V.com weekend vote: Do you ever play by ear?

January 29, 2022, 10:03 PM · I think I would have enjoyed being a "strolling violinist" - someone who goes from table-to-table at a restaurant, taking requests and serenading people.

by ear

I have always liked to play by ear, even when I was a beginner and very bad at it! When my parents threw parties, I would get out my violin and "take requests" and eke my way through various hits of the day. I'm better at it now, but as an orchestral musician I don't often get the chance to do it - just with friends and family.

When my students show an interest in playing by ear, I try to encourage it. For example, recently one of them was playing from their "reading book" - it was a "song" the student already knew. So we did it both ways - "by the book," reading exactly what was there, and then "by ear," playing it the way he wanted it to sound: changing the rhythms, changing a few notes, adding a little more personality.

On a few occasions, I've tried learning a classical piece "by ear" before looking at the music, just to shake things up. (It was Kreisler's "Liebeslied.") So I listened to recordings and then just picked out the piece. In the end, it was fun to see if there were any differences between what I heard and what the music said - not too many! But I wanted to feel the piece before looking at the music.

I thought it would be fun to talk about "playing by ear." Do you ever play by ear? Do you feel you are good at it? Do you get to do it very often? Is it part of your practice? Or is it something you rarely find yourself doing? Please participate in the vote and then share your thoughts.

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January 30, 2022 at 06:01 AM · As primarily a Mariachi violinist, I do it all the time. Nothing is written, and the keys can change, depending on who is singing the solo.

January 30, 2022 at 06:28 AM · Yes, I play by ear all the time. My visual impairment makes access to sheet music much harder (although I do use braille music when possible), but learning by ear is integral to my music making. I'm also really into improv and jamming.

January 30, 2022 at 08:28 AM · Oddly, I'm terrible at playing a melody by ear but pretty decent at improvising over chord progressions after listening to them a few times, or improvising harmony lines after listening to the melody, as long as I'm not asked to do these things at a fast tempo. Maybe it's viola instincts.

January 30, 2022 at 02:21 PM · I am retired now, but I have never been able to "play by ear" or improvise. But my auditory memory has always been excellent (i.e., hearing the music in my inner mind, like a recording).

And, anyway, I have never tried to play by ear - but I have always tried to play by violin. :)

January 30, 2022 at 03:24 PM · For me playing by ear is much easier on the violin than it is on the piano because on the violin you're only responsible for the melody (or counter-melody), whereas on the piano you're expected to provide the chords (harmony) too.

January 30, 2022 at 04:21 PM · It's part of the talent of "being musical", but the ability to play by ear can certainly be trained as well. When still quite young, perhaps 6 years old, in our solfeggio lessons, we did "musical dictation" exercises: the teachers played a tune on the piano (very simple in the beginning, but after 4 years or so, quite complicated), and we had to write it down in musical notation.

January 30, 2022 at 05:07 PM · I have attempted playing by ear. I joined a group of people learning Scottish tunes by ear. It took me a long time to learn that way. I also improvised in a group of ukulele players on the violin. It still took a long time. I am better for the practice but still much better with a page of music in front of me.

January 30, 2022 at 06:34 PM · Playing by ear comes more easily to me than reading music. Because of just how quickly music gets into my memory, my ear can take over without my realizing that I'm not even seeing the page on the stand (playing what's in my head rather than what's printed). I'm very fortunate that my current teacher knows how to get the two working together, my previous teacher...his approach was try to get me to ignore my ear totally. That's not possible...at least for me it's not. This is not memorization, I've not yet actively tried to do that, it just happens.

January 30, 2022 at 08:53 PM · I play by ear once in a while. When I started violin, I played exclusively by ear at first, fingering and bowing familiar tunes on a half-sized fiddle, before I had my first lessons. Soon I got hold of my first instruction book, still having had no lessons. Thanks to elementary piano training, I could already read sheet music. Learning a piece "by the book," instead of imitating what I heard, became my main route.

In my teens, I could play a few short excerpts from the Brahms concerto, first movement, by ear. Later, when I actually studied the piece and had to read the sheet music, what my mind and ear had earlier registered as a succession of double-stops turned out to be triple-stops. Playing by ear is still great fun, but I insist on seeing the printed page before I can say I really know a piece.

