Art of Playing by Ear

July 1, 2018 | Author: qt0607012788 | Category: Chord (Music), Harmony, Piano, Rhythm, Bass Guitar
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Art of Playing by Ear, David Sides,...


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Table of Contents ♪ Foreword

………………………………………………………………….. 1

♪ Chapter

I – The Approach …………………………………………………. 3

♪ Chapter

II – What to Listen For …………………………………………... 4

♪ Chapter

III – Basic Triads ………………………………………………….. 7

♪ Chapter

IV – Advanced Harmonies ……………………………………….. 14

♪ Chapter

V – Ready to Play ……………………………………………… 19

♪ Chapter

VI – Making It Your Own ……………………………………….24


Foreword Picture this, you walk into a local music store and find a complete stranger  playing on a piano for sale. A crowd is gathered around the musician, which sparks your curiosity. As you get closer to the crowd, you start to recognize the tunes the musician is  playing. At first you expect to hear classical masterpieces being played, but you’re surprised when you realize that the musician is playing anything but that. The songs you hear, in fact, resemble the songs you heard on the radio in your car while driving to the music store. Looking for reassurance, you look to the person standing next to you and ask, “Hey isn’t that…” as your neighbor cuts you off and replies, “Yes, it’s funny  because I just heard the original of that song on the radio about a week ago. I like what he did with this one on the piano.” At this point, you decide to move around to try to get a better view of exactly what is going on and you notice that the musician is playing without sheet music. You then assume to another member in the crowd, “I didn’t know they had sheet music for this song already. It must have taken him a while to learn and memorize it so well.” Your neighbor then smiles and corrects you saying, “There’s not. He learned the song on his own.” “What do you mean? Learned it on his own?” you ask. “I mean, he just listens to songs and then teaches himself how to play them on the  piano. Lots of people do this; it’s called playing by ear.” Unfamiliar with this method of playing, you decide to ask more questions about it. At the end of your conversation, you’re inspired. You’re interested in learning how to  play by ear, but at the same time, don’t know where to start. Nevertheless, you leave the music store with a new way of looking at music and the way it’s learned. In the light of inspiration, you decide to pick up piano lessons, hoping to one day be able to play some of your favorite songs by ear. The art of playing by ear is something that’s been done for many years by many musicians. In some cases, playing by ear is how some people began learning music, maybe as the result of a lack of patience, time, or the funds to afford formal training. An instrument and a radio is all they may have had at the time, but they didn’t let this keep them from doing what they loved to do, which was make music. I believe that the gift to  play by ear does not surpass the ability to create, however compliments it by shining a different and unpredictable light on that which is created. Hi. My name is David Sides. Some of you may know me as a colleague from my Alma Mater University; while others may have seen me produce my interpretations of  popular tunes on the internet. Nevertheless, those who know me know that I have a  passion for playing the piano. I have been blessed with a unique talent to play by ear. Yes, the concept of what I do is easy; however, I’ve learned that achieving this ability might not come as easy to some as it does to others. Yet I strongly believe that the power to astonish others with one’s trained ear is possible for anyone, with the proper training,  practice, and guidance. My goal is to use my knowledge and experience of playing music, to help any aspiring musician’s progress by sharing with them the secrets behind  playing by ear that I’ve learned and developed over the years. Before second guessing yourself, keep in mind that unlike many pianists, I didn’t start playing until the age of 10, and even worse, I had to teach myself how to play without the help of any lessons. Aware that many pianists start as early as 4, I was very discouraged when I began, and I

2  believe that I am no different from anyone else. If I can learn to play by ear, so can you. Sure, I’m not the best pianist in the world, and I neither claim, nor aim to be. I just hope that what I do, along with my passion for it, help to change the world’s perception of the  piano, and the pianist, all while providing a different approach to learning how to make music. One bit of advice I would like to offer you before we begin is be confident in approaching this new challenge. A lack of confidence could be more of a hindrance than many may think. Also, don’t be quick to give up. Working with piano students, I see many cases where students with the ability to do, don’t, simply because they give up too easy. Upon completion of my book, with the proper practice and dedication, you too will find yourself playing your favorite tunes in no time, with the greatest of ease. Finally, with that said, let’s get started.


