song on the radio, walk over and bang it out on the piano...while it was still airing.  Show tunes, jazz, pop...didn't matter...and he could fully 'voice the chords in polyphony, not just basic triads...major 7ths, 13ths, augmented/diminished chords, all of it....it drove me crazy that I couldn't do this when I was starting out. He couldn't explain it either because there was nothing to explain...it just is part of their natural skillset.

        You either have it, or you do not. It is a 'gift'.  You can, however, develop what is known as 'relative pitch', where you can memorize the logical intervals and follow along...mentally breaking down the chord structure...but to just wing it? Not likely.