How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I started playing music at 32 yrs old w/ no prior instrument experience and no prior listening to Irish trad. Just decided one day to start out of the blue after visiting Ireland. I use the notation on this site to memorize the tunes. Would like to some day learn a tune by ear just from listening to a recording and not looking at notation. How did you learn to play by ear? Any tips?

I go to sessions but I can rarely tell what key a tune is in if I don’t know that information already.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Start by picking out tunes you know, I started with Christmas Carols, ingrained from the school years. Then just practice :)

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Lilting helps develop an ear for things.

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There aren’t really any shortcuts to learning by ear. It’s a lot of hard slog but eventually things start to click.
I learnt to play by ear out of necessity. In the good old days there was no Internet if you wanted to learn some Rolling Stones song - well you could buy a book and find arranged for pianoforte. Or you could listen to the record over and over again until what you heard on it was what you were playing.
The great thing about playing by ear is that the ability transfers to other instruments. So I can pick up a fiddle and pick out a tune even though I don’t play the instrument. I don’t need to know the names of the notes I’m playing and most of the time don’t think about that. What I am thinking about is the tune in my head and recognising that to get the next interval I need to put my finger there.
Try playing Twinkle Twinkle starting on a random note. Trial and error eventually gets you there. Try the same starting on another random note. Again you eventually get there. As time goes on you get there quicker and quicker. But you have to stop relying on sheet music and stop thinking about the names of the notes. Think about their sounds and the relationships between them.

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Listen, listen, listen and listen. When I started playing I would listen to Irish music every day, as much as I could. It helps get you familiar with keys and rhythms and how tunes are structured.

The more you try to play along by ear with a recording the more you’ll get the hang of it. If you’re going to sessions and you’re just starting out with your ear training they arent a good place to learn. You’ll be self-conscious about hitting the right note and it can slow you down.

Pick slow tunes to get going. Tunes like Give me your hand, Munster Cloak, The Kerry fling, The South wind, etc. They give you time to find the right note on your instrument and more time to listen to each individual note.

Try to find key notes - find a note every bar or measure and from there you can slowly figure out the notes in between by going over the tune several times.

Like trying to learn any instrument it’s (for the most part) just practice, practice, practice.

Hope this helps.

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Start with slower tunes and songs. There are two things going on, first is learning to listen and remember, and then to listen and play. Like folks say, if you learn to whistle or lilt a tune, that makes it a bit easier to start, especially if you are still learning your instrument. The goal is to associate the action of playing the note on the instrument with hearing the sound. Right now you are associating the act of playing the instrument with reading off a page.
Memorization is a lost art in our society, as we are too prone to let books and computers remember things for us. But the more you do it the better you get, so just keep plugging away, until one day you realize you have forgotten that it was difficult.

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Well said, Al.

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There are two key elements to playing by ear:

1. Knowing keys. For this, I recommend getting a concise book on music theory. The process of scales and how many flats or sharps are in each is very mathematical and easily memorized. Most Irish music has either one or two sharps and only occasionally any flats. The sharps are F# anc C#, in that order, which is to say, if the C is sharp, the F will be also, but if the F is sharp, the C may not be. To further illustrate that point, if you played in A, the sharps would be F, C, and A. Again, because of the order, if the A is sharp, the the C and F would both be. A book on theory will make all of this clearer. You won’t need to master the whole book; just get familiar with scales so when a tune is in a particular key, you’ll know what notes of the scale to use.

2. Learning the intervals. This is the most important skill. What it means is that when you play a note in a tune, you anticipate how far away (up or down the scale) the next note is. This is done by trial and error until your ear gets trained to tell whether the next note is as close or far from the last note played as you think it is. At first, you’ll go too far or not far enough a lot of the time, but with experience, you’ll instinctively go directly to the right note. You do this naturally when you whistle or sing. Applying it to an instrument is more of a left-brain process from which we must all learn to release ourselves - in other words, don’t make it harder than it is.

In the end, desire will dictate how fast you pick all of this up.

Good luck and have fun!

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think you cant learn by ear? You can. try this:

Sing or hum Happy Birthday.

Now pick up your instrument. Try to play happy birthday - get the first bit first, then the rest will follow.

Now you can learn by ear. The key part is being really, really familiar with the tune. If you want to learn a tune, stick it on repeat a few times a day in the background. Then become an active listener - really listen to where it goes up and down. Listen to the different ‘chunks’ of the tune.

It took me a good while, but I am getting there now, (and these ideas are not my own but those of very clever musicians I have met over the years…)

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Allin; yes, no, and up to a point;
You can know, from the music, when to play a sharp or not; that will NOT tell you the key the tune is in, depending on which mode it is.
So; somebody says the tune is in D, because it’s written with two sharps, and they’ve seen the music, BUT it’s actually in A myxolydian. So it’s a lot more than just "knowing the keys".
Your second part, ok, true enough.

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If you want to know what key a tune is in at a session, just look at the guitarist’s fingers. Whatever chord he is using most is the key that the tune is in (or at least, it will tell you what key the guitarist thinks it’s in).

But knowing the key doesn’t really help much if you are playing a melody instrument. Just play the same notes as everyone else and you’ll be in the right key. It really is just a case of listen and copy.

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Learning to listen to music & play tunes is like learning to speak. Listen to the different ways of phrasing, where someone places emphasis, the timing of the rhythm; which follows a metre but isn’t the metre, notice that a breath has to be taken if for no other reason than keeping everything from sounding as though it happens at the same time, listen for how one bit works with another …
Listen, lots & lots of listening; but don’t memorize everything you here. Listen to music so you can engage the tunes in a conversation.

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Learning by Ear

Nicely done all… When you’ve spare time you could also do a search to see this in discussion repeatedly since this site was established…

https://thesession.org/index.php/search?q=by+ear&start=0&scope=The+Session

https://thesession.org/discussions/index/search?name=learning+by+ear

There’s lots of reinforcement to be found for what has so far been shared here. Sometimes the repetition helps for it to set in the mind and take root and grow.

Enjoy the lilting / singing… ;-)

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Knowing the key helps. You know they key by learning to hear note intervals and know what they are. Contextually you can figure out what type of mode it is in by where different intervals are used throughout the tune, and what the starting note is. A random hint: when sometimes I think I hear an arpeggio, what I really heard was scalewise movement. Seems common sense but from the starting note, figure out if the melody is going up or down, then figure out by how much. If you’re a fiddle player and you’re listening to another fiddle player, an aural que is if the first note overlaps the second, then you know you have two separate strings, so the interval is probably a 3rd, 4th, or 5th, it is easy to learn how these intervals sound, and then to use melodic common practice to make sense of them as well. For instance, If the melody starts on the tonic and the note goes down more than a third but less than a 6th and you are unsure, just use some deduction. Odds are it’s a 4th, because the 4th is actually in the tonic chord and we are at the beginning of the melody. If the interval had been moving upwards it would be a 5th because a 5th above is an octave above a 4th below. Sorry that probably got really confusing.

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I’ve known many fine fiddlers that play by ear and have no idea what key they are playing in. Getting a music theory book isn’t going to help, nor is it necessary. (and so much of it is just blah, blah, blah)
I like richrua’s advice. Hum the tune, then find it in your fingers. The more you do, the better you will get at doing it.

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My take is; for learning by ear forget all suggestions that involve music theory, they are the antithesis of what is required. Birds are great flyers but they couldn’t tell you how its done. It is also not hard slog, it is not hard work unless you think it is or make it so.

The best suggestions here involve finding your current inner music. Those who suggested happy birthday and twinkle twinkle have it right. And those who suggest lilting. Find the simplest phrases you can sing in your head and find them on the instrument. Just keep doing it. Welcome to the fun…

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I respectfully disagree with those who say nay to music theory. It isn’t essential, I grant, but it is enormously helpful. I don’t think anyone who knows music theory would deny that. I play flute, so modes hold no meaning for me. If there are two sharps, I play in D. If it is in A myxolydian, I am, for all intents and purposes, stil playing in D. It may matter for fiddle or accordion, I don’t know. Certainly it would for guitar. The OP didn’t mention an instrument.

