- I’d like to play by ear – both oboe and – for social reasons – the piano. Unfortunately, I have no idea how to do it.
- I’ve forced myself to try to play a couple of my Grade VII pieces by ear, and have really got nowhere – I’m really just playing from memory (and usually forgetting). But I only tried for a couple of hours stretched over 4 days. This doesn’t compare well with people who’ve spent hundreds or thousands of hours toting their guitars.
- I initially investigated the following Websites:-
→ Rick Beato - Ear Training 101 - Mastering Intervals
→ Rick Beato - How To Develop The World's Greatest Ear - Part 1
→ Aimee Nolte Music - Ear Training For Beginners (Part 1)
This didn’t lead anywhere, because I didn’t persist.
- I did some more Googling, and it was noted that playing from sheet music tends to bypass the ear completely and makes that aspect of our musical sense atrophy. This is exactly my experience.
- Further Googling confirmed that interval training is essential. I’m hopeless at this – as revealed in the aural sessions in my music lessons – and feared that it was something that came naturally or not at all. However, it seems this can be learnt, with considerable persistence.
- I found some pages1 on Quora2 that deal with this topic, and have extracted a couple of useful answers:-
- Quora: How do I learn to play music by ear?
- Aldo Tanca, I play several instruments and think a lot about music education and learning. Answered August 18, 2018; Author has 490 answers and 478K answer views
- Many people would say that music is notes played at specific moments. In reality, what we call music is the distance in time and pitch between notes.
- When you ask “how to play music by ear”, you are basically asking how you can replicate on your instrument such distances between notes, in time and pitch.
- The good news is that your instrument is, like any musical instrument, a tool to produce musical intervals (e.g. to produce distances between notes, if you like). Also, most likely your instrument is, like most musical instruments, designed to reproduce such intervals according to geometric patterns.
- In first place, you need to be able to recognize intervals. This is commonly done through ear training, by associating each interval with the first two notes of tunes you are very familiar with.
- For instance,
- Twinkle Twinkle opens with a note repeated twice, followed by another note repeated twice. Twin-kle Twin-kle.
→ The distance between these two notes is a fifth interval.
→ No matter what note you start from, in order to play Twinkle Twinkle you will play that note and then whatever note is a fifth up.
→ For instance, if you start with a C, your second note will be a G. If you start with an A, your second note will be an E.
- Let’s consider other examples. The first two notes of Every Breath You Take are a minor second ascending interval, followed by a minor second descending interval (half a tone up, half a tone down).
→ C - C# - C (if you start with a C)
→ A - A# - A (if you begin with an A)
- The first notes of Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia are the same with repetitions:
→ C - C -C - C# - C
- Beethoven’s Fur Elize first notes? Again second interval ascending and descending!
→ C# -C - C# -C - C#
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow? An ascending octave (to the same note one octave higher)
→ C - C (one octave higher)
- Someday my Prince Will Come?
→ An ascending sixth.
→ C —— A
- Ok, you need to learn a lot of this intervals, associating them with songs you know by heart, and sing them often (not the songs, just the intervals).
- Then, you need to learn how to reproduce the intervals on your instrument. From any note, you want for instance to be able to do this automatically, with no thinking. For instance, our ascending fifth for twinkle twinkle.
- On a violin, as the most basic option, it will be at the same finger position but one string under (violins are tuned in fifths typically)
- On a piano, it will be always more or less at the same distance from the starting note, but depending on the note, it will be on a white or a black key; learn the combinations for all notes.
- On a guitar in standard tuning, it will be on the string underneath but two frets ahead, unless you start on the G string, in which case it will be on the string under three frets ahead (e.g. if you play C on the A string, 3rd fret, your fifth G is one string under at the 5th fret. If you play a B on the G string, which you find at the 4th fret, your fifth interval will be one string under, at the 7th fret).
- So, you really want to know how to form these intervals on your instrument.
- Once you start progressing with these two things (recognizing the intervals and playing them on your instrument), you can start finding your melodies by ear. How?
- Focus on the first note and the second.
→ Is it the same note? Then play it twice.
→ Is the second higher? Ascending interval. Which? Play it.
→ Is the second lower? Descending interval. Which? Play it.
- Then focus on the second note and the third, and repeat the process. And so forth for all notes.
