HOME Playin' it by ear...  
Playing by ear is not difficult & too much awe surrounds it from those taught to read music and those who think they can't play by ear. Done methodically, anyone can learn to play by ear. If you can follow the advice below you shouldn't need any lessons at all. If you find any hurdles you can't quite get over though, a lesson or two will push you over them. If you can already play an instrument & wish to be able to play it by ear, it's a crime to imagine you can't. Try the advice below. If you struggle, please arrange a lesson.
Electro acoustic mandolin: Mandolin Lessons HOME     Tone deaf ?

RUBBISH! Everyone who can hear has the ability to listen, to analyse & reproduce sound. If you can talk, you've been doing this all your life. Focusing on & reproducing music is something which takes a little more effort - but only because you may never have done it before. Many people consider themselves 'tone-deaf'. However I firmly believe that everyone has a musical part of their brain which is usually under-developed. Close up of trumpet valves: Trumper  LessonsHOME
In playing to your favourite music you have a few choices:
You can choose to play:
The Melody (A good first step... )
Harmonies (More rewarding)
'Ad lib' lines (
The most rewarding & creative)
Rhythmic patterns (
for guitar & percussion)

 
Use a mini-disc or something of the sort to 'cycle' short passages of your music. A single verse or single chorus is ideal.
 
Reproducing a Melody.

The melody is the tune. It's the line you would sing if you were singing a song. The chords, harmonies, rhythm & the bass are left behind - coz you canny sing everything at once - & you extract the melody from the music. It's one of the more obvious lines to play & a good place to start.

Every melody has a first note. Your task is to find that note on your instrument. Isolate the note by pausing the recording immediately it's sounded. Sing it first then play a random note on your instrument.(If you can't sing it try to find it on your instrument after holding the note in your mind). If you're very lucky - you'll hit it first time. But more often it'll be higher or lower in pitch than the note your singing.

Soprano Sax - looking rather gorgeous: sax tuition, Newburgh, Fife
Treble 4 string banjo with light shining though the skin: Music Lessons, Newburgh, Fife

The next crucial step is to establish if your note is higher or lower than the one you're looking for. If you can do this without a problem, you're half way there already. If your note is too high, play a chromatic scale downwards until you hit it. If it's too low, play a chromatic scale upwards in the same way. If you're not sure, you'll have to do both.

Don't be too hasty & be very methodical. Play at least a whole octave (13 notes - all semi-tones) before deciding to go the other way.. Your note you're hunting down may not even be in this octave, but if you've played a whole octave, you will have played it in another octave - which you may spot. Listen very carefully to the interval between the two notes.

Got it? Good, now do it all again for the second note.... & the third.

You will get much quicker at it as you do it. Eventually, you'll know straight away whether note 3 is higher or lower than note 2 - and you may even know the interval, so you can hit it straight away.

And that's all there is to it! Not complicated really at all. Now you just need to do it lots! - & join the dots... Put all your notes together, & hey! you find yourself playing your tune. There are lots of other aspects - rhythm, dynamics, feeling etc but finding the tune is the foundation.

Though playing the melody is a good first step in learning to play by ear, it's rather boring - so try some of the other aspects - harmonies, ad-lib, etc.

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Harmonies

Adding harmonies to your favorite music is great fun & very satisfying. Professionally produced music generally has all the harmonies it really needs - but you can always find one or two to stick in there. Where you can't, simply duplicate any of the existing ones & weave between them.

Playing '3rds' - playing a line a 3rd below the melody usually works and is a good thing try.

Also: Try playing long notes over the chord changes & simply change the note when it doesn't sound too good! In a lesson we will analyze what it was that sounded best. Some theory may be necessary but don't let that put you off. Most musicians instinctively know what sounds right without necessarily knowing why.

Most verses have between 2 - 4 chords. In playing by ear, you don't necessarily even need to know what these chords are - so long as you can spot when the note you've chosen to play fits. Out of the 12 notes in the scale, only 3 or 4 of them will usually fit within a chord. Some of the best harmonies happen when the note you've chosen to play also fits the following chord. And it's dead easy to play coz you simply hold the note through the change. Sometimes a single note can be held though a four chord sequence.

Now playing one note through the whole verse may be a little dull! so... once you know a D for example fits a certain sequence, try other notes too. In playing a verse over & over you will build up a bank of notes to play as the chords change.

