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  • A secret to learning to play by ear

    My approach to learning new songs have always been a little upside down.  I pick a song I want to learn and  start by writing down the chords I hear to get familiar with the key and the tune before I work on any improvising.  Then here comes the weird part.  To find the color chords I listen carefully to the music and find the fingering that I hear.  Then, I go through my chord books to find out what the chord is so I can write it down and continue on with my chord mapping.  I was blessed with growing up in a family that played many instruments and sang harmony completely by ear.  Our mother taught my three siblings and me four part harmony in the age range from 3 to 5 years old.

    I'm interested in learning any techniques the guitar players in this forum might incorporate to the process of learning new songs by ear.  One more thing that has helped me is what I learned from a teacher in Woodstock, NY named Jamie Andreas.  She taught me the importance of 'intentional attention'.   Please, don't advise me to learn music theory.  I know enough theory to suit my needs but I primarily use the above method.  Now if I could only lock away the memory requirements for the recall of the songs I've learned.

     

    Don't buy a gemstone guitar pick. They're like your favorite snack; you can't stop with just one.

  • #2

    I've been playing music in one form or another since about the age of four. I played my "tunes" on toy xylophones, Flut-O-Phones and harmonicas long before I ever had any formal music lessons. I could "hear" the notes in my head and transpose them to the musical instrument I was playing at the time. Back then, I had no idea what notes I was playing, but I could play the tunes. Learning the actual notes I was playing came later.

    When I was 8 years old, I took three years of music lessons, but it wasn't on a guitar. This was back in 1950 and, believe it or not, the accordion was a very popular musical instrument at the time. So, that's what my folks decided I should learn to play.

    Every instrument I've learned since then, was all self-taught and learned "by ear". (Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, keyboard, cornet, penny whistle). I gave up on the banjo after owning one for about 20 years. It didn't have the sound I was going for, so I didn't really work very hard at trying to learn the thing. I thought it looked neat sitting in the corner of my living room, but I eventually sold it.

    I don't think there's any real "secret" to learning to play by ear. I truly believe some people are just blessed with the ability to do it, and some aren't. I also believe there are some who have this ability but don't even know they have it. These people can be trained to play by ear once the latent ability is discovered.

    Then......there are those who don't have a trace of this natural ability and have to depend on the written note to play......whether it's in tab form or standard notation.

    I have a sister who's is an accomplished pianist. However, if you took her sheet music away from her, she couldn't play anything.......even compositions she'd been playing for years. It was only recently, after she'd been playing for about 50 years, that I was able to teach her how to play by ear. She now plays a nylon string guitar by ear and it thrilled that every song she does was learned "by ear". She had the ability all along, but just never knew it. For her it was a brand new experience. One she'd never had before.

    I have a friend who is one of the best trumpet players I've ever known. He's always lamented the fact that he's what he calls a "book man" and can't play a thing without his sheet music in front of him. It's kept him from being able to play professionally because he does't want to perform with a music stand in front of him and has tried, unsuccessfully, for years to play by ear, but it's just never worked for him.

    So......IMO, I think the ability to play by ear is something you either have, or you don't. If you can listen to a song, and then whistle or hum that song.......you've got it......you may not have developed the ability yet, but it's there.

    That's my humble opinion of it. Of course, I could also be wrong as hell!

     

     

     

     

     

    Three Dreads......2 Martins and 1 YamahaA fiddle, a mando, a uke, eight harmonicas, a Zoom H2, a Panasonic recorder, coupla penny whistles, an Italian made Titano accordion, three handguns, at least a dozen chess sets, more power tools than Bob Vila, and one old Westclox "Big Ben" wind-up alarm clock that still works! Oh, BTW, I forgot to mention my ocarina and maracas.

    Comment


    • poppytater
      poppytater commented
      Editing a comment

      ^ Agree


    • Graeca
      Graeca commented
      Editing a comment

      Opa John wrote:

      I've been playing music in one form or another since about the age of four. I played my "tunes" on toy xylophones, Flut-O-Phones and harmonicas long before I ever had any formal music lessons. I could "hear" the notes in my head and transpose them to the musical instrument I was playing at the time. Back then, I had no idea what notes I was playing, but I could play the tunes. Learning the actual notes I was playing came later.

      When I was 8 years old, I took three years of music lessons, but it wasn't on a guitar. This was back in 1950 and, believe it or not, the accordion was a very popular musical instrument at the time. So, that's what my folks decided I should learn to play.

      Every instrument I've learned since then, was all self-taught and learned "by ear". (Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, ukulele, keyboard, cornet, penny whistle). I gave up on the banjo after owning one for about 20 years. It didn't have the sound I was going for, so I didn't really work very hard at trying to learn the thing. I thought it looked neat sitting in the corner of my living room, but I eventually sold it.

      I don't think there's any real "secret" to learning to play by ear. I truly believe some people are just blessed with the ability to do it, and some aren't. I also believe there are some who have this ability but don't even know they have it. These people can be trained to play by ear once the latent ability is discovered.

      Then......there are those who don't have a trace of this natural ability and have to depend on the written note to play......whether it's in tab form or standard notation.

      I have a sister who's is an accomplished pianist. However, if you took her sheet music away from her, she couldn't play anything.......even compositions she'd been playing for years. It was only recently, after she'd been playing for about 50 years, that I was able to teach her how to play by ear. She now plays a nylon string guitar by ear and it thrilled that every song she does was learned "by ear". She had the ability all along, but just never knew it. For her it was a brand new experience. One she'd never had before.

