When I was growing up with music, I can remember people around me being very impressed by the idea that someone could "play by ear." There seemed to be a mystique surrounding this amazing talent which, when you think about it, is pretty illogical. After all, we talk "by ear" before we can read! And most of us can sing "by ear" better than we could by reading music. It leads me to think that a lot of music readers take a rather mechanical approach to playing a musical instrument. In the past, at least, this mechanical approach was even encouraged by many music teachers, who often said that "If you let them start playing by ear they will never learn to read the music properly." I believe that this last statement is one of the most limiting and destructive myths surrounding music education - but that's another story...
So You Want to Play By Ear
That's great! So how does that work? Well, just like if you want to make a certain sound with your voice you need to know how to make it, you need to know how to make the sounds on your instrument. In the case of your voice, you experimented as a baby. You figured out how to get high and low sounds, different vowels and consonants, louder, etc. etc. If you're new to the accordion, and to piano keyboards, you will need to do this before you can play a tune by ear. People all over the world pick up musical instruments and figure out how to play them "from scratch" every day. You will probably get on quicker with a teacher, but it can be done! The teacher saves you a lot of time and mistakes, that's all. This is not the place to coach you through this process, however, so let's assume that you have some knowledge of your instrument and have maybe been playing from written music up 'til now.
In this article I am only going to cover playing melodies by ear. Chords and other left hand accompaniments are another subject. For some people they come easily, not so easily for others. One thing is certain, you will find it impossible to put the left hand in if you are not confident with your right, so first things first. There is absolutely no shame in playing melodies with your right hand and giving your left hand a little holiday while you learn to do this.
Start with something familiar. Utterly familiar! Happy Birthday or Jingle Bells or something like that. A complicated pop song or something flashy you have got on a CD is not going to be that easy. If you want to improve your ear playing, you could do worse than simply try to play the first simple tune that comes into your head every time you pick up your instrument to play. However, for your first serious attempt, I suggest that you start with a song. Write the words down, or get a copy of them. If it's a long song, you probably only need the first verse and the chorus, if there is one. If you can't sing it, you're going to be struggling. I don't mean sing it beautifully, just pretty accurately. This simply proves that you really know how it goes. When does the melody go up, go down, and by how much. The words are simply there to give you some landmarks and keep you from feeling totally lost.
Okay, so you've got your words in front of you. Your next question probably is which note to start on. Actually, it's not very important. Any melody can be played in any key, and can therefore be started on any note! However, if you don't want to end up with a lot of black keys in your tune, C or G is probably a good choice. Let me emphasise something here: The note you start on is not necessarily the same as the key you are in! So starting on G doesn't mean you will be playing in the key of G. However, if you start on a C or a G you probably won't end up in a key with lots of black keys. Do pay attention to where you started, maybe make a note of it somewhere. Life will be easier if you start on the same note every time you play a given tune.
Now comes the hard graft. Figuring the thing out. This is where a lot of people simply give up. Playing by ear is an experiment. If you are new to it, you are going to play lots and lots and lots and LOTS of wrong notes! That's good!!! That's how you learn. That's right. Trial and error. But pay attention. Try your best to be aware of where you are on that keyboard all the time. Notice where you are putting your fingers. I often see people trying over and over to play a phrase, and repeatedly making the same mistake. They know they are wrong every time, so they must not be paying enough attention to what they are doing. If the answer wasn't F# the first three times, it's not going to be the answer the fourth time either. Even more important, notice what the right notes are!
Of course, when you find the right notes, you're probably going to be tempted to write them down. Well, I can't stop you, but my advice is: DON'T GO THERE! As soon as you start that lark you are not playing by ear anymore. Think of a baby trying to learn to walk. He doesn't need crutches - just practise and determination. You are learning to do something new, hang in there.
Let's say you've got the first line of your song now. Play it over a few more times. Notice very particularly what note that line starts and finishes on. Notice even more particularly what note the next, and subsequent, lines start on. That way, if you get stuck on the third or fourth line, you won't have to keep going all the way back to the beginning of the song to work on the awkward line. By being aware of as many points in the song as possible, you create lots of starting places. This will save you a lot of time, and it is really worth developing the self discipline to start near the problem area, rather than constantly going right back to the beginning.
I know that this process will turn out to be easier for some of you than for others. I also know, from experience, that the vast majority of people are surprised at how easy it is to play by ear, once they overcome their fear of starting, and of making mistakes in the trial and error phase. It turns out to be something that most of my pupils find tremendously rewarding and fun. Each new melody is a little easier than the last, and before you know it you can be having a lot of fun with this.
There are two other aspects of learning by ear that I would like to discuss. One is learning from recordings, the other is learning directly from another person. These will both be easier once you have got some basic skills through playing well known songs. Learning in person may be helpful if you are stuck. But only if the person you are learning from has the skill and patience to help you. If they also play by ear, and especially if they teach music orally then they will probably be a great help. Learning from recordings is also great fun, and has some advantages, like being able to listen again and again without imposing on another musician. There are also a number of bits of computer software available which allow you to slow digital recordings down to make learning easier. Not to mention that there is simply a lot more recorded music readily available than can be found in written form - especially if your interests are a bit specialised.