Italian arias are a genre where I've had occasional fun playing violin versions by ear - although some of these arias work better when transposed down or up a half-step. String players generally prefer sharp keys to flat keys, and that goes for me, too. The aria Vieni! t'affretta! (Come, hurry!), in Act 1 of Verdi's Macbeth, is a case in point. I never attempted it in the published key of D-flat, but found it easy to pull off in D or C.

January 30, 2022 at 09:16 PM · My first 3 or 4 years introduction to playing the violin, in the early days of this century, was via Irish pub sessions and group lessons, in both of which sheet music was never to be seen, and certainly not music stands. Sheet music was firmly discouraged in pub sessions - and still probably is, 'though I haven't been to one for a few years, unfortunately mainly due to pub closures in my area. Sometimes, if the teacher in a group lesson was aware that a particular Irish tune was causing problems to some learners, sheet music would be available for those learners to take home.

My playing-by-ear skills, such as they are, sometimes come in useful in rehearsals for orchestral concerts if I've been called in at the last minute as a deputy.

January 30, 2022 at 11:44 PM · Re ~ Playing by Ear? {11}

As from ~ Carrier of the Heifetz-Milstein Legacy of Violin Playing & Mentoring ~

Playing by Ear is possibly a great loving Gift from God at birth!! No one truly knows the 'Why' or 'How' but those gifted with this use it naturally & possess special ear's for harmonic 'right' plus acute awareness & often unknowingly, of by Ear accepted compositional structure which is 'normally' taught in a Music Conservatory/ University Theory or Composition Class setting. I would be deeply interested in any comments of *Ella Yu, the Second Responder, who kindly shared her visual impairment generously without any sort of feeling sorry for her lot in life ~ Obviously, a very positive person and Lover of Music, the very visual impairment she describes has greatly helped enhance her own musical fusion with ensemble harmonic abilities which most probably are by now exceptional in "Playing by Ear", or Improv, which quietly liberates her Mind from Rules/Orders of 'Must Do Only's' expanding her imagination to go far beyond the borders of a strict harmonic theory upbringing and I'd bet some real money she is happier playing even when learning a new piece or melody & matching an 'by Ear' harmony then improvising its blended counter part!

A very gifted and accomplished pianist friend of mine fell into the category of 'low vision' and quite late, relatively, in the life of said friend's musical journey which included being a naturally superb Brahms Player - Interpreter in both the Piano Concerti, Scherzo's of and Brahms Chamber Music. I would greatly appreciate hearing from *Ella Yu to discuss the 'How's' of her vision loss and if said loss actually helped release her from a musician's oft condition of 'Fear of Musical Failure'? or contrarily, if she was born with her current specific visual impairment??

Thanking Laurie Niles for this delicate & very sensitive subject in the case of Ella Yu, I shall hope to hear from Ms Yu, to ask questions and hopefully receive her answers to share with my pianist - friend to help now close to blindness ...

~ Most sincerely from America ~

....... Elisabeth Matesky .......



{post Ella Yu Contact or on my FB Pg w/Link if on FB!}

Also: Business Contact on Violinist.com Member Bio

*Catherine Kostyn ~ Ignore any RX to toss your natural Ear.

~ January 30, 2022 ~

Fwd dg

January 31, 2022 at 01:23 AM · Like Andrew, I can generally harmonise a melody before I can memorise it. Having improvised on the piano is a great help for improving improvisation on the violin.

When singing in a congregation I tend to gravitate towards improvising a part in harmony, rather than singing the tune. it takes serious conscious effort to do the latter.

Ability to improvise does not necessarily convey proficiency in jazz.

January 31, 2022 at 02:31 AM · I have tried playing by ear when I want to play tunes that I love but I don't have access to the sheet music. It's actually instructive for me to do that on instruments of the violin family because I can see the tonal relationships between the notes. I should do it more. To refer to Sue Buttram's response: I belonged to a Scottish Fiddler group for several years and sometimes they'd have guest musicians who would teach a tune to those at the meeting, usually by ear. I enjoyed the challenge to my brain. It differs from playing a tune I already know by ear.

January 31, 2022 at 06:56 AM · I have always been able to do this; no idea how or why. It came in handy over the many years I would give informal performances at the nursing home where first my father and then my mother spent their final years. I would play Broadway tunes, popular and patriotic songs, and old hymns out of my head for an hour. Every now and then someone would stump me with a request I didn’t know...was once asked for “Proud Mary” and while I do know the song, it was hard to translate to violin.

