Playing music by ear is a technique that is accessible to beginners of all ages. It makes music fun, and takes the boredom out of practicing. It gives you the kind of challenge you get solving crossword puzzles, but builds a skill that provides innumerable benefits, including the ability to interpret, improvise, and embellish a tune.
Originally published 2001
See the Musical Acknowledgements for the many people who taught me enough to write these words! (I hope I can pass a fraction of what I’ve learned!)
- 1. Learn your Instrument
- 2. Learn with “Call and Response” Teaching
- 3. Learn by Picking Out Tunes
- 4. Learn Technique
- Appendix A: Make a CD
- Appendix B: A Few Words on Music Theory
When you’re first learning Irish music, there is a tendency to want to speed up the process by taking advantage of the huge quantity of sheet music that is available. Try not to! Although sheet music can be helpful when learning a tune, it can also kill your ability to play by ear. (For tips on how sheet music can be useful, see Using Sheet Music Effectively.)
Above all, never play from sheet music. Even if you’ve used it to help learn the tune, don’t sit staring at it while you practice.
Playing By Ear Keeps You Young!
It has been fairly well documented in the literature on aging that to stay young you have to keep exercising both your mind and your body. Learning new skills causes new neural connections to form, and doing so keeps you mentally active.
When you are playing by ear, especially, the mind is hard at work making sense out of the tunes you are learning, and figuring out how to put them on the instrument. That process keeps you young and sharp.
Playing music also exercises the fingers, which helps you maintain manual dexterity. But don’t forget to exercise and eat right, as well!
Instead, figure out how to play tunes you know — the ones you hear in your head. The process is one of picking the notes to match the sounds you hear in your “inner ear”. That is where the growth lies — in the process of experimentation and discovery. And one of the many benefits of that process is that it keeps you young! (See sidebar.)
You’ll find that when you do that, you have to relearn the same tune on day two that you worked so hard to find on day one. That’s fine! On day three, it will be easier. On day four, it will be easier still.
As celtic bouzouki player Roger Landes once said about the process of learning to play by ear, “There’s no substitute for relearning the same tune 50 times.”
Perhaps the most important part of that process, especially at the beginning, is that you may well find yourself playing it differently on day four! The reason: Your mind (that most wonderful of all instruments) will have been working on the problem in the meantime. At work, at home, in the shower, at dinner, that mysterious subconscious learning process we all have will have been integrating and working on how to make that tune sound right.
You’ll find yourself playing slightly different notes that sound more right than the ones that seemed okay a day or two before. Celebrate! Your mind is now actually involved, and doing its thing. In other words, you are becoming a bona fide musician!
Over time, it can well become so easy that you hear and play it without any trouble at all. That’s how the old time masters came to know 2 or 3 thousand tunes. The human mind is a wonderful thing! Any you have one (even if you think there may be some question about the matter) so you have that capacity, too. Take your mind out for some exercise. Stretch it. Grow it, and discover the wonderful world that awaits!
To do that, use the following 4-step process:
- Learn your instrument.
- Learn with “call and response” teaching.
- Learn by picking out tunes.
- Learn technique.
The Mind is a Wonderful Thing
Here are a few interesting factoids to consider:
And should you think that learning to play music by ear is somehow too hard, or that you don’t have the capacity for it, take a look at the sidebar, The Mind is a Wonderful Thing.
1. Learn your Instrument
Before you get started learning to play tunes by ear, though, you’re going to need to know a few basics — like how to hold the instrument and get it to make musical noises, for one. It’s best to get started off on the right foot, so devote some attention to the matter right at the outset.
I once spent a year learning to play volleyball with friends. Then I went to a 4-day volleyball camp and found out how you’re supposed to play. I spent nearly a year unlearning the first set of habits I had developed, and then most of another acquiring the skills I had gone to that camp to learn. That experience taught me a valuable lesson — it’s a good idea to get competent instruction right at the start. The idea is not that you’ll master everything you’re shown, but so that that the skills which eventually get grooved in by practice are the right skills.
To get the mechanics of playing the instrument, its a good idea to “hire a coach” — to get a music teacher, even if it is only for the first month or two. In one session, you can learn points of technique that it would take years to discover on your own — if you ever got them at all.
