In two weeks I will be teaching a course on ‘playing by ear’ at the Harfentreffen in Germany. I’m really looking forward to it, so I here’s a blog to get you all excited about playing by ear too.
Many people consider playing by ear to be difficult and something that is only reserved for the individual who goes through life without being able to read sheet music or the professional musician who studied solfege for hours on end. Luckily those preconceptions aren’t true, because I myself would have never learned to play by ear if they were. My grades for solfege were always somewhat worrying (even after spending hours on learning it), but I can safely say that I have gotten the hang of it in the past few years and am now able to play by ear. What is the trick to learning this?
Consider the expression ‘playing by ear’. I notice that many musicians put the emphasis on the playing. For someone just starting out with playing by ear it would be more useful to put emphasis on the ear.
What do I mean with that?
If you want to learn to play by ear, start by learning how to use your ears to get to your goal. Start by listening to the music. Put aside your instrument and listen to a tune you would like to learn to play by ear. *
Don’t expect you will know the whole melody well enough to start playing it by only listening to it once. I am known to play a song like a broken record: in the car, on my phone, in the living room, on YouTube. A good way to also do this is to alternate listening with intention and listening to it as background music. Put the CD player on repeat while you are doing something else and unconsciously soak it up. Only when you notice you are humming the tune, it plays in your head all day, you will know it well enough to start playing it.
Aside from listening to the one song you would like to learn how to play it can be more than useful to also listen to music in the same genre. A genre has its own idiom, which you can learn to recognize by listening to it a lot. For instance, Breton music usually has a small range (sometimes only a fifth or a sixth), while Scottish music uses very distinct rhythms in many tunes. By listening to (and playing) the music of a certain genre, you will learn to recognize these (subtle) differences. Recognising them will make it easier to play tunes in the same style, so listening and playing can reinforce one another.
I love hearing from my readers, so feel free to leave a comment below.
Have you ever tried playing by ear? What are your experiences?
*I realise it can be important which song you pick to start learning to play by ear. Each song is different and some songs are harder to learn than others. This blog is not suited to fully determine the best song to start with, so I will give you some guidelines for that in a future blogpost.