In both scenarios, familiarity is again the key. The day may come when you can learn an unfamiliar tune "on the fly". Many jazz and traditional musicians do this regularly. But it is a skill in itself, involving being able to both remember and categorise many musical phrases very quickly. When this starts to be easy, you know you are really getting somewhere, but it is perfectly normal to find this difficult. Focus on what you are able to do, and what you are getting better at - not on what you can't yet do.
When I find tunes on CDs that I think I may want to learn I put them all on a compilation cassette. (You can use a CD or iPod - I'm just a bit of a dinosaur sometimes.) Because I spend a bit of time in my car every day I listen to this tape in the car. I only have this one tape in my car! I listen to it over and over and over for a month or two or three. I usually find that I can just start playing these tunes after awhile. Yes, I usually have to go back to the recording to check a few notes here and there, but it works for me.
I can learn less familiar things a phrase at a time from a recording, but I find they don't stick in my mind quite as well. Occasionally, though, I have to resort to this method either because I find the tune too elusive or because I am in a hurry for some professional reason. If I am just in a hurry I often choose to transcribe it rather than learn it, if I have a choice, as the chance of forgetting it is higher. The elusive tunes are an interesting question. Sometimes it's because the performance on the recording is not that clear. The player is running their notes together, playing very fast or simply hard to hear. At other times it is because my brain is supplying me with how it supposes the tune goes rather than actually listening. I don't know why our brains do this, but I know that it is very common. My brain is substituting a more "probable" or "logical" phrase, maybe simplifying the melody - just looking for an easier route! The best way I know to get around this is to play the tune for awhile, then go back and listen to the recording again. Usually the differences will jump out at me then.
In my corner of traditional music, learning tunes from other players is pretty common, whether "on the fly" or in a situation where a friend or teacher sits down and teaches someone a tune. The advantages here are that you can ask questions, and hopefully have everything explained until you understand it. You get immediate feedback as to whether you are right or wrong. The only possible downside is that you get used to a bit too much spoonfeedng. But spoonfeeding is a great help at first! If you are learning from someone who plays the same instrument as you, you can also see what notes they are playing and maybe get advice about technique as you go along, too. Fingering in particular. However, this is also something that you can become either overly dependent on, or which can become a distraction from listening. For this reason I sometimes turn away and don't allow some pupils to look at my hands all the time, as they look and forget to listen. Beware of reducing your playing to mechanics!!
I would approach it something like this, and what follows is also a good model for breaking tunes down when learning from recordings. First I would just play the tune through a few times. If I'm teaching, I would probably then ask questions like - "What note did it start on?" "What note did it finish on?" "What sharps or flats were used?" "What was the structure of the tune? Were there repeats, recurring themes, etc?" "Was it major or minor?" "What was the rhythmic structure?" I usually need to play it a few more times for the pupil to be able to answer these questions. This gets them listening harder (and watching me, too) and they become even more familiar with the tune. I might even do this for a couple of weeks before I actually start teaching the tune. I find this process very helpful when learning from recordings.
In Scots and Irish music, we are usually dealing with 8 bar sections, or parts. Commonly the tunes are made up of two parts, known as the A and B parts. Quite often the A and B part each repeat, either exactly or with differing endings, giving a 32 bar tune. This structure is pretty common in other music, too, although far from universal! I mention it both to set us up for what follows and to highlight the importance of being aware of structures in whatever kind of music you are learning. It is much easier to digest and remember information within a structure, rather than just learning it sequentially. (Remember my advice to know each line of a song independently, rather than having to keep going back to the beginning?)
So let's say I'm teaching a 32 bar tune with straight repeats. Once we are familiar with it I play the first 2 bar phrase. It may not be exactly 2 bars, but near enough. Think of it as the opening question. Once the pupil has learned it and can play it confidently, I teach the next 2 bar phrase - think of it as a sort of answer. When the pupil can play this phrase, we have a go at putting them together. At this point I may play the whole of the A part over once or twice, so that we don't lose sight of the big picture. The third phrase is often similar to the first one (kind of like repeating the original question), and the fourth phrase is usually a more definitely "finished" sounding answer, which usually finishes on the keynote of the tune. When we have the third and fourth phrases, we try stringing all four together. Usually, the first two are now a little wobbly, but we soon get them back and get the whole thing going. The process is the same with the B part. Often there is a bonus here, as some of the phrases may be ones we learned in the A part. Many tunes and songs are highly repetitive, whether we're talking Schubert, jazz, reels or pop. (Did you find this to be the case in the songs you tried?) This process may be completed in one session, or may happen a bit at a time over the course of weeks. It doesn't matter, just enjoy the process.
Yes, that's the key. Enjoy!