Another way is to go to a music camp. One particularly splendid camp for beginners is the Gaelic Roots music and dance camp. It’s highly recommended for learning traditional music in the traditional way.
When you are first learning the instrument, it’s also a good time to learn how to read music — not so much to become a proficient sight reader, but so you can relate the notes on the page to the fingering positions on your instrument. You’ll find that skill handy later on, when you’re reviewing tunes you’ve acquired by ear.
It’s also easy to misuse sheet music in ways that can kill your ability to learn by ear. See Using Sheet Music Effectively for tips on how to avoid the pitfalls.
2. Learn with “Call and Response” Teaching
The easiest way to learn to play by ear — and probably the best way, for that very reason — is using a method known as Call and Response instruction. Using that method, the teacher plays a few notes, and you repeat them. The teacher repeats those notes and listens to your response. until you’ve “got it”, and then the teacher moves on.
At the very beginning, you may only repeat one note at a time. But within a day or two you’ll be repeating pairs and triples more easily than you would have imagined. After a while, you’ll find yourself easily acquiring a phrase at a time. One day, you find yourself learning entire parts, and possibly entire tunes!
Ian Law used that technique in the beginning Tin Whistle class at the Lark in the Morning music camp in Mendocino, CA, and it was surprisingly effective. At first, we beginners would have to watch his fingering very closely, and we would duplicate that fingering. But, unknown to us at the time, the connection between the sounds and the fingering was being made in our minds. After a while, he would play a familiar phrase, and we would repeat it. After 3 or 4 repeats, he would move on to the next phrase. After a bit, I noticed that my eyes had ceased focusing on his fingers, and were wandering around the room. But my ear was still actively engaged, hearing the phrase he played. And when he moved to the next phrase, matching it was effortless! The interesting observation was that if notes are the alphabet of music, then phrases are its words. And in a few days I had progressed from recognizing individual notes to recognizing phrases. I was becoming fluent!
This method of teaching is very traditional. It’s how the music was passed down for centuries, before anyone thought of writing it down. But this is the way that instruction is still being carried out in Ireland.
One friend of mine went to Ireland to study traditional music for the summer. Her classes used sheet music, and they played from that. She was doing so well at it that her teacher recommended that she move up to the advanced class where (you guessed it) they were playing by ear! Unfortunately for her, they had progressed to the point that they were learning an entire part by ear — some 8 or 16 bars of music. So she found it tough going. She needed an entry-level class for playing by ear. But the point of the story is that playing by ear would appear to be the preferred method of teaching in Ireland, and that you can get quite good at it.
One advantage to this method of instruction is that is very social, and easily done in groups. People find it challenging, and they have a lot of fun doing it. And once you’ve progressed beyond the beginner stage (where you need to watch the fingering), Call and Response instruction can take place with any ensemble of melodic instruments. For example, at the Lark in the Morning camp, Jeremy Kammerer generally hosts a session where he passes on the tunes that Kevin Keegan taught him and his friends years ago, in exactly the same way.
See Appendix A: Making a CD (below) for thoughts on how to use today’s new technologies to duplicate that learning process.
3. Learn by Picking Out Tunes
This process is harder, but fundamental. It’s what you’ll be doing when you practice tunes you learned with the Call and Response technique, and its what you’ll do to improvise, interpret, or embellish a tune with ornaments.
The best way to do it is to play any tune you can sing in your head. As Radim Zenkl once said, they can be nursery rhymes, advertising jingles, or songs you heard growing up — anything at all. What’s important is that you figure out how to play them on your instrument.
When you get stuck on part of a tune, jump ahead — maybe even to the end of that part. Sometimes it’s easier to know how to start when you know where you’re going!
I often find that I have a tune in my head the first thing when you wake up. I’ll start the coffee, then play the tune or try to pick it out. (But first, I’ll sing it into my recorder, to make sure I don’t lose the tune while trying to play it.) And if I’ve had a tune in my head during the day, I’ll want to play it the first thing when I get home.
But the best way to learn to play by ear is to play frequently throughout the day, whenever you have a tune in your head. Having an instrument handy is necessary to do that, of course. The tin whistle is great that way.