But I think we all agree and have all suggested good ways to develop the ear so one can find the correct intervals of the tune.

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I have been studying music theory since I was five. When I started to play by ear, (after a masters degree in music, some 35 years later, at least) I threw all of that out the window. It held no use for me.
I have no idea what key, or mode, most of the tunes are in that we play in session. and if I did, it means nothing. I know where my fingers go because of how it sounds, not what the theory behind it dictates.

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I’m very familiar with music theory, but I don’t find theory to be very helpful in learning a tune by ear. In my opinion there are two key things needed to play by ear: (1) know what sound you are trying to make, and (2) practice until you can find that sound.

Do a lot of listening — and listen in an attentive way, so that you can anticipate the sound that is coming next. The idea of humming or whistling the tune is great, since it is an easy way to test whether you actually do know the notes. Good listening skills take some practice to acquire, but with practice you can learn tunes quickly..

Associating the sound you want to make with the mechanics of playing that sound takes a lot of practice to develop the muscle memory. Practice a variety of tunes until you develop a repertoire of phrase that flow naturally and can be used when they correspond with the sounds you are trying to achieve.

Of course, it makes good sense to practice slowly at first, and add speed as you improve.

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Having synesthesia sure makes it easier. :)

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Start with a slow tune.A very slow tune. Find the first note of the tune on your instrument and play it. when you are sure that it is right find the second note, and play the first and second notes. Continue until you have learned them all. Keep refining the bits that you are not sure of, and don’t pay any attention to music theory or scales. If you do, you will start hearing what you think should be there rather than what is actually there. Some tunes are easier to hear than others, but eventually you will start to hear more quickly and accurately, and the number of notes you can recall will increase.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

If you want to know what key a tune is in at a session, just look at the guitarist’s fingers. That will eliminate one key at least. ;-)

"I respectfully disagree with those who say nay to music theory. It isn’t essential, I grant, but it is enormously helpful. I don’t think anyone who knows music theory would deny that."

I think you’ll find that most people who are good at playing by ear would disagree with that. I, kind of, agree with Wyogal, except that I don’t exactly throw out my music theory knowledge - it’s just that it doesn’t really enter into it when I’m playing by ear. If you’re worritting over all that stuff, how you gonna be playing them tunes? :-)

At the session I was at on Tuesday, I played at least three tunes that I’d never heard before. I played them on the second time through - not noodling, playing. I can’t do that with every tune, but these were relatively simple - couple of reels and a jig, IIRC.

How have I got there? Basically the way richrua says. I hear the tune in my head, then I can play it. You build it up by being able to sing it, as others have said. But the gist is to get the tune in your head before you get it on your instrument. You’ll end up playing it much better that way than if you just train your fingers through reading the dots, so there’s that additional benefit as well.

One last thing: I have *never* played along with a recording. Not ever. I seriously can’t see the point.

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"How did you learn to play by ear?"

I was learning music by ear before I knew what learning music by ear was. I started out by mimicry. Listening to what the music was doing and then mimicking it. That’s all learning by ear really is, copying what you hear onto what you are producing out of your instrument(but then again, all math is is adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing, but we all know it’s not THAT simple xD)

To get more in depth, I started actively learning and working on music by ear after about 5 years of piano. I noticed that all of the music that played on the radio was repetitious and had simple melodic/harmonic patterns. American pop music. Rap, Hip-Hop, R&B, Dance, whatever was on the radio, and whatever was on the tv. After a while of that, I realized how much skill I developed after learning Pachelbels’ "Canon in D" note for note, by ear.

"Any tips?"

First of all I will say, start simple. There are no shortcuts, so don’t look for any. But it does get easier. MUCH easier. For me, 14 years of music later, it has gotten pretty magical. I feel like I have super powers sometimes, seriously.

It’s like this. At first, learning music by ear is this humongous guessing/matching game. But eventually, you don’t have to guess, because you will already know. The cards will already by matched for you. You’ll be able to hear two separate notes and tell which is higher and lower. You’ll be able to tell if a chord is major or minor. You’ll be able to tell what accidentals are common to a style of music. You’ll be able to play a piece after only hearing it once(yep, I said it cause it’s true. Maybe not for Irish music, but for other musics, yes.) There is a lot to learn, but you learn it all from experience so don’t think you’ll miss anything.

My #1 rule is. "If what you are playing doesn’t sound exactly like what you are listening for, then it’s wrong."(Physically, when you learn music by ear, you are matching hertz. For example. Note A4 vibrates at 440hz. If you are hearing an A4, but play a B4, the B4 won’t match because B4 doesn’t vibrate at 440hz. Only A4 does.)


Since this music is a melodic style of music, that already cancels out one factor that influences learning music by ear. Harmonies. Melodies are easier to learn by ear than harmonies because it is easier to hear the individual notes that come in sequence rather than picking out the bunches of notes in a chord. It takes extreme focus to tune into the individual notes of a chord, while tuning out the others.

There are three things that influence how easy it is to learn music by ear.

How well you know your instrument.
How well you know the style of music you are trying to learn.
How well you know the piece of music you are trying to learn.

When you know your instrument really well, you don’t have to think about notes and keys and such, because you already know where everything is. When you know the style of music really well, you know where it will likely take place, and where it will likely go. When you know a piece of music really well, you already know where it is and where it is going. The only step afterwards is your fingers finding their place.

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I kind of agree about not playing along with recordings (though I think it would be going too far to say that it’s always pointless - not sure about that) but there’s no harm in listening to lots of ‘em. Living where I do, in the back of beyond, I would never have learned anything like enough tunes without listening to recordings a lot (and I was 40 before I even started). All those old Bothy Band and Planxty and De Dannan ones, and all the rest - I soaked ‘em up like a sponge. I loved ‘em, which was the key essential. Get the music under your skin that way. Acquire a bunch of irritating Irish ear worms. The first tunes I could play were polkas, great for giving you a good sense of rhythm and not too hard to play. Sometimes I just realised that I knew a tune well enough to play it, just like that. If "pressurised" to play a tune (because all your mates are playing it and you don’t want to be left out) the fast-track way of learning it by ear is to learn a few bars at a time from a recording - half the A part, repeat ad nauseam, then the second half of the A part, then all together, then the same for the B part - build it like that. Or just be patient, listen at the session and it’ll come before too long. And don’t be put off by those who say they can play a new tune after just a couple of hearings - very few of us are like that!

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And that is a very good point from fiddlelearner about, knowing your instrument. If you need something on a piece of paper or a screen to tell you which hole you should be blowing or which string you should be plucking, you have a fair way still to go. Your ears tell you whether you’re playing the right note, not tab or dots.

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"My take is; for learning by ear forget all suggestions that involve music theory, they are the antithesis of what is required. Birds are great flyers but they couldn’t tell you how its done."

Ummm, I think that if a bird could speak, it could tell us very well how it’s done. It would probably sound something like this…

"Well, first I flap my wings…. I notice that when I jump without flapping my wings, nothing happens… Oh, and since i’m really really light, it’s not difficult to stay afloat through the air…"

But I guess they would also have to be intelligent beings rather than just speakers of human languages.

On a serious note. Knowing music theory is more than just know where the notes are on the page. Knowing where the notes are on your instrument definitely helps a lot, especially on instruments where the notes are cut out for you, like a piano, or a guitar. If I know a tune is in A major, and I know that there are no accidentals in the piece, then I know not to guess A#, Cnat, D#, Fnat, or Gnat, because none of those keys are in the key of Amaj.

Secondly, I don’t see how anyone could deny that knowing where the notes are help, because we would all lose our minds if we didn’t have muscle memory to remember all of those crazy finger patterns on instruments like the fiddle.