January 31, 2022 at 12:47 PM · I always have. As a matter of fact I was getting seriously on my music reading abilities. Fortunately I had great teachers that knew how to help me find balance with the ability to read, sight read, and play by ear. It takes a 'good' ear to know if I am playing/singing what I'm reading or what I 'think' the note is.

January 31, 2022 at 01:30 PM · ,??

January 31, 2022 at 01:30 PM · ,??

January 31, 2022 at 01:52 PM · I think if you don't learn to play by ear you are missing a huge amount of music making! As somebody that mainly plays alternative styles, I'm given Youtube links instead of sheet music these days.

As for "Playing by Ear is possibly a great loving Gift from God at birth!!" I firmly disagree. I will say that as a late starter at 13.5 it came easier to me than reading and I was picking out tunes before I had lessons. What I'm saying is, that is the way I started. If a child starts the first years of their playing, only playing from sheet music, then that is the way the neural pathways will be biased. Ideally, we would be learning by ear along with reading. We are taught that the simplified version of Jingle Bells in book one of (insert every violin book title here) is the one to be taken as authority and that we have to override the tune we are hearing in our head because "that is not what the music on the page says...". This is the beginning of training out the skill of playing by ear.

For me, as well as going to weekly ear training classes, I remember my first go at transcribing. A friend had asked me to transcribe a sax solo from a song so that he could play it in a band. It took me ages! I was a bit annoyed that he was getting me to do the donkey work and he never ended up using it. However, it was a blessing in disguise as I did start to apply my knowledge of intervals and used my violin to help me work it out. This is how it worked out for me (others may do it differently). Meticulously working out a tune note to note and relating it to the shapes the intervals make on the fingerboard. In time I was able to imagine my fingerboard and would work out simple tunes on bus journeys and the like. This mental violin is key, as is knowing intervals well and knowing where they sit on the fingerboard. The process gets faster and faster until the musical note thought is the same as the interval and finger shapes. It's a skill that can be learned like anything else. Improvisation is playing by ear's close cousin as you are playing your ideas by ear. These things take work just like anything else. Ear training is key. I'm always surprised when a student comes to me, even advanced ones, who haven't even heard about intervals let alone learned them.

January 31, 2022 at 02:17 PM · I’ve tried and I can, sort of, but it makes me anxious and I don’t enjoy it.

January 31, 2022 at 04:32 PM · I play by ear even when reading the music!

January 31, 2022 at 08:37 PM · John's non-string experiences are similar to mine, which might explain the similarities between us. I had extensive piano background including improvisation before I started playing string instruments, and I tend to harmonize when singing simply because my vocal range is basso profondo and I can't reach the higher notes that other people sing.

February 1, 2022 at 02:40 PM · I often put on a CD and attempt improvisation. I'm such a bad violinist that I spend much time just playing with the harmonies to find the key and invent little phrases that fit into the key and rhythm but I am nowhere good enough to find much of the melody in real time. It could be anything, from baroque harpsichord to Joni Mitchell.

February 1, 2022 at 03:54 PM · Since last year I recently started going to YouTube and typing in my favorite melody that day (like a video game tune or symphony I played in college) and playing along with it as I had the orchestra wash around my ears! Especially during a pandemic, it was a great way to feel a sense of kinship and playing with colleagues again, even if it was just for a recording. I’ve done a couple YouTube covers by ear as well, which can be a challenge to put together in one take but a lot of fun.

February 1, 2022 at 06:56 PM · Will, if you are interested in blues or jazz, one possibility is an app called iRealPro. There you will be able to hear a rhythm-section type backing track (functional if perhaps not too musical) and you will see the chords on your screen so you don't have to spend your own bandwidth figuring out that part. After you have played through it a few times you'll catch the basic harmony and you can liberate yourself from your screen. How quickly you can do that is a "YMMV" situation.

Another approach if you like other genres is to get the chords from Musescore -- the particular arrangement is likely irrelevant as long as the chords are provided -- and then you can go onto Amazon and buy a backing track for most tunes for a buck each. In time you could build yourself up a repertoire of, say, 20 tunes and have a go at busking.