When I started playing the fiddle, one of the best investments I made was in an electronic fiddle. Since it plays quietly, I originally thought of it as something to keep the neighbors friendly. But its biggest advantage turns out to be that it doesn’t have to be kept in the case to protect it from temperature and humidity changes, as with a traditional instrument, so it is right at hand and ready to play any time of the day or night.
Of course, it isn’t always practical to have your instrument with you, so there will be some limits to what you can do. But there are a few things you can do to help you extend your limits.
One thing you can do is carry a small voice recorder. When you have a tune in your head, you can sing or hum it into the recorder, and use that for a reminder later on when you practice. We’ll discuss that more in a bit.
Another thing you can is take up the tin whistle. A tin whistle is light and easy to carry, and it’s good for playing tunes in the key of D or G (which together account for something like 70% or 80% of Irish tunes!).
A tin whistle is good for learning, because there is a limit to the number of wrong notes you can hit! And all of the notes it plays are pretty much in the right key, so even when you hit the wrong one, it doesn’t sound too horrible. (Well, relatively speaking.)
Because a tin whistle is easy to carry, you can keep one nearby most of the time. I kept one in a little sleeve I have taped to the console in my car. That way, I could pull it out during long stop lights and traffic jams, and do something valuable with the time. One fellow in a slow session I’m in does me one better: His jams it into the steering wheel, where it is right under his fingers at all times. (I’m currently applying similar thinking with the electronic bagpipe chanter.)
At one Irish music concert, a saw a fellow pull a tin whistle out of his pocket, so he could trade tunes with a lady who had started fiddling. I also read about one musician who tied a string to it and hung it around his neck, so it was there ready to play whenever a tune came to mind!
The important point in all this is that you keep an instrument handy, to the extent possible, and that you pick it up whenever you have a tune in your head. Therein lies the road to skill.
The first thing everyone does when they pick up a new instrument is start to fiddle around, playing random notes and phrases. That’s called noodling. It tends to annoy the hell out of music teachers, but it is a natural impulse that needs to be encouraged, rather than stymied.
Noodling is not only the best way, it is probably the only way to get started in the process of picking out tunes by ear. At the beginning, you just don’t have a comfortable enough sense of where the notes are to pick out a specific tune. Noodling lets you find sounds and patterns you like. It begins to build an “alphabet” of fingering sequences — the neural building blocks of musical phrases.
At some point in the process, you’ll start to hear the tone you want to make next. Finding that tone is the next step in the learning process. At that point, you are composing and improvising on the fly! (Maybe not quickly, but everyone starts with baby steps!)
Then, somewhere along the line, a sequence of notes will remind of a tune you know thoroughy.
Then, somewhere along the line, you will undoubtedly stumble across some sequence of notes that reminds you of a tune you know. Right there, it’s time to stop noodling and go to work on picking out the rest of the tune! The simpler the tune, the better, of course. But the most important thing is that it is a tune you like, because that keeps you going when things get difficult.
The first tune I learned that way, it took weeks to pick it out. I played here and there during the day, getting little bits of it, now and again. And I did have to relearn it many times after that. But the “relearning” process gets faster and faster, as does the process of finding a new tune.
When I started fooling around with the tin whistle (mostly during traffic jams), about the fifth or sixth tune I picked out was an old 60’s tune called Washington Square. (I’m particularly proud of that!)
The Ancient Art of Diddling
When you diddle, you sing a tune, with exactly one syllable per note. For example, you are diddling when you sing the start to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: “da da da dum”. The name comes from when you have to squeeze in lots of notes, using phrases like “da dum diddle do dye diddle diddle dee”.
Diddling is also called litlting, mouth music, chin music, and jigging, and dowdling, among other things. (From the book Celtic Mouth Music, published by Elipsis Arts, NY, and available at Ossian.)
Diddling lets you have fun sitting in on sessions even when your fingering skills aren’t of sufficient quality to participate. And you will actually be participating in the finest Irish tradition!
But do it fairly quietly, unless you are confident of your voice! (If people start looking your way, think about toning down a bit — especially if they are squinting!)
Go to sessions — and do some “diddling”
Getting tunes into your head is possibly the most valuable part of sitting in on sessions — even if you don’t play. Listen to the tunes. Find out the names of the ones you like. If you have a recorder (and the participants don’t mind), record enough of those tunes to learn from. (Don’t bother recording the whole thing, unless you particularly like doing that sort of thing.)