Those musicians that don’t know the names of any of the notes may not know the theory for themselves, but their hands know the theory.

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"I respectfully disagree with those who say nay to music theory. It isn’t essential, I grant, but it is enormously helpful. I don’t think anyone who knows music theory would deny that. I play flute, so modes hold no meaning for me. If there are two sharps, I play in D. If it is in A myxolydian, I am, for all intents and purposes, stil playing in D."

Aren’t you contradicting yourself here? You say that theory is helpful, then illustrate it by showing how you don’t need to know anything about modes or keys to play the melody.

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Well skreech, because of the way we hear Amixolydian(or any mixolydian for that matter), if we are thinking to ourselves "This is the key of D", then we have to ask the question, "Why does it start and end on the A? And why is the seventh note flat? Doesn’t the key of A have 3 sharps? But this doesn’t sound like the key of D….?!"

But we don’t have the ask these questions because we understand that the relationships the notes have with each other in the key of Dmaj are different than the relationships the notes have with each other in Amixolydian.

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I completely missed that…. I need to go to bed. I’ve been up too long for my brain to do any more processing after that other post about the ear stuff….

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I sort of agree with Ethical’s "One last thing: I have *never* played along with a recording. Not ever. I seriously can’t see the point".

But recording your local session can speed things up no end, particularly in the early stages. It means you can effectively attend a session every day, instead of once a week or once a month. But the way to do it is to use the recording to get the tune into your head, then stop the tape and try to play it on your instrument. The only time actually playing along might be useful is as a confidence boost - to prove to yourself that you can do it at session speed, before you attempt it in public.

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I can never really understand those who claim that they are unable to "play by ear" unless, perhaps, they are profoundly deaf.

Everyone is capable of doing this surely but it’s just that they haven’t really tried or have become so used to "the dots".
It doesn’t help that when youngsters receive musical education, they are often discouraged from learning tunes by ear and/or "off by heart" and instructed to soley rely on written music.

As others here have suggested, the best way is just to take a very simple song or tune which you can sing or hum, e.g Happy Birthday etc and then try to find the notes on your instrument. Then carry on with some more ambitious ditties.

It’s a far better way of finding your way around your instrument than practising scales although it might be a good idea to also practise your tune "Happy Birthday" or whatever in a variety of keys.

There’s nothing wrong with playing along with recordings either but I believe it’s more important to get the tune into your head and this involves listening to it several times first. Arguably, you don’t need to play along with the recording after that but I’d suggest it’s still good discipline and training especially in terms of timing and being able to play with others although it would have to be a decent recording!
Also, in the real world, the music is never played exactly the same way in every session and not even identically by the same musicians of different occasions. So, too much "rigid" following of recordings can even hinder your progress.

Re "the dots", various other aids etc etc, they all have their uses but they are all human "constructs" and not necessary as such.

If you go to class where music is taught by "the dots", play in a group or orchestra where they hand out written music then, of course, a knowledge of musical theory is useful. The same applies to all other methods, eg recordings, abc, tablature or whatever but that’s only if you find yourself in a situation where you are expected or encourage to use these.

In many ways, it is similar to new technology where we are "expected" to change our habits… e.g. do everything online or with the aid of computers or mobile devices. So, we are no longer encouraged to book holidays, pay bills, purchase tickets etc in the old fashioned way. We are required to have Internet access, computers, and mobile phones and so on.

All these things are very well but I believe we all ought to have the choice whether or not to go down a particular road or not.
The same applies to music.

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Never knew what a music sheet looked like until I was in my early teens. If you didn’t pick up a tune quickly by ear you were lost. Had a two row accordion and played anything I knew up and down on the outside row. No idea what the tuning of the instrument was. Then I was told it was better to play on the inside row by a lad who could play the Atholl Gathering on the Draw (using most of the draw notes on the box) It was years later that I discovered he was playing a B/C box and was playing the tune in A. When eventually I got around to teaching myself a few dots I found that I had to learn to play most of the tunes I already knew in their written key. One thing I learnt from all that was ‘retention’ The one thing that most sight readers I met seem to lack. I once played with a great musician who could play anything that was put in front of him but couldn’t play ‘Pop goes the Weasel’ unless he had the sheet music. Now…. that is sad!!

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Apart from anything else (and apologies if someone’s mentioned it above) another motivation for learning by ear is that printed music on a stand is just plain silly-looking. Spend long enough with people who can only read music, and you realise just how much of a barrier printed notation is (physical and psychological). When you see people in a session or giving a concert performance, there’s something really special about seeing them relying on memory, sound and communication rather than a load of printed dots. I’m preaching to the converted here of course, but whatever it takes to learn, do it!!

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(I throw it out the window because I found that for myself, if I am thinking at all about theory, it interferes with my listening. So, I had to free myself from the years and years of the habit, make a break from it.)

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Re: playing along with recordings
"The big difference is whether you are doing it for learning or recreation. I know that in the ideal world the two have an enormous cross over. If I didn’t enjoy learning I wouldn’t do it. And, very importantly, you should never consider yourself in a position where you could say you are done with learning."

Posted on November 20th 2006 by Michael Gill

https://thesession.org/discussions/11775/comments#comment239465

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"One last thing: I have *never* played along with a recording. Not ever. I seriously can’t see the point."

I do it occasionally. It can help to highlight the bits of the tune that still need work.

I have always played by ear (much to the dismay of my piano teachers as a child, who wanted me to play what was on the page). As has already been said, it’s an ability that 99% of us possess (probably 100% of those reading this). How many of us used sheet music to learn nursery rhymes? Who, as a child, was not able to sing snippets of their favourite bands/singers, TV theme tunes, adverts etc.? It ought not to be a vast leap from being able to sing a tune you’ve heard, to being able to play it. The problem is, most of us, when we start instrumental lessons, are actively discouraged from using our ears; we are taught that a dot on a page corresponds e.g. to a certain finger in a certain place, not that a certain finger in a certain place corresponds to a certain sound. The most gifted musicians will learn to sight read and develop their ear-playing skills concurrently; the not so gifted, but ‘untameable’ ones, like myself, will follow their intuition regardless; but the majority will lose the natural inclination (*not* the inherent ability) to imitate what they hear.

So, the missing link that allows us to get from *learning* by ear to *playing* by ear is knowing our instruments - i.e. knowing what sound will be produced by what finger on what string, button, hole etc.

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Just skipping down here as I’m not about to take the time to read all the posts so far yet (other better things to do these days), here’s how I learned to play by ear. When I first started (on the recorder), I tried playing popular songs without the sheet music, most common being Greensleeves and Amazing Grace (at the time, I played classical piano and viola, so I was stuck to the sheets). Later, when I started getting into Irish music, I moved to the Irish flute. Along with that, I listened to various ITM bands while I did my work (pandora.com is great!). So, I got the feel for the music, but also as certain tunes came up frequently, they started gradually sticking in my head. Even if I wasn’t even paying attention to it (maybe it comes natural for me, I don’t know). So, I learned a great deal of tunes that way. I also started going to our local session, and tried playing tunes there by ear. It took a while to develop that ability to play tunes by ear on the spot, but as time went on, it became more natural, and much easier. From that, I found that I learn tunes best by listening (consciously) to the tune once, then trying to play along for the rest of the time that tune is played, but also not paying much attention to me and what I’m playing, but enjoying the music itself. A couple months ago, I was at our local session, and a tune was played that I had never heard before. Once I listened to it the first round, I tried joining in, and although I made mistakes here and there, it didn’t bother me too much. Then when the tune ended, I found that I had zoned out completely, but kept playing. Then I was asked "Did you know that tune?", I said "No", and then I was informed that I had played it like I knew it. That was probably my very first experience with learning tunes by ear naturally. It was at that point that I knew my musical life was about to change dramatically. And oh, it did. :-D

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I learn by ear using "call and response". I tried, but was unable to learn by ear from recordings or jams until I was forced to learn in this way. My teacher will play a few notes or a logical phrase, and I repeat. The next phrase is added, and then I repeat it back. Eventually - after about 20 minutes - I have the tune memorized and can play without mistakes.