 
  Soprano Sax: Sax Lessons, Newburgh, Fife Use this bank like a palette of colours to use - & eventually create an ad-lib line over the top. It doesn't have to be fast or fancy, but it should fit each new chord.
Flute: Flute Lessons, Newburgh, Fife Do the same with a chorus & your almost there. There'll almost certainly be a major change in chords for the chorus so you'll need to do the exercise all over again but once you can play to both, you're free to play the whole song & jam along.  
  Treble 4 string banjo with light shining though the skin: Music Lessons, Newburgh, Fife You could aim to eventually play harmonies (usually 'thirds') with the lead line. It sounds more acceptable to simplify these than simplifying the main tune, so you can start simple where it's too tricky & through time aim to play a full parallel harmony. Don't feel you have to play the whole time. When you've established a note for the beginning of the verse, play it then & if you're struggling to find something for the next chord change after a few attempts, just fall silent for these parts you're not sure about. After several times round you're bound to find something eventually that fits the chords.
A lesson can help in understanding what works & why....... & what doesn't work
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You will need eventually, (usually) to start to listen to the bass lines. These give massive clues to the chords which are being played. The Bass usually plays the 'root' note of the chord being played at that given moment. It usually does this on the first beat of a bar...& whenever the chord changes.

If that's Double Dutch to you, count 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 to your music (about 90% of music is in '4 time'). You should get the feel of where the '1' is. It's the strongest part of the repeating sequence & if you turn up the bass you should here the bass drum thumping it out.

 

Ultimately: your goal is to be able to Put on Radio 2, Real Radio - whatever is your bag, & try to play along to the next song that comes on. From here on, you probably need no further help.

Unfortunately a bit of quick tuning is sometimes required but you should be able to do this in seconds for brass & woodwind & under a minute for a guitar / bass. Pianos are trickier unless they are electronic & transpose.

Pure digital Radio: Learn to listen
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This is because some recordings are between keys. This happens during recording / mixing when a track is slowed down or speeded up slightly for effect. Your ear should eventually be able to tell if you need to tune. It seems to be less of a problem with new music in this digital age....

Trumpet close up of finger ring: Trumpet Lessons, Newburgh, Fife
 
Ad Lib (at liberty)
This is where the fun really begins. Here you just go crazy & play all over your favourite tracks. You can flit between bits of melody & harmony or find a line all of your own. You can play fast runs in scales relating to the current chord or arpeggios. This is the ultimate place to be – and some have found themselves there having considered themselves ‘tone-deaf’.

You need to concentrate on the Bass & the chord changes. Turn the bass control up on the hi-fi. Pause the track on each chord & try to work out the note being played by the bass. The bass nearly always hits the root note - that is the note of the chord, on the first beat of the bar. So if you can count along to your music, usually 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 etc pause the music if you can or turn down the volume after you've just said "one" & try to sing the note the bass played in your head. Whilst humming away, try to find the note on your instrument. This ‘root’ note is the safest to play. The arpeggio of the note’s chord is also safe as houses. The note's scale too.

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Rather battered looking trumpet (must be Dave's): Trumpet lessons, Newburgh, Fife  

Each time the chord changes, you’ll have a fresh set of notes you can use - & a fresh set of ones you shouldn't use. Among the most important to grasp is the minor & major 3rd. Playing the wrong one will give you the greatest musical clash of all. Try to establish if your current chord is minor or major. It’s the 3rd – three notes up in the scale from the bass note you’re listening for.

Loosen up a little, try just playing along without the analysis. Play along to short passages first. It's sometimes helpful to use a mini-disc recorder to repeat short sections - perhaps just a single verse. Just Play. You may play something which sounds OK, & some which sound not so OK. The trick is to remember what sounded good & play it again the next time it comes around. You’ll learn just as much from your mistakes as anything else – so go on, make some mistakes.

If you really can’t tell what sounds good & what doesn’t, if you don’t know where to start… give us a ring.
 
... but...I want to be able to read now...
  If you decide after a while that you would like to start reading sheet music, I can teach you this. It may be that you or your child wants to join a band or orchestra where you will be expected to be able to read. The fact that you can already play your instrument by then will mean that you can concentrate solely on learning to read. Just bring the music you wish to learn & we'll see how we get on.
 
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