You can even sing along! (See sidebar: The Ancient art of Diddling.)
When you are sitting in a session becoming familiar with the tunes, you are planting seeds. In the coming days, you’ll find one or more of those tunes in your head. When you work to find them on your instrument, you are doing the tilling and cultivating.
One fine day, when that tune springs out full blown on your instrument, you’ll find the flower that grew from all your effort!
Developing the ability to “carry a tune”
The great mandolinish Radim Zenkl once observed that over time, every musician aquires the ability to sing in tune. Even if the vocal quality is not stage-caliber, it is important to be able to carry a tune — to vocalize what you hear in your head. That’s the fundamental requirement for playing by ear.
But if you’re one of those who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, take heart. I was one such, and if I can learn to do it, you can, too.
The fundamental requirement is the ability to hear when two notes match. Believe it or not, that’s a skill that some of us actually have to learn! That is the major hurdle. It’s a quantum leap, if you’ve never done it before. But, after that, singing is just a matter of stringing together successions of notes that match the way the tune is supposed to sound!
To develop that sense of tonality, you really need a good musically-inclined friend, or a voice coach. In my case, it was my girlfriend Barbara who took pity on my poor, tone-deaf attempts at singing. She sat with me at a piano one day, and kept playing a single note. As I would try to hone in on it (going all over the map in the process) she would point her finger up or down to tell me which way I needed to go to find the note.
Eventually, in what feels to this day like a stroke of luck (but which was guided by her feedback), I managed to hit the note! And when I did, there was an immediately recognizable sensation that was qualitiatively different than anything I had felt before.
Thinking about it, that fact that she was guiding me up and down was telling me something about the sounds I was making, and about the relationship of the notes to one another. Subconsciously, I was probably learning a lot about the relationships of different pitches to one another — things that I wasn’t even aware of at the time.
Most of us, it seems, have a natural tendency to sing a bit flat, even when we are close to being in tune. Partly, that is because the high notes our vocalist currently favor are hard to hit. Partly, I think it is because being somewhat off pitch helps us hear ourselves better, and pick our own voice out of a crowd.
But when I matched that single note, it felt like some tension that had been straining my ears had lifted away. In its place, there was a pleasing resonance. That sensation would guide my singing from then on.
Years later, singing in a chorus (and still inclined to be somewhat flat) I found that when I raised my pitch slightly and really matched the notes around me, my breathing became effortless! The physics of the sensation are undoubtedly worth investigating. But since it is the vibration of the air that makes sound, and since a sound a given pitch is vibrating the air at such-and-such a frequency, it seems natural that singing slightly off-pitch would create an interference pattern that would in turn offer some resistance to the vocal chords. On the other hand, when you are perfectly in tune, it feels as though the notes are singing you.
My favorite time to practice singing then, as now, was in the car. You get great reverberation coming back at you from the enclosed interior, so you sound like Pavorati! And it’s something I can do while driving, unlike the tin whistle, which I can only pull out at stop lights and in traffic jams.
At first, I found that I could only match the really long notes that were held at the end of a ballad. It would take me a while, moving my vocal pitch up and down until I “dialed in” on it. But eventually, I was able to “dial in” faster and faster, until I reached the point that I could dial in so fast, it was almost like I knew what I was doing. Eventually, I found that I could sing along with a whole song!
On the other hand, you can probably acquire a modest degree of singing skill in a lot less time than I took. One great way to do that is with group singing classes. I’m fortunate enough to have the Gryphonmusic store nearby in Palo Alto, California, where Carol McComb gives a lovely variety of guitar and singing classes for adults. (They’re “no stress” classes, with no tests and no required homework. They’re just lovely!)
Using a voice recorder
A Cheap Recorder is All You Need!
You really don’t need an expensive recorder! When you’re learning to play by ear, you are not going to learn from a recording! You’re going to use the best recording device of all — your mind. You record a tune you want to work on only to refresh yourself on it when you’ve forgotten it, so a voice-quality recorder is plenty good enough.
A tune in your head is a thousand times better than any tape recording. You can slow it down to any speed you want, speed it up to as fast your fingers can fly, and instantly jump to any phrase you want to work on, in the blink of an eye.