When I first started I could only play from sheet music. Now I can go to a jam and pick up a new tune pretty easily. Each time the tune repeats I add one more phrase or a few notes I didn’t get the last time around.

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"call and response".

This is the approach which is often used in workshops and trad music classes(Especially at The ALP, in Edinburgh).

I don’t necessarily think it’s the best way although it can be useful for a completely unknown(to the student) tune as can using "the dots", of course.

However, I believe the best way is to listen to a tune and familiarise oneself with it…if you have the time and patience. Or concentrate mainly on those you have already heard and know in your head fairly well. As time goes by, you will automatically "absorb" new tunes or, at least, hear those which you like more and more. Then would be the time to "hurry on" the learning process if there’s one you particularly fancy.

It seems a strange notion (to me) to teach or try to learn a tune which one has never heard before. Of course, it may be a very good tune but why not listen to it first a few times?

Then break it down into phrases or even refer to "the dots" or whatever if you really must.

Having said all that, I often find myself in the position where I am "required" to learn completely unfamiliar tunes, eg for a fiddlers concert or similar but, even then, I will try to seek out recordings or "live" performances of them.
I have to admit that The Internet is very handy for tracking many of them down.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

"The most gifted musicians will learn to sight read and develop their ear-playing skills concurrently; the not so gifted, but ‘untameable’ ones, like myself, will follow their intuition regardless; but the majority will lose the natural inclination (*not* the inherent ability) to imitate what they hear."

I think that’s it. Those of us that read dots are thinking (at least I am) when I hear you guys talking about throwing away all your knowledge of theory is …."why!?." Its really just a useful tool. It’s no different than reading words once you’ve bothered to learn it already. I can hear a piece and find the notes with my fingers(‘the slow and clumsy way, certainly the noisiest way for all you apartment dwellers), or I can play a piece and write the music, or I can read the music and hear the music, or I can hear the music and write the music. I certainly have to reason to unlearn a perfectly useful skill that I spent so much time learning, of course my training including ear training, doesn’t everybody’s?

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Earl Cameron - yes, absolutely. I don’t think of it as an either / or thing. They’re all useful skills in their right place.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I listen, and listen some more. I listen to Trad every day from commercial and session recordings. Actually, I think I’ve grown a new set of ears in the process. Then, I find out if I can "sing" the tune. If I can hum it, I can play it. Recognizing patterns is another key for me. Then, I practice~a lot.

I use the dots for the occasional reference to get started if I haven’t played the tune in a long time, and "just cause".

At a session, if I don’t know a tune, I watch the fiddle players and it helps me with the fingering.

I don’t think there’s any one "proper way" to learn music. Those that do seem to be putting the process in a jar and screwing the lid down; kills the whole enchilada, for me anyway.

I like the whole idea of an aural tradition, not just for music, but for history and cultural teachings in general. Lots of cultures have passed on their heritage this way for thousands of years. Nice thing is that now, words and music can be written down, filmed or recorded. There’s something for everybody.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Someone once said to me "The phrases of Irish Music are so similar that you can virtually take any 10 given tunes, and the phrases in each could make up almost any tune out there." This, I have found to be true. Now that I’ve heard and learned enough tunes, I can listen to certain tunes, and many times predict what’s about to come next, or at least something close to it. That’s another thing that helps a lot in learning tunes by ear.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Mz WhiteBread Sopt on abou liking the idea of an aural tradition. For some reason we always believe what’s written over what’s shared between us (not talking music here but there are plenty of examples from everywhere where what’s written bears very little resemblance to what actually goes on). That aside, there’s also the whole "out there" nature of the written, vs the "in here" nature of the interanlised, learned, shared experience.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

^^Spot on about…." - see how tedious it is to have to communicate through writing?

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

to get started at it,

a. focus your efforts only on stuff you have heard and listened to so many times you know the tune.

b. do your first efforts on simpler (melodically, that is), less-notey tunes: polkas. slides. slip-jigs, jigs. later the less-notey dance reels. move on to more-notey stuff once you feel easy with simpler stuff. if it takes a few years, so be it. no big deal.

c. do your active learning only with slow or relaxed-speed recordings.

again—listen to the tune many, many times first. like, for a week or two. then actively learn it with a slow or relaxed-speed recording, or using slow-down technology.

repeat, for several years.

that’s ACTIVE learning.

PASSIVE learning—listen to great recordings CONSTANTLY. live with them. in the car, in bed, in the house, etc. preferably solo, and certainly no more than trio. for our first few years, do this with SLOW, or RELAXED-speed stuff. make this music the soundtrack of your life.

after a long time as a listener, the tunes will just get into you. i had a teacher for several years who told me this, and i didn’t believe it, but it will happen.


do NOT be intimidated by irish master players teaching workshops who do unsubtle-double-takes at your lack of facility at this. yes, they are out there. i don’t mean people would say anything mean, no, they are all very polite—but some of them are really tone-deaf (no pun intended) on this issue. many are not pedagogically trained, but started ear-learning in the cradle and can pick up even very complex, notey tunes, played fast, in unusual keys, by ear really quickly and are unable or perhaps unwilling to grasp that it is perfectly normal for adult learners to be totally unable to ear-learn at first and to need it spoon-fed reeeeeeeelly slowly.

also, if you need to use written music during the period while you’re learning to ear-learn, ignore anybody who tries to bully you about that. the irish players are fantastic ear-learners….and they also use written music, liberally.


i must say here that i actually went to school at night and took three semesters of college-level ear training after getting into itm as an adult and finding myself unable to ear-learn. in classical-land they sometimes call this kind of ear training, "solfege." in american college music departments, they pair each ear-training semester with a mandatory theory semester (or another way to look at it is, with every theory semester for college-level music students, they are forced to take an ear-training semester along with it.)

so i was forced to take three semesters of theory in order to be permitted to enroll in three semesters of ear-training classes. but that’s another story.

the ear-training classes did help a lot. but they helped in the sense of, what you might compare to "tenderizing" in the world of barbecue. it prepared the ground.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

"then actively learn it with a slow or relaxed-speed recording, or using slow-down technology…."

Personally, i’m against slow down technology. It doesn’t help with retention of phrases and patterns, which is something that is very important to develop in the early stages of ear training.

Simple music is an easy enough place to start, no need to make it any easier. If you give too many handicaps, it’ll hinder progress.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I fully agree with you. Don’t slow it down - listen harder and listen more. If you *have* to play slowly then you need to get more proficient on your instrument. Trying to learn tunes by ear whilst you’re still developing yer chops makes things doubly difficult, though you should still be doing it, of course. Start off by learning tunes that are not too fast and/or complicated in the first place. Try some nice waltzes or Carolan tunes. Getting enthusiastic is much better than getting frustrated. If you can’t make out a particular phrase in a fast piece, even after listening hard, find another version on YouTube and see what they do with the tricky phrase. Of course, finding versions on YouTube should carry its own health warning, but therein lieth another tale!

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I often find that even even if something seems too fast to hear properly I can lilt or hum something that fits the tricky bit well enough to try out on the instrument and then having got the gist if it on the instrument I can fill in more detail.

I don’t think of playing along with recordings as part of ‘learning a tune by ear’. Its more about working on a tune I can already play. The parts where I am not matching the recording well enough are usually those that need working on or where I am not sure enough of the tune to fit in with something slightly different to what am used to.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

probably the first thing to do is find a different session. You’ll get very little assistance at an Irish session and may well be completely ignored at best.