      I have a friend who is one of the best trumpet players I've ever known. He's always lamented the fact that he's what he calls a "book man" and can't play a thing without his sheet music in front of him. It's kept him from being able to play professionally because he does't want to perform with a music stand in front of him and has tried, unsuccessfully, for years to play by ear, but it's just never worked for him.

      So......IMO, I think the ability to play by ear is something you either have, or you don't. If you can listen to a song, and then whistle or hum that song.......you've got it......you may not have developed the ability yet, but it's there.

      That's my humble opinion of it. Of course, I could also be wrong as hell!


      Pretty much my experience...learned to read notation, but unless I do it often, I'm pretty slow about it, while playing by ear has always been very easy.


    • Freeman Keller
      Freeman Keller commented
      Editing a comment

      Opa John wrote:

      So......IMO, I think the ability to play by ear is something you either have, or you don't. If you can listen to a song, and then whistle or hum that song.......you've got it......you may not have developed the ability yet, but it's there.


      It sounds like many of you have it and I envy you all.  I don't.   I can't learn or play anything by ear - I need someone to show me, either physically or with chords or tab or something.    I have literally dozens of guitar books and dvds and videos - many times I only learn one song from each.    And when I "learn" a song what I'm really doing is memorizing the chords or notes - and most of the time I get it wrong LOL.

      I've always thought there was a difference between taking a picture and being a "photographer", or painting something and being an "artist", or, in this case, playing the guitar and being a "musician".   I take pictures, paint things and play the guitar.    Oh well....


  • #3

    i fid playing by ear very difficult and would love if someone coukd teach me. i usually just go to ultimate guitar.com and memorize the songs, but they don always have the songs i want learn.

    Comment


    • #4
      The number 1 thing for me is active listening. I listen to the original at least 3 times with headphones, actively identifying the different guitar parts and other instruments. Then I run through with a guitar in my hands and work out the guitar parts. Then practice like crazy. Repeat for vocals: listen, write down the lyrics, practice.
      Then combine the guitar and vocals.

      Comment


      • thewthrman
        thewthrman commented
        Editing a comment

        I don't think my ear is that great for pitches and voicings.  But i know a gazillion songs.  When I am learning a song, I generally have a "sounds like" song that I use as a starting point. I start with something I know and massage it into the new song.

        then that new song becomes another possible starting point for another new song.  So, the best way to learn new songs is to learn new songs.  Lots of them  Learn songs you don't necessarily like even.

        The experience I have that best equipped me for being a musician is having the discipline to play music I didn't like (for money of course).  I played in musicals and wedding bands and lounge music and whatever else I could get into.  I made money, but all of it added together over the years might add up to one month at my day job.  But the experience I gained was worth far more.


    • #5

      JoeJazz wrote:  Now if I could only lock away the memory requirements for the recall of the songs I've learned.

       


      If you can't remember it you haven't learned it.

      Comment


      • Neal
        Neal commented
        Editing a comment

        Most songs are 1-4-5.  Sometimes you have a 2 and a 6 thrown in.  Sometimes minor, sometimes 7th some times major.  Most songs are easily learned by ear. 

         

        How general is that.... but it's true.


    • #6
      I learn songs quite easily. Remembering them is my problem. I play in our church band. Our church secretary recently had to file a report with CCLI (licensing), and it turns out that in the last six months we performed 117 different songs. How many do I remember? Only a few.
      Please visit my website www.treeguitarworks.com

      Comment


      • jdc5294
        jdc5294 commented
        Editing a comment

        So I had the beginning of I Won't Back down (Johnny Cash's version) stuck in my head for about a day, for the life of me couldn't place what song it was. I'll just randomly figure out riffs and songs on guitar to entertain myself, and I did it with that song in about 10 seconds just to be able to show my friend who immediately spotted it. I say that to illustrate what's worked for me, which is simply learning a lot of songs.

        For a vast majority of music, unless you get into some crazy jazz (which I love, btw) or alternate tunings, guitar hasn't (and probably won't?) change much in the way of the technical aspect of playing. The intro to that song is a riff in Am and then a I-IV chord progression in A. Woah, crazy stuff. To me it sort of sounded like the riff for Layla. Whoops, wrong key. Shift it over one string? Bingo. It's in A, so A and most likely D are the first chords.


    • #7

      I taught myself how to play guitar at a young age so playing by ear is something that I have learned to do. I always start out by listening to the song a few times, actively listening to pick apart the guitar pieces and the pieces with other instruments. I then grab my guitar and work on the guitar parts and write down what I decide is correct. Then I practice and eventually get the song down. 

      Comment


      • #8

        Yeah, I just pick it out after hearing it, although it may be in a different key from what I heard. While growing up I used to do this on a piano in the living room (playing with one hand; have never learned to use two). Now I do it on guitar. It's very easy for me to find the chords unless it's something very strange or jazzy. I found that the more I played, the more automatic this reverse-engineering process became.

        I think this is just a matter of brain wiring. I have many musician friends who play beautifully (way above my level), but they are not adept at figuring out how to play something without a score or tab.

        __________________________
        She's the lady of the light
        Yellow incandescent night
        Tiger eyes burning bright
        In the understory
        I can't see the forest
        For the branches and the leaves
        But I believe
        I do believe
        by me:

        www.box.com

        "Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."
        Charlie Parker

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        • #9
          The jazzy stuff isn't any harder to do, just different. Trust me you hear a m9b11 enough times you'll be able to pick it out of a lineup. I hate that chord.

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