It takes some fancy equipment to do all that, and even then you’ll likely spend more time futzing with the equipment than playing the tune!
Since you can’t always pull out your instrument to work on a tune that’s in your head, it’s a great idea to keep a small recorder with you during the day. There are amazingly inexpensive solid-state voice recorders these days that are so light and small that you can easily forget you have it with you! In addition to singing a tune into the recorder so you can work on later, it’s a good idea to sing the tune right before you start trying to pick it out on your instrument. The reason: It’s easy to get lost in all the sounds you’re making, and lose track of the tune you were working on. Playing your recording brings it back, and puts it your head again.
You could also use the recorder to simulating the call-and-response learning technique by playing a phrase, leaving a pause, and then playing the next phrase (a technique that was suggested by Chris Smith). The only problem with that approach is the difficulty of repeating a phrase. On the other hand, it is getting easier and easier to create CDs these days, so they may provide a better format for the purpose. You’ll more about how to that in Appendix A: Make a CD (below).
How Long Will it Take?
The first tune is the hardest. Once you’ve gotten five, it starts to get easier. And by the time you’ve gotten 50, you’ll be on a roll! Here’s a rough schedule, assuming that you’ve spent the first month or so learning how to play the instrument and get it to make noises that remotely qualify as “musical”.
- First month or three
- As a rule of thumb, it can take a month or more to pick out the first tune, assuming you are familiar with the instrument. It’s a slow process, where you find a note a time. (If you need to learn how to carry a tune first, add a few months to that process, and practice your singing every chance you get!)
- Second month or four
- The process speeds up for the next 4 or 5 tunes, though. You’ll find yourself learning a phrase at a time, and learn a tune in a week or less.
- Third month or five
- After that, you’ll find yourself picking up simple tunes, or whole parts at least, in a single sitting. You get to where you can learn a tune a day, at that point.
At that point, you’ll have invested anywhere from three months to a year in the process, but you’ll have advanced to the point where learning a new tune is incredibly easy. Although it takes a while, becoming fluent with the music has some big rewards. Among them will be the ability to pick up a new instrument and play it (within limits) seemingly by magic — because once you’ve learned how to make a few notes on it, it will be second nature to put them into a tune. And one day, you may well advance to the point of some the great Irish masters, who could hear a tune once and then play it perfectly!
4. Learn Technique
The Irish approach to technique is to teach tunes! Why? Because each tune has its own set of technical requirements. After the student spends a bit of time learning the basics of the instrument, they move on to playing tunes right away. That makes it fun. Instead of spending years aquiring enough technique so they may one day play, they get up an running in the shortest time possible.
When it comes to learning the fine points of technique, a teacher is indispensable!!
Imagine if you spent a few months learning how to throw a baseball, and then another few learning how to hit, followed by several more where you learned to work together as a team before you got to play your first game. How many people would be playing recreational softball? No many, I’m betting. Music is like that. First and foremost, it has to be something you do!
Of course, at the outset, there is no way you are going to play quickly enough to join in with the experienced players when they sit down in a session. It’s kind of like expecting to play in the major leagues on the first day. It ain’t gonna happen. But for that reason, slow sessions are always starting up, so that new and aspiring musicians have a chance to play together, and share the tunes.
The trick to teaching in that manner lies in sequencing the collection of tunes so that a minimum number of new techniques is introduced in each new tune. And it helps if the tunes are popular ones, so you’re playing things youy like, instead of Mary Had a Little Lamb. That makes it possible to isolate the technique, drill it for a bit, and then get on with the tune!
Of course, if you’re an adult with a teacher (which helps enormously, even when you are playing by ear) then the poor teacher is more at less at the mercy of the student. The tune you want to learn next may not build so well on what you’ve already learned. But a good teacher will work with you to come up with a sequence that makes sense.
Art Friedman, my fiddle coach, started by listing a numbr of relatively simple tunes that I was likely to be familiar with — all in the key of D. I told him which ones I knew and liked, and he came up with a sequence for the first few tunes, adding a few tunes of his own that liked to use with beginning students. Of course, by the time a couple of months had passed, I was picking out whatever tune happened to be in head when I awoke in the morning, so he’s had to be flexible, too!