Start at a bluegrass session. The reason is simple, virtually everything at a BG session is in G and the timing is almost ALWAYS 16 bars in 4:4 time. This means that unless you are very unlucky, you know where to start. You will soon find there are actually quite a limited range of possibilities at any given point, and quite soon, you will be vamping along without actually knowing the specific tunes. Great confidence builder.

BG players also make liberal use of chord charts and cribs of various sorts.

OK, so now you have some idea and a certain amount of confidence. Next thing is to try Old Time music. This is quite similar to ITM in certain aspects. OT players again tend to be quite relaxed about chord charts, cribs etc and unlike BG players tend to include a sprinkling of people who can read notation, often the fiddlers for various reasons.

You will also find quite a lot of this sort of thing around http://banjomeetsworld.wordpress.com/?s=uke+strum , OT players are quite relaxed about the fact that a lot of their repertoire is actually quite similar, and if you know a few basics you can fit in to a fair extent.

You might even strike lucky and find a "traditional" ot "trad/folk" session ( small t ) where you can find tunes you actually know; where you can admit to knowing Wild Rover, Winster Gallop and Black Velvet Band without provoking a spasm of snobbery. These chaps also use chord charts and notation quite a lot, unless they don’t need them in which case they don’t.. but someone will be using them for sure.

By now you will have been attending sessions for two or three years, learnt the relevant basics of your instrument, learnt to keep time and have a degree of confidence about playing in public, however misplaced that last one might be. You will have the "feel" of the various types of tune and generally be a journeyman session player of a certain standard. You will have the idea of how to size a session up quickly and decide whether it is worth going again.

At this point you might try ITM … or then again, you might be happy with what you are doing, and find it is absorbing all the practice time you can spare…

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Tee hee

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Sorry, Oilman.

I wouldn’t necessarily agree that beginners or aspiring Irish trad players should be encouraged to follow a direction or path in which they are not particularly interested.

While some Irish sessions are undoubtably "elite" and/or very advanced, there are many others which are very welcoming to players of all levels. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the music is inferior either but it’s just that bit more inclusive.
Besides, there are also other arrangements and possibilities as discussed above where a learner can hone his/her skills before actually entering a session.

By all means, if there is a session playing non Irish(or part Irish) music then go along, if you are interested, but there’s also a risk that you may pick up a few extra tips and skills which might not transfer that well to an Irish session..e.g. chop chords on the mandolin :-P

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I don’t know about your area, oilman, but here, Old Time is really nothing like ITM. From the way it is played (only one person plays the tune while everybody else backs, then another can take a turn at the tune, as opposed to our session where we all play the tune, and only one person backs at a time)., to how the music sounds (Old Time is pretty square, doesn’t have the flow of ITM, heavy back beats).
If one wants to play ITM, then go to Irish sessions.
If one wants to play Old Time, then go to those.
And as for Bluegrass…. so many people think that if there are fiddles and banjos, it’s bluegrass. It’s more complicated than that.
Advising someone that want to play ITM to go to Bluegrass or Old Time sessions, well, you might as well tell them to go to a rock or jazz jam session. They are about as close.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

"probably the first thing to do is find a different session. You’ll get very little assistance at an Irish session and may well be completely ignored at best."

I have no idea where this sort of thinking comes from. Prejudice, I should think. I have spent decades going to Irish trad sessions, and I’ve almost invariably found them to be welcoming, helpful and supportive. I, and others, make a point of trying to encourage learners and help them out where possible. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve found the same, with very few exceptions.

My father had a story: new folks move into the neighbourhood. First thing they ask is "What are the people like round here?" So the local says "How did you find the people in your last place? They’ll be much the same round here."

Irish sessions are very welcoming places, provided you’re open to being welcomed, and approach them with the sort of courtesy with which you expect to be treated.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

It’s possible that Oilman was addressing the "Learning by Ear" aspect as this is the topic of the thread.

So, theoretically, other types of session would be equally good for this purpose but NOT for developing playing styles or understanding the more intricate aspects of Irish(Or even Scottish) music.

As I say, by all means give these a try as long as you are interested in that particular music and realise the differences.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

So are people suggesting that learning by ear as a skill is somehow different if one one want to play Irish rather than any other sort of music ?

I think that oilman was pointing out that there are types of traditional music where learning at a session ‘in real time’ is more appropriate than an Irish session. Busking along with awhistle during the chorus of Black Velvet Band may not be a learning experience you will get at an Irish session.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

crossed there. Sorry eb, but my experience as an adult beginner (on the instrument more that with the music) is that in England Irish sessions have, and need to have, well defended boundaries if they are not to degenerate into the tunes being played in the style that many of them have been played in England for the last 200 years. One needs to have a much higher level of competency than for many English or ‘come all ye’ social sessions.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

…and I suspect the same may be the same in the USA with all the Bluegrass./ Old Time/ Blues etc experience about.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I go to a lot of sessions. For most of the year, I go to a lot of sessions on this side of the Irish sea - England and Wales. My experience is that the "level of competency" is barely adequate, at best.

For the most part, they’re a better standard in Ireland, at least.

But, wherever they are and whatever standard they are, they’re generally friendly, right enough. :-)

Suggesting that newcomers may be "completely ignored" doesn’t sound all that friendly to me …

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

OK, how about "needs to have progressed further from being a beginner than for many …" ?

I think eb it was you who, when I was starting, echoed the best single piece of advice I have had from an experience musician who I know "Play with other people as soon a you can". I really don’t think that an Irish session is the place to do it.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Surely it is if you want to play Irish music?

It depends on the OP’s priorities. According to his/her biography, he or she already seems to attend other types of session.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I think I probably would have echoed that advice, David. I think it’s important. But I’m a bit surprised to find that Irish sessions may not have been as welcoming and supportive as I would like to think they are, and that therefore they’re not the place for beginners to go. I mean, you can’t hog the evening with slow, fumbling stuff - that’s not fair on other people - but there’s a place for beginners certainly.

At any rate, I’ll take the point on board and, at least for myself, make more of an effort.

Meanwhile, of course it’s also good for beginners to try and find others who are learning, and with whom they might be able to spend a bit longer actually playing than they may have the opportunity to in a session situation. IOW, do both.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Lots of good stuff in this thread. I would add a few other notes (no pun intended).

If you are learning your instrument at the same time that you’re learning the music, and learning how to learn by ear, you have a lot going on, and it can feel overwhelming.

Listening to music is something that we generally do somewhat passively, we tend to let the music wash over us, without being a particularly active participant. Or, in the case of popular music we tend to focus only on the words of a song. To learn this music, you need to learn to listen differently. Focus on the contour of the melody. Be an active participant in the listening process by lilting (singing) along with the tune you’re listening to, even if you’ve never heard it before. Your voice is an instrument that you’ve already "mastered", so you already have familiarity with how to "play" it.

That will help you get the melody ingrained into your head, where it belongs. Then you can work on translating it to your instrument. When you’re first starting out, it is natural to rely on kinesthetic memory to be able to play a tune, and that’s OK. Your fingers help remember where to go next. Your ultimate goal is to rely on kinesthetic memory only to know where the notes are on the instrument, but not necessarily where to go next in a particular tune. (The same way that your fingers know where the letters on a keyboard are, but your brain is controlling what words you’re typing).

Soon, you will start to find the process less overwhelming, because instead of "memorizing" a whole string of notes (which is a LOT to try to remember), you only have to internalize the contour of the melody. You will be able to go from having to remember long strings of notes to only having to remember one thing, which is "how the tune goes". And your familiarity with your instrument will come along, and the whole process becomes much much easier.

So take the time to actively practice listening in the new way, and you’ll get there before you know it.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Johnny Jay . But are are we talking Sandy Bells or something like one of those mixed instrument sessions that nigelg and others run ? Unfortunately that sort of thing is not available everywhere.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

The point I was trying to make is that the OP seems to be a fairly typical older beginner who finds it beyond him to work out what is going on at an ITM session, gets no assistance and makes no progress because of it.