- At first it will be slow, but with practise you will start doing it automatically. At 16 I did not know these things, and I too wondered HOW. Now I know, and I can find all kind of melodies naturally. You can too. Good luck!
- For further information, see …
- Quora: Are there any secrets/shortcuts to learning to play the guitar?
- Aldo Tanca, Updated October 24, 2017
- I can give you three, but not of the kind which will magically make you play basic guitar earlier. Rather of the type which will make a world of difference if you stick to it long enough to want to be creative and expressive with your instrument. They are secrets for the only reason that most guitar players, of which there are tons, either never truly learn them or learn them much later that they could have.
- They are shortcuts because they would save you on the long run tons of time and effort, if you are lucky, or simply enable you to do things which are otherwise not achievable just by intuition, if you are unlucky.
- Ever wondered how people figure out how to play a song, or how to play naturally what is in their head? Many people do so intuitively, to a variable extent, but there is another way which works for everybody.
- The thing is, what we call music is not the notes. Rather, it is the distance between the notes. What we call intervals. Everybody, pretty much, recognizes intervals. If you did not recognize them, not only would you not be able to hear the same melody or the same chords pattern in two different keys and recognize them as the same, but you would not even recognize the same melody when played twice, let alone being able to enjoy it.
- You know that game where you have dots and need to connect them with lines, which make a drawing? If you have the same dots pattern and you move it somewhere else, it will still make the same drawing. The distance between the dots is the same, so the lines will be the same. Everybody recognizes the lines, and can see the drawing, and everybody recognizes the intervals and can hear the same melody.
- So, you need to learn the intervals. How they sound like and how you can reproduce them on your instrument.
- Here are the three tricks then:
- Learn how the interval sounds. This is called ear training. You find courses online, and the main thing at the start is to start associating in your mind each interval with two notes in a song you know very well. For instance, the beginning of Twinkle Twinkle has one note repeated , the first Twin-kle, and then another note repeated, the second Twin-kle. That is a fifth interval.
- Learn where the intervals are on your instrument. For instance, if you play any note on your guitar, the fifth interval will be, on the same string, seven frets higher. For instance, if you play the note at the third fret, you will find your fifth at the 10th fret. Also, you will find the same note on the string under, two frets after. So if you play the first on the third fret, the fifth interval will be on the string under, at the fifth fret. This works all the time but for the G string (number three from the bottom), in which case your fifth will be on the string not at the fifth fret, but at 6th fret.
- How do you learn this? You get yourself some free flashcard app for your phone, unless you prefer pen and paper, and you use it 5 minutes per day. Start with just a few intervals, perhaps fifth, fourth and octave, and add more with time. Also, with your instrument, 3 times per week, spend a few minutes playing a note and then the intervals, say it out loud, “my fifth is here, and here, and here”, for each interval play the note, play the interval and play the original note again. Learn all names of the notes on your fretboard. Again, do flashcards, and practise them on guitar. You will soon realize that, once you know a few, you can figure out the rest by counting. That’s *not* what you want. Rather, you want to recognize them without thinking. To memorize them the same way you recognize each single letter on this answer without thinking “is that a l or an i”. You need to be so used to it that it will just pop into your mind. That’s what you want.
- If you do the above things for one year or so, along with your normal practise, you will be able to figure out melodies, look at a chord and know what is in it, play lots of clever things. Also, you will not be stuck with tablatures, which are great in a sense, but hide so many ways you can play and change the same notes and be creative with them. The tablature numbers mean very little, they do not reflect the actual patterns of music, the stuff you and everybody else like in music, the lines. They are just some possible dots, and you do not want to be stuck with that.
- By the way, I suggested using a flashcard app for your phone or tablet, or even computer, because typically you will find ready-made cards for practising intervals and notes. Make a habit of doing it, perhaps when you wake up or when you go to bed, it will pay back big time and fast-forward your skills.
- As you might have noticed, these are not magic tricks to learn with no practise. I do not have any of those to offer, and I doubt they even exist. They take time and dedication, but time will pass anyway. But if I could go back 25 years or so, that is what I would tell my younger self, who had just started guitar and wondered what worked and what not.
- Quora: How do I learn to play music by ear? (again)
- Rohit Sudarsan, Music Geek. Guitarist; Answered August 7, 2018
- Learning to play by ear as a concept was so daunting to me initially. I managed to get increasingly better at it by trying a few things. First and foremost:
- Listen to a lot of music: Listen wide and deep. Different genres. Listen, paying attention to the different instruments and how they interact with one another.