A blog by a fellow who teaches people to play piano by ear.
Appendix A: Make a CD
Today’s technology presents interesting opportunities for learning music by ear. Versions of tunes exist in an easily-written abc format (a format developed by Chris Walshaw that uses letters of the alphabet for notes, so tunes can be written in plain text).
Those tunes can be broken into phrases, and then played with an abc player at a chosen speed. If those phrases were recorded on a CD, with one phrase per track, along with enough time to play that segment, then 3 or 4 tunes could be recorded on a CD in a way that would make them reasonably easy to learn by ear.
For example, one tune might take 12 tracks. One track would play the entire tune st speed, so you could hear what it is supposed to sound like. The second could play it slowly, for practicing with. The third could play the “A” part slowly, while the fourth plays the “B” part slowly. These tracks would have no additional space in them, as you would be expected to play along.
Assuming that each part breaks down into 4 phrases (as is often the case, then tracks five through eight would contain the phrases in the “A” part, while tracks 9 through 12 contain the phrases in the B part. These tracks would allow sufficient time for the students to play the phrase they just heard, in “call and response” fashion. Five or six tunes could fit onto such a CD.
Another interesting option would be provide two CDs. One CD would have the tracks that have no pauses (the whole tune at different speeds, and the individual parts). The second CD would contain tracks with phrases, leaving time for your “response” to the phrase. The useful thing about such a CD is that you could set it for random play once you had learned the individual phrases. Responding to phrases you already know would be wonderful ear training.
You would not just recognize individual notes, but entire patterns of notes, and play them on command. Hearing and playing them the musical patterns would build a fluency that would help greatly when picking out a tune on your instrument.
It might be possible to take advantage of the abc notation system to automate the process of constructing CDs. Software exists to play abc tunes and to print them out as sheet music. Perhaps one day software will exist to create “phrase files” suitable for recording on a CD. (I have such a program in progress. It not only plays the tunes, it shows the fingering on a variety of instruments. At this point, it only needs a good abc file reader to addd new tunes.)
Appendix B: A Few Words on Music Theory
You’ll note in the above that the original tunes I learned were all in the key of D — the most popular key signature by far in the Irish musical tradition. (The key of G is a significant second, and together they seem to cover something like 80% of the genre.)
Although the goal is to play by ear, understanding a bit of music theory doesn’t hurt! It’s interesting, though. Even if you don’t devote considerable time and effort to learning theory (which can be an incredibly rewarding effort), you’ll still find yourself picking up little bits of theory, here and there, as you go about the process of picking up an instrument and learning to play it.
One of the advantages to being a jack of all trades, as I have been, is that you pick up a little more information with each new thing you play. Of course, if you want to get good, you need to devote yourself to a particular task. But I admit to a fondness for variety, so I have learned to play (at an astonishingly low level of skill) the tin whistle, Irish flute, bodhran, guitar, bass guitar, piano, dumbek, fiddle, and bagpipe chanter. (I tried playing the actual pipes once, but the best I could manage was a hopeless bleat. You see, for some of us, quantity may be the only thing we can aspire to! But I have fun, so there’s no man can say that I’m not doing it right!)
For a really good introduction to music theory as it relates to Irish music, Chris Smith’s, Celtic Accompaniment for All Instruments can’t be beat. Probably the main lesson for me in that book was that in addition to the major and minor keys (in D and G), many Irish tunes are in the Dorian or Mixolydian mode.
The key of E dorian, for example, centers around the E note. That’s the “home base” that the tune resolves to at the end. But the notes in such a tune actually come from the key of D major. So some of the chords that come from an E major scale could sound truly horrific when played against that tune. Similarly, a tune in D mixolydian has notes that come from the scale of G major. That’s one of things that makes it tricky to accompany an Irish tune.
Some tunes don’t clearly fall into any mode! Some tunes in D include neither a C or a C#, for example, so it is not clear whether the tune is a D major tune, or a D mixolydian tune. (That gives the accompanist a lot of choices, which is one of the reasons that accompaniment gets a bad name — especially when there is more than accompaniest, and they make different, clashing choices. The result can jangle the nerves.)
But the important point in all this is that a bit of music theory can help you make sense of what you’re playing, or listening to. You can also get by without it, so use it if it suits you!
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