I started going to BG and OT sessions because I found it was much easier to follow the proceedings and hence, make progress. It really is that simple.

There are a couple of posts above revolving around the issue of "ten key phrases" - the idea that there are a limited number of recurrent phrases and sequences which are the key to most of what is played.

This tends to be generally accepted in BG and OT sessions, you won’t go to a session more than two or three times without someone showing you at least some part of this; by the time you have been half a dozen times you will be making some progress because - and this is especially important to older beginners, who tend to have a considerable reluctance to make mistakes in public - you have collected a fairly basic repertoire of generic material which you can use.

I tried having some lessons with a local teacher who actually knew the ITM scene and to be frank, apart from encouraging me to learn to read notation - which was definitely something I should have done long before - I made little progress and have gravitated to more "social" sessions where I can make progress given the amount of time I can devote to music, consistent with earning a living and all the other stuff that happpens

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

There’s actually different arrangements to be found in Sandy Bells too with varying standards and styles.
Some sessions there are a little advanced for me too and I’ve been playing for a while. I’m not suggesting that I’d be made unwelcome but space is usually limited which is the main reason I don’t go to all of them there.

I’m not talking about the Nigelg types sessions either although he does a good job but just general sessions with good competent players who are not necessarily "top level" or professional musicians. There are still plenty of those going around but, as you say, they not may not be everywhere.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I’m sorry, but… "Start at a bluegrass session"? No, absolutely not.

Start by listening regularly at an Irish session you would like to eventually join, find recordings of the tunes they play and listen to those, and find a teacher who really knows traditional fiddling (there’s your ear training). In other words, have some gumption, and some respect for the music you aspire to learn.

"you can admit to knowing Wild Rover, Winster Gallop and Black Velvet Band without provoking a spasm of snobbery"

Sure, you can play just those old war horses, and nothing else, for the rest of your days. Be like one of those old guys with a satchel full of harmonicas in all the different keys who thinks he’s ready for anything, even though he only knows a few actual tunes.

But here’s the thing: People who encourage you—meaning yourself, or you and your session mates—to dumb down your music are not your friends.

Back on topic—fwiw, I learned to play by ear by noodling along with records and the radio. I already knew how to play a major scale from kiddie orchestra, so I just adjusted it as necessary to improvise over simple rock songs. Rock hooks (Louie Louie, Smoke on the Water, etc.) had nice simple phrases to pick apart and learn. Anyway, it had to do, in the absence of good Irish tunes, which I did not discover until much later.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

"Be like one of those old guys with a satchel full of harmonicas in all the different keys who thinks he’s ready for anything, even though he only knows a few actual tunes."

John, I’m not disagreeing with the general tenure of post but I’ve met and known two or three of these "old guys" with harmonicas and I can assure you that they know(or knew) loads of tunes. More than some of the rest of us put together, in fact.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Cheers, Pete!

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

..although those I know have mainly been Scottish players.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Sorry, didn’t mean to tar all moothie players with the same brush. I just happened to enounter two examples of the more clueless variety recently, on different occasions. It was uncanny—they were like twins who were separated at birth.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Did any of us mention to him that a teacher may be helpful?

I would suggest finding a teacher. Matter of fact, now that i’ve gotten the basics of my second instrument down, i’m ready to take Irish fiddle lessons again. I stopped at first cause I couldn’t afford it and didn’t have the time, and knew that I could learn the basics of my instrument on my own. But now that I know more about the music and my instrument, I can get more out of lessons.

For you, I think it would be better for you to find a teacher first off, because the way you posted, you don’t sound too confident in your skills. A good teacher could definitely give you the encouragement you need, while also assisting you in honing your skills.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

How I learned Irish Trad by ear after age 40:

1. Went to music camps (Willie Clancy in Co. Clare; Swannanoa in Asheville NC and Lark Camp in Mendocino CA). The fiddle/banjo instructors generally teach by ear. They play a tune up to speed, then slow it down, then teach it in chunks.

2. Taped tunes with a handheld recorder and went home to learn them. Discovered Amazing Slow downer and used it to learn the notes and ornaments, then worked at the tune until I could get it up to speed.

My advice to you:
1. DON’T learn any tunes you don’t like. LIfe is too short and there are too many tunes. (Which means you don’t have to start out learning slow tunes or going to sessions where Irish tunes aren’t being played…)

2. DO go to your local session(s) and sit in the back with a hand held recorder and tape the tunes you like. Then put them on your computer and set aside time to work on the tunes. Set goals. Learn one tune a week…up to speed, until you’re sick of it. Then try for 2 tunes a week and add on as you get better.

My first year playing I barely learned 12 tunes. I know hundreds now. I couldn’t remember a line after I heard and felt inadequate, but I plowed through that. Now I can learn one on the spot (if it’s not too complicated).

James Kelly had this bit to say about learning jig. It’s like a question and answer. The first phrase asks a question. The second one answers it. The third asks it again and the fourth gives another answer or resolves it. When you think of tunes in this way you can handle the information.

ALWAYS sing it in your head or out loud if you’re in the shower and it will come to you more n’ likely on your instrument.

NEVER give up and don’t be discouraged. It’s a plateau game. Sometimes you hit them. Sometimes you feel like you’re getting worse, and then something catapults you to the next level. But it’s a lifetime of joy. Nothing left to do but smile smile smile!

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Re: Learning On The Fly
"All it takes is a lot of doing it, with active, attentive listening. Best at first to practice with a friend willing to play while you suss out the tunes, slow and phrase by phrase at first, and then in larger clumps and nearer session speeds. But eventually you have to plunge in and try it at a session."

"Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right."

https://thesession.org/discussions/25724/comments#comment541137

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

It appears, oilman, that you ran into the wrong group of folks at some point or another, and have developed a rather negative impression of how the world of Irish sessions work. But I don’t see how that leads to your recommendations. The original poster wants suggestions on how to learn Irish trad by ear. And you tell him or her to seek out musical venues where people play other styles of music, and use sheet music to do it. Somehow, I just don’t see that as steps in the right direction…

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

They aren’t steps in the right direction. You’re right Al.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Hang on a minute. I have not done a tally but several of you folks who are saying "don’t go out and gain experience via another form of music" seem to have come to this music with a background in other forms of music.

Those of us who are not carrying the baggage of rock or classical music or whatever may see some of those skills we need for playing tunes with people in genres that are much closer to Irish than what you are used to. Someone who started in rock or classical telling me to stay away from old time or bluegrass (or in my case English) has to convince me they know what they are talking about.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

David50, here’s the context to which some responses are being directed ~

"You’ll get very little assistance at an Irish session and may well be completely ignored at best."

"Start at a bluegrass session. The reason is simple, virtually everything at a BG session is in G and the timing is almost ALWAYS 16 bars in 4:4 time. This means that unless you are very unlucky, you know where to start. You will soon find there are actually quite a limited range of possibilities at any given point, and quite soon, you will be vamping along without actually knowing the specific tunes. Great confidence builder."

"BG players also make liberal use of chord charts and cribs of various sorts."

Posted on October 7th 2012 by oilman

https://thesession.org/discussions/30676/comments#comment658507

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

David50, If you’re talking about me, I only started in "classical" because that’s what was made available to me at the time (age 11) and place (USA). Then I spent a lot of time on rock music because that’s the music of my generation. Only much later did I realize that Irish traditional music had all the musical satisfaction I craved—without the need for decades of advanced training, or (further) hearing loss.

If I had known, I could have "cut to the chase" and been playing Irish tunes all along.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Yes, I know Ben. My response to that whole post was "Tee hee" because I though that though the general sense of it was meant as said there was a touch of irony in there as well and I didn’t have to imagine the experience that was behind it.

Bye the way some people from other backgrounds *have* convinced me they know what they are talking about

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

David50 play the music you want to play & go to the sessions you wish to go to. It’s not complicated.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

David50, Yes, I started with american pop music. But that’s because I wanted to play *american pop music and it was the tool I had to learn music by ear. If I discovered traditional music earlier, surely I would’ve gone for traditional music from the start.