- Learn scales: “Huh? I want to learn to play by ear, not learn music theory!” Let me explain - A lot of your favorite songs are in a particular key i.e. in a scale. Melodies, hooks, riffs, etc. all come out of these scales. Learn scales (and scale patterns) , just noodle around to backing tracks (example) and attempt playing musical ideas over them. In that process, you’ll find that melodies you heard in your favorite songs ‘hidden’ in the scale patterns you’ve been practicing. That’s a good thing - identifying what you hear in your head and what it looks like on the instrument. Trying doing this (jamming to backing tracks with the aid of scales) as often as you can.
- Sing: It doesn’t matter if you’re a good or bad singer. If you can decently sing/hum the tunes of songs you like (vocal melody, the lead instruments, the rhythm, etc.), that means you can hear them quite clearly in your mind. That also means you can (with some trial and error) figure out how to play them on your instrument. Because you know some scales, finding out other notes in the key of the song you’re attempting to sing should be a lot easier.
- If what I described above sounds a bit complicated and tedious, the final goal is to make you interlock your ears, your voice and your instrument. You could also just sing along to your instrument like George Benson3 here: This is a really great way to get that ‘interlocking’ going.
- Just keep working at it and you’ll get better. There are fewer things out there more fun than hearing sounds, then hearing them in your head and then recreating them with your bare hands on a musical instrument. This may not be the most straightforward way of learning to play by ear but it does fetch results over time. Hope that helped!
- Quora: How do I learn ear training?:
- Daniel Yarritu, Guitarist, Answered July 7, 2016
- Learning songs by ear isn't just about listening; it’s about applying your entire musical experience (knowledge) to the task of figuring out what's happening in a musical piece.
- When I listen to a piece and figure it out I'm using my ears and knowledge of scales, chords, harmony and song structure to figure things out.
- Think about the word “recognize”. The prefix “re” means “again”. If you recognize someone it means that you've already experienced that person well enough to pick them out of a crowd.
- When you play a lot of music and study theory, you might begin to realize that there is a general grammar to music. Certain things recur often enough that your technical knowledge allows you to make predictions.
- Having an extensive knowledge of scales and chords and the theory of how they fit together will allow to to figure out music from recordings and learn songs in all but the most difficult arrangements that might require rehearsal for specific things.
- Knowledge in this case also involves deep listening and attaching meaning and character to the sounds at your disposal. For example, I might approach a chord by singing the notes in the chord (you don't have to be a “good” singer, you just need to match pitch although voice lessons will help) and assigning a visual image or some concept to that chord. The major/minor seventh chord makes me think of a detective story set in a dingy, dangerous part of New York City. Every time I hear that chord I think of that story in my head. I have stories like this for every chord/interval/scale I know.
- If you're having really a lot of trouble you may have been ignoring these basics – a lot of people skip ahead to the things they want to do without spending enough time at the things they need to do (at things they might not particularly like, like scales).
- When I was younger, I realized that I had the most difficulty in figuring out sounds that were outside the range of my own instrument- I didn't have good recognition of low bass for example. I could figure it out but it took longer. I still sometimes find it difficult to match those pitches on a guitar since I have to transpose and it doesn't sound exactly the same to my ears – I keep basses around for that purpose – matching the pitch on the actual bass instrument is easier for me.
- So, singing, practicing intervals, scales, chords and studying the grammar of how it all goes together, not to mention learning as many songs as you can (not by ear) is what you should be doing to develop your ear training. Then, when you hear something you already know, it will be as easy as recognizing an old friend in a crowd of strangers.
- Quora: Ear Training: I’ve not followed this up yet!
- I found a blog suggesting Apps: Best ear-training apps, and have selected Earmaster.
- Of course, I ought also to run through "Cannel (Ward) & Marx (Fred) - How to Play the Piano Despite Years of Lessons: What Music Is and How to Make It at Home".
Footnote 2: Footnote 3:
- I’ve selected a few answers to the questions.
- I’ve re-formatted them for clarity and corrected spelling and grammar.
- I didn’t follow the clip, as singing along while playing the oboe is even more difficult than playing by ear!
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021