The principles of playing by ear apply to learning a song, and they can help you make the song “your own”, so you play it with feeling and with style.
Recently, I realized that when it came to learning a song “by heart”, there was a definition progression — and that the principles of playing by ear were part of the process.
I use this progression when playing my favorite accompaniment instrument — the ukulele. I love it ‘cuz it’s easy to play, and it puts both the musical tone and the rhythm right in my ear, which makes it a lot easier to sing well!
The process goes like this:
- With chord chart and lyrics in hand, play the song through a couple of times.
You determine yes, you can play it and yes, it sounds good. You like it! Ok. It’s one you want to work on.
- Work on the strum pattern (if any).
I recently discovered that I have a hard time singing and strumming in 3/4 (waltz) time! When I focus on singing, my rhythm unconsciously shifts to 4/4 time, which throws off my timing. Needless to say, next I’ll be working on a couple of songs in 3/4 time! The best way to do that is to ignore the chord changes and mute the strings. Get the rhythm down, then work on singing to that rhythm. Once the rhythm is in place, you can move to the chords.
- Learn the chord patterns.
For each section (chorus, verse, bridge, intro, outro etc.), learn the sequence of chords. You don’t have to totally memorize them. Just know the patterns and have a good grasp of them.
- Sing with the lyrics sheet.
Use the lyrics sheet as much as you need to, but set them aside as much as you can. Look at the ceiling or the wall whenever possible. At this point, singing the melody, and you’re beginning to put the chords together with it. You’re also learning the lyrics, and you’re beginning to get a feeling for the song. You’re also getting a feeling for the trouble spots, possibly changing the chords or rhythms a bit, and making notes on your music, so you have those things in front of you when you come back to the song later.
- Play the song from “memory”.
This is the really important part. It’s where the principles of playing by ear come to the fore. At this point, you do not have the song totally memorized. That is a very good thing. As you play it, you’re singing the lyrics or at the very least humming the melody — and you’re missing some of the chords. But that’s cool. There are a limited number of chords in a given section, so it’s not like there a million chords to try. There are only a few. So you try them until you hit the right one. Guess what? At this point you are developing a serious ear for the music. You’re singing a melody and figuring out which chords work well with it. That is huge.
- Getting it “down”.
As you play the song from memory, you’re also learning. Some parts become natural very quickly. Other parts take longer. But you’re coordinating your voice and two hands, and making music that sounds good. At that point, you begin to do full run throughs of the song, from beginning to end. You have it “down” — at least for the moment.
- Dredge it up so you can play it.
This is another important step. It’s been a while since you last played the tune. Let’s see, how does it go? You’ve got to noodle around a bit until you find it. This too, is an important part of playing by ear. As I was once told, “there is no substitute for re-learning the same tune 100 times!” But it is an important part of the process that, when you re-learn it, you’re re-learning from memory. In other words, you’re hearing it in your head, and you’re working to replicate the tune in your fingers.
I did that the other day. I remembered the song — sort of. I couldn’t remember the song title, or the words. I couldn’t even remember the chord progression. But I did remember a couple of the chords. I played around with verse chords I could remember, but it didn’t click. They were too much like a song I had just finished, so they didn’t bring the other song to mind. Then I recalled a couple of chords in the chorus. Ah! That did it. Playing those brought the song into my head, along with the title, the melody, and the lyrics.
When you follow that progression, over time the song really becomes your own. You find yourself effortless making small variations in timing or vocal expression in ways that bring the song alive, and give it maximum feeling. You find yourself making dynamic variations as well — playing more loudly in some places, more softly in others. Any maybe you push the pace in some sections, and hang back a little in others.
The main skeleton of the song gives your listeners a framework — a structure for listening — while those minute variations make the song interesting to listen to. Your audience winds up paying attention, searching for the feeling and meaning in the song. Hey! You’re making music!
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