But for my piano students, I’m thinking about using Irish tunes as part of the curriculum for ear training, since many of the tunes are simple and will help build simple ear training skills, like retention/memorization.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

If one wants to play ITM by ear, got to ITM sessions. That’s all. Bluegrass, Old Time, rock, jazz, etc, are great if you want to play by ear in those genres. But, I don’t think they will help much with playing ITM by ear.
Playing by ear in general, yes, but not specifically ITM. There are different approaches, different sounds, different timing, etc.
Been there, done that.
I’m not sure about BG sessions in oilman’s regions, but BG is certainly not easy, and not great at building confidence for someone just starting out.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

This might be the crux of it, here: "… quite soon, you will be vamping along without actually knowing the specific tunes. Great confidence builder."

I’m picturing an army of such confident vampers, vamping along… it slouches towards my session…. things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…. :-)

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

….and then the black hole appears and sucks all of them away. Then disappears without notice. The sessioners never even noticed them….

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I think that’s the whole crux of it John. Not that I’ve had experience with OT or BG sessions - those things being alien to these shores (UK/Ireland) - but my impresssion, which has been bolstered here, is that you won’t get *any* practice in picking up actual tunes from them. Simply because it doesn’t appear to be what they’re about.

So, being more specific about Irish sessions, and Irish trad playing in general, they are based on fairly precise melodies, and everyone being able to pick them up. (Yes, everyone, because, for instance, if you have a different version, you need to be able to hear what’s different in the session you’re presently in and adapt.) That being the case, it might be better to practice picking up melodies. One place to do this might be an Irish trad session.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Yep, I started with good old US of A music, but then got into the Irish and Scottish stuff later in life. But that doesn’t mean I think that going down the other branches of the musical family lead you toward learning Irish music.
And I am a frequent defender of the use of sheet music on these pages (although not in public places). But going places where sheet music is used is not a step toward learning by ear.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

The point I was trying to make, is that the OP appears to be on older learner who finds the format of ITM sessions intractable.

There are various posts about halfway down that make the quite correct point that you need to be at a certain level of technical competence with your instrument, and with basics like identifying keys.

Several others have made the same point, that an ITM session probably isn’t the place to be doing this, which I’m inclined to agree with.

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John, sorry for killing your poem reference :/ thought you were just being dramatic. Oops.

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He’s 32 and you’re calling him ‘an older learner’, Oilman?

The OP has said absolutely nothing about the ‘format’ of ‘ITM sessions’ being ‘intractable’!

All he wrote was, ‘I go to sessions but I can rarely tell what key a tune is in if I don’t know that information already.’

Do try to read postings, Oilman, rather than assert your own agenda!

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

No problem fiddlelearner, it’s just one of those Irish-poetry references that people play with sometimes. Thought you and others might be interested.

As for the topic:

Now that I think about, I’m constantly re-learning to play by ear.

For example, I might have to remind myself of the basics—"intervals are your friends, just break it down into smaller pieces."

Or I hear a phrase that I know from another tune, so I can visualize what my fingers will have to do—if it’s in the same key, anyway. If not, at least I know what the notes are, it’s just a matter of learning the fingering.

Sometimes it helps to keep the time signature in mind (at least, whether to count in threes or fours) so you can avoid trying to put in extra notes that shouldn’t be there.

Etc., etc. The point is, learning to learn melodies by ear should be an ongoing process. Sure, start with sheet music and gradually wean yourself. But it has to be melody-oriented, to do any real good. Vamping on chords is a poor use of time, if learning melodies is the goal.

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Re "extra notes that shouldn’t be there"—that is, when you are learning the bones of a tune, playing it the same way over and over again until you know it by heart.

The right sort of "extra notes" will come, in time.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

John, how many people do you know who learnt to play tunes by ear started the process with sheet music & gradually weaned themselves from the sheet music?

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

I am not, not, not not, not going to play a tune the same way over and over again until I know it by heart. Because the next time someone plays I will have to do something different to fit in and if I don’t I will p*ss them off.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

It is true that a person who has never heard good Irish tunes cannot possibly learn how from sheet music alone. But plenty of people read sheet music *and* learn by ear, myself included—they’re not mutually exclusive.

As for playing it "over and over again," I don’t know any other way to really learn a tune. The more times I play a tune, the better I understand it, and the better my body gets at what is needed to make it happen. And if I need to change a few notes on the fly, I think it’s easier when I have played a tune many times. But that’s me. YMMV.

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Quite right, David.

And John, if you don’t know any other way to learn a tune than playing it over and over again in exactly the same way, I would venture to say that you’ve never learnt a tune in your life. Not really learnt it. Of course, you might think you have …

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

John, of course many people who play by ear can also read sheet music. That doesn’t explain the need to wean oneself gradually from sheet music.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

eb, you misunderstand. I’m talking about the very first stages of learning tunes by ear, when there are all sorts of wrong turns and frustration. Especially for a beginner, who is not used to memorizing a new melody (more or less) note-for-note.

I think it’s necessary to make sort of a "direct ear-to-finger connection" to learn well by ear, and lots of repetition will help solidify that connection. So that, for example, when the session you’re at plays it a little bit differently, you can more quickly adapt, and go along to get along.

As for whether I have ever learned a tune—everybody’s entitled to an opinion.

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"As for playing it "over and over again," I don’t know any other way to really learn a tune."

OK. All I can say is that that doesn’t sound to me like any way to learn a tune.

Difficult to see what there is to misunderstand in that …

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

It’s so much easier to learn tunes when you play them as little as possible, that’s for sure.

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Having said which, I am taking your previous post, where you explained that you’d do this whilst playing the tune "the same way over and over again until you know it by heart. "

I certainly play new tunes over and over - 20 times or more sometimes. But never the same way twice. You need to get to grips with the tune, see what it can do, explore its possibilities and nooks and crannies. Playing it the same way over and over would, I should think, wreck the tune.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Pretty soon, you’ll have a whole bunch of tunes you know that you never have to play.

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Ben, I’m just relating my own experience. Sometimes, silly me, I can’t memorize a whole tune in one go, so I peek at some sheet music to remind me (at home, only, never at a session).
Eventually—ASAP, of course—I don’t have to look at it any more. I’m sure others do the same, whether they admit it or not.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Look, everybody: Of course I don’t play a tune exactly the same way over and again, ***now****.

But once upon a time, after years of undisciplined noodling, playing a specific long melody line three times in a row without obvious mistakes was, well, hard. I had to work up to "exploring the possibilities."

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

John, I suspect your trying to "memorize" each tune & doing this with no variation at all might be why you think referring to sheet music is helping you to learn the tune. If you’re having a difficult time getting the tune in your head just listen more times & sing or lilt that. I promise you won’t need sheet music & you’ll naturally think of some variation in the phrasing & articulation.

e.b. people say they *never* play a tune the same way twice, even when that’s not absolutely the truth. ;)

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

It’s just that you said that you didn’t know any other way to do it …

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Cross post. :-/

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Maybe if you explained how one learns a tune without playing it multiple times? Assuming one is not Mozart, that is.

I have learned lots of tunes without ever seeing the dots—or any dots that were useful, anyway. Trust me, I am completely familiar with making a tune my "ear worm" for the day, something that comes to me unbidden, at odd moments. But when I’m coming to grips with a complicated new tune, a good transcription (not just any old one) along with a recording (perhaps of the session I want to play it at) can save some time at the beginning. They are put aside, as soon as possible.

You guys are preaching to the choir, really.

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Where do you find your good transcriptions, John?