February 1, 2022 at 09:05 PM · I've been fortunate enough to be able to play by ear ever since I was a child. If I know the melody, I can play it on any instrument that I'm capable of playing. The key is to keep the knowledge of the melody separate from the knowledge of how to make the notes on a given instrument (i.e. think in terms of notes, not fingerings). To put it in computer terms, going to a different instrument is like loading another device driver.

I play a lot of bluegrass fiddle. This is another genre where there is a lot of improvisation. You'll seldom see sheet music at a jam (except for students who are learning a piece), and indeed some of the greatest players can't read a note. This leads to the old joke:

Q: How do you stop a classical musician from playing?

A: Take away his sheet music.

Q: How do you stop a bluegrasser from playing?

A: Put sheet music in front of him.

Years ago at a folk festival I saw the tremendous Scottish guitarist Tony McManus playing with a couple of others. They launched into a tune he had never heard before. The first time through he just sat and listened closely. The second time through he picked the odd note here and there. On the third time they threw it to him, and he jumped in with both feet, playing as if he'd always known the tune. I've been working on cultivating that skill ever since, with some success; once I work out the chord structure I can improvise over anything. I might not have the tune note-perfect, but at least it sounds harmonious.

And it's not necessarily just melody (or counter-melody) - I've gotten to the point where while improvising a melody I'll throw in the odd double stop to add harmony - at least to the point where it all breaks down from sheer mental overload. But what a rush! If you put me into a brain scanner while I'm improvising I bet it would light up like a Christmas tree.

Being able to play by ear and improvise are skills that let you take music to a truly sublime level. I would recommend some study of these skills to everyone. Even if you're strictly reading sheet music (e.g. in a quartet or orchestra) these abilities will help you keep on track, or quickly find your way back if you get lost.

February 1, 2022 at 09:12 PM · That’s a great idea Paul! Thank you.

I love hearing about how many styles of music have their own ways of producing sound. Sometimes it’s reading on a page, sometimes it’s playing by ear. But both can lead to incredible performances and unforgettable experiences.

February 3, 2022 at 02:34 AM · how do you learn the skill?

February 3, 2022 at 03:31 AM · @Mark -- the same way you learn anything else: Start easy and improve a little at a time. You probably have a lot of tunes in your head -- stuff you learned as a kid, for example. For example "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" from Suzuki Book 1. Try it on your violin, but NOT in the original key. Start on a G. That will put you in the key of E-flat, for example. When something doesn't sound right, then you know you've made a mistake! At that level, it's really about knowing how far away the next note is -- the interval. Is it a whole step? Half step? Major third? Pretty soon your ability to think in those terms will greatly improve. If there are other tunes lurking in your gray matter like "Big Yellow Taxi" or really whatever it might be, just start playing. If you have no experience playing by ear, you're going to fumble around for a while until the tune locks in, but you WILL get better at it, and I bet you will surprise yourself how fast.

February 3, 2022 at 07:36 AM · My Dad could read music and play by ear. It usually didn't take him long to pick up a tune and he'd be off on the piano, organ or piano accordian. So I've grown up regarding it as a sine qua non of musicianship, same as being able to read music.

I find if I know the tune beforehand, I can learn it much easier on the violin. If I don't, then I have to spend more time learning it. The problem I find is that my interpretation usually winds up sounding like my avourite version of it, and that can take a while to change.

February 3, 2022 at 02:51 PM · In one of my jobs, as I walked past a couple of bosses discussing a situation and agreeing "We'll play it by ear". Neither of them was a violinist, but their surnames were Rees and Edwards. One of my minor regrets is that I did not mutter, as I walked past, "Can't you play it somewhere else?".

February 3, 2022 at 07:24 PM · Interval recognition and melodic contour is important. For singers it is a necessity. A lot of violinists only learn it in their 1st year college theory and musicianship course.

To break up the mental cob-webs, to get away from thinking in terms of note names and finger numbers, try this: Pick an easy fiddle tune or pop song. Memorize it. Then transpose it to different keys, without looking at the printed music.

February 5, 2022 at 07:52 AM · I can and often do. As a child, I could sing what I heard from the radio before I could read. Since I started violin I would play whatever songs I like before I could read music. Later I found it was easy for me to transcribe music I heard just like play by ear.

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