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Doesn’t sound like we’re preaching to the choir. Well, not unless the choir thinks it’s heard it all before and has therefore never listened in the first place …

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Transcriptions? Lots of places, it depends. Often the dots are worse than useless, other times they match up reasonably well with the setting that’s played locally. And the places where they diverge—ideas for variations, maybe. Just a research tool, and not the best one, certainly.

Yes, absolutely, the map is not the territory. I would never recommend that anyone start out trying to learn Irish tunes from sheet music, any sheet music. You have to absorb the sound of it, learn the subtle improvisations, not just touch-type your way through some dots. But sometimes when you’re exploring, it’s handy to have a map so you don’t get lost, until you learn the lay of the land. Just don’t stare at the map, and miss the wonders along the way.

***Good*** transcriptions? (not just any old one)

John, you completely ignored your own adjective. How can I trust you to notice details when you’re not even paying attention to your own words?

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Are we on to an "other way to really learn a tune"? Confusing, isn’t it?

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

That’s okay, Ben, you don’t have to trust me. You have my permission to distrust me as much as you like.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

e.b., if you’re referring to this bit what’s your problem ~
As for playing it "over and over again," I don’t know any other way to really learn a tune

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John, you brought up the point about good transcriptions yet made no response regarding how you find them.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Well, it’s just that there seem to be a multiplying number of ways that you do know to learn a tune now. Sheet music. Recordings. I mean, for a "complicated new tune" obviously. Otherwise, it’s back to plan A, and the repetition of the tune over and over exactly the same, is it?

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Eh?

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

It was to John, Ben. You were just a bit quick in with your replies, so they came between.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

… on the subject of not reading posts and pushing agendas, quite a few people here seem to be doing pretty much that.

The OP, between his actual post and his profile, gives a clear impression of being a later learner with limited experience.

He also mentions having a connection with OT music, indeed specifically mentions an Irish/Appalachian session he is involved with

the real conclusion seems to be, if you have a question of that sort to ask, you’re better off asking it somewhere else

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Fair play, Ben (ethical blend)

Oilman, this thread has received some of the best responses ever to the question, "How did you learn to play by ear?"

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

It’s simple enough. There is more than one way to get started learning a tune—but playing it many times is the only way to get it solidified, so you can play it really well. At least, that’s what I have heard from all of my teachers, both in ITM and other genres. There is no substitute for experience, and the only way to get it is to put in a lot of time.

So—I hear a tune I like, I try to learn how to play it. If it’s a simple enough tune, I can hear it a few times and just start playing it. Otherwise, I use whatever I can, to get a handle on it, and then start exploring it. Some things are highly useful, others less so. The best thing would be a lesson with a great player, but some of us can’t afford those, and so have to make do.

p.s. Some reasonably good transcriptions can be found in the usual places, including here. And I have been given some by well-known teachers, plus at least one directly from the composer.

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oops, a bit slow on the post there, answering a question further up.

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John, I like the way you mention the one transcription (at least) directly from the composer. Seeing there are more than a few composers who have published their tunes.

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This discussion is becoming the prose equivalent of noodling…if we shouldn’t play the tune over and over and over, always the same, why do our discussions often end up feeling that way? ;-)

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Yeah, but this one’s a different setting.

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And I like the way you pay such close attention to what I write, Ben! Although you are mistaken, if you think I don’t know that there are many published composers of Irish tunes.

I meant that it came from a workshop given by the composer. So I assume it’s one of those good transcriptions, i.e., one that can be helpful up to a point. Apparently the composer thought so.

;-)

Touché

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Tunes vs discourse …

AlBrown, it’s the nature of the beast. Sessions are whatever those playing want it to be. Forums are whatever you can get away with; which isn’t so bad in perspective.

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Got to the bottom of the thread.. Phew! Go climbing in the Lakes for a weekend and look what happens…

A few random thoughts…

Ben (ethical) and John: I get what John’s saying. If I learn a new tune, I have to play it over and over again over a period of days or weeks, or I forget it. I have the memory of a gnat sometimes. I can pick them up by ear quickly enough; trouble is I can forget them even after if I’m not playing it regularly. I have a feeling that’s what John is saying.

Oilman: Really? All the Bluegrass I’ve heard sounds HARD. Don’t think I’d touch a Bluegrass session with a bargepole. Telling someone to learn how to play music X by playing music Y sounds ridiculous.

Everyone: I *still* occasionally use Amazing Slow Downer to get particularly problematic phrases of a tune. Only after years of reading people on Yella Board saying ASD is a horrible crutch that impairs your learning, I feel terribly guilty, like a teenager running into the bushes behind the school for a smoke.

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Didn’t you have bike sheds? :-)

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[Really? All the Bluegrass I’ve heard sounds HARD. ]

the bg tune melodies are not hard. they are simpler than irish reels in the sense of being less "notey." (so are the tune melody lines in cajun, zydeco, tex-mex/conjunto, oldtime, and lots of klezmer. paris musette, django swing, and tango are another matter, same with some of the roumanian and hungarian stuff, which can be quite intricate).

what’s "hard" about bg is that, as a poster on the bg forum of www.banjohangout.org memorably pointed out not long ago to a newbie, in bg you will be spending about 15% of your time playing the tune. the rest of the time you will be doing improvisational breaks and also doing backup which requires quite a bit of chordal theory and other theoretical prowess enabling you to come up with filler riffs and harmony bits on the fly. in that sense, bg is much harder than itm. but the actual melodies are less complex than much of the itm reel repertoire.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

"climbing in the Lakes"? It was called swimming when I was a lad. Kids these days…

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Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

Dr Spear. I am not sure that is what John was meaning, otherwise I wouldn’t have reacted so strongly against it. I can remember, on an instrument other than the one I am playing now, playing a tune over and over until I had it memorised. Then going to a kitchen session with friends and falling to pieces because they played it a little differently (rhythm, phrasing, tempo, a note here and there).

Yes, if I learn a tune one week and get it to the stage where I might pick up the flute at a session then if I don’t play it a couple of time through each day it wont be ready week. There will be something between a few milliseconds hesitation and a complete wreck.

But to keep it available I don’t have to play it the same way. Playing along with even dire youtube renditions will do, or doing extreme rhythmic things (staccatto hornpipes). This weekend I had a bug and coughed every time I did a glottal stop so I was messing around tonguing two beats to a bar just for the hell of it and because I could get through the tune like that. I think that listening to a recording may be enough.

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Also, in a technical ‘getting the fingers round it sense’ (rather than the right notes flowing in the right order) I need to play it a little slower, a little faster, a little straighter, a little more swingy etc to be able to fit in with how it may go at a session.

Re: How Did You Learn To Play By Ear?

By reading the dots

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Original poster here. Just now noticing the responses to my initial question. Lots to read thru! Thanks. Does thesession allow you to subscribe to posts? I would have looked at this a lot soon had I been notified of the responses.

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OP again. I’m maybe halfway through the responses. I’m learning tenor banjo/tenor guitar. In addition to Irish sessions, I’ve been attending old-time sessions. Where I live in the states, we make a clear distinction between old-time and bluegrass, and old-time shares similarities to Irish in that the melody players all play in unison, instead of taking solos like in bluegrass. One thing that does make old-time easier than IT is you always know what key you’re in (you "stay in D", then "switch to A", for example) and most of the tunes are in 4/4 time. Anyway I enjoy playing tunes from both repertoires. I’m ready to become a more complete musician and will definitely apply some of the advice I’ve read so far regarding playing a tune by ear. I think I’ll start with Pop Goes the Weasel!

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i started learning guitar @ age 27 . i was only playing sargam .n i am playing some song tabs form indian guitar.but i wasn’t enjoin that. i fond 90% wrong notations on site .n again i started playing guitar scales very hard.and while playing scales i understand music my ear .that is the process .and after guitar i can play harmonica and harmonium by ear..

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When I played the Highland pipes, I memorized many tunes. For some reason, there are certain tunes that I recognize, but just won’t stick to memory. I hear it in my head but can’t reproduce it accurately. No idea why.