I: The Approach When beginning something new, you should always start off slow. This statement applies to any challenge you may face in life. There’s a saying that goes, “You must learn to crawl before you can walk, and learn to walk before you can run.” This is true. In applying this to learning music, the best advice I can give to someone aspiring to learn how to play by ear is to start off with simple songs. Now, defining a song as simple is a relative thing, meaning, one song may be simple to one individual, but hard to another. The music you choose to start off with may range from simple cell phone ring tones, to lullabies sung to put children to sleep. You want to use your own judgment in this case, go with whatever is easiest to you. Despite what you choose, the approach to learning the song will be somewhat the same. Have you ever had a song stuck in your head and no matter how hard you tried, or what you did, you couldn’t seem to get it out? Has it ever seemed as if you could  practically hear the song playing, even though it was just in your mind? Well, that’s how you want the songs to capture you when learning to play them by ear. You want to get the song in your head to the point where you can almost hear it playing. How does this happen? I’ve learned that it usually happens the quickest and most effective by listening to a song over and over again. Once you can get to the point where you can hear the song in your head, you then want to work on moving it from your head, to your ears. To do this, I usually hum whatever it is I hear in my head as accurately as possible. By making an outward acknowledgment of what is in your head, through humming, you are now able to hear it clearer, and by doing this, I’ve also learned that the tune usually tends to stick in your memory longer. This approach may sound elementary, but it does work. Humming the songs is actually going to play an important part in your learning process, as you will read about later in this book. Taking a step forward, let’s dissect this humming concept a little deeper. When humming these songs, what you want to be able to hum, more specifically, are the melody and the harmony. The melody can most easily be recognized as either the main tune, or if the song has lyrics, the tune of the lyrics. Harmony is recognized as combining sounds of different pitches. Depending on how simple the song is that you choose to work with, it may or may not have an underlying harmony to support the melody. For example, some simple cell phone ring tones are designed that way. In that case, just focus on learning the melody. The ability to distinguish and isolate between the two get easier over time, just be patient. Continue to practice finding and separating the melody from the harmony. We will take a closer look at these two parts in our next section.


II: What to Listen For When analyzing music, we learned in the previous section that the basic make up of a song is a melody, supported by harmonies. The melody is usually the part we sing or whistle to, while the harmonies provide the depth, giving the song a fuller sound. Giving another example of this relationship, taking a look at a singer and his band during a  performance, the singer provides the melody, while the band supports the melody with their harmonies. In this section, we will focus a little closer on the harmony and pick out different things to listen for that will eventually help in playing the harmony. The bass line is a very important part of a song, especially when trying to learn how to play that song by ear. When learning the harmonies of a song, I almost always start with the bass line, and I’ll explain why. When playing by ear, because you don’t have the skeletal structure of the song in front of you on paper, also known as sheet music, you have to rely on things that stick out to your ear, and figure out the structure that way. Your ear is going to naturally pick up on either the loudest details, or the most intricate details. Everything else, all the other smaller details within the song, your ear might not pick up on so easily at first. Having said this, just think for a moment, say you’re standing outside one day and a car drives by blasting music from its speakers. You start to feel the ground vibrate as the car gets closer and closer. Now ask yourself, what is catching the attention of your ear the most from the music being played? Chances are it’s the bass of the song, which also explains the vibrations you feel. Taking this example, the bass is a great place to start in learning how to play the harmonies of songs. If you can hum the melody of a song, and hum the bass line of a song, you’re in great shape! It is also a good idea in learning the harmony, to start with the bass for another reason, which I’ll explain in the next chapter. When playing songs by ear, one of your main goals is to try to get your version of a song to sound as close as possible to the original version of the song. Being able to recognize even the smallest details in a song is what will advance the ability of your ear and separate it from an average ear. As you begin and continue to play songs by ear, you will notice that most songs use the same chords, following very similar patterns, or in other words, they use the same chord progressions. A chord is a group of notes, made up of at least three, that are all played at the same time. On a piano, this means three or more keys that are all pushed down at the same time. A chord progression is simply the movement of one chord to the next. For example, let’s say I play a chord in the middle of the piano, then I follow it with a different chord towards the top of the piano. What I’ve done is I just played a chord progression: I moved from one chord to the next. In some cases, if you take two songs, both performed in the same key, and take out the lyrics to the songs, you’ll notice that they may sound the same. In this case, the only things that separate one song from another are the small details found within each song. For example, one day you may find yourself listening to two different songs, both  performed on the piano, both following the same chord progressions in the same key, but one song may have a distinct guitar accompaniment to it, while the other may have a distinct flute accompaniment. When you strip these two songs down to just the piano  part, they sound exactly the same, but when you add the guitar part back to one, the flute  part back to the other, and then along with that, their respective lyrics and beat, they may not sound so similar anymore.

5 The point of this observation is if you were to play these songs, you would not only want to try to imitate the piano part, but you would also want to try and play the guitar part if playing the first song, or the flute part if playing the other. If you don’t add the accompaniment, the two songs you play may sound pretty much the same. By being able to add the respective accompanying instruments, you’re separating the similarity of the two songs. This concept of imitating the little details is very important seeing as you can only mimic so much on the piano. You can’t really play a drum beat on the piano, nor can you make the piano say the words to a song. However, you can imitate the drum  beat by playing the harmonies to certain rhythms close to that of the original song, and you can imitate the lyrics by playing the lead melody, but unfortunately that’s all you can really do. So keep in mind, the more little details that you can imitate from the original song, the more your piano version will sound like the original. For some added advice, let me help by pointing out some things to look for in songs that you would want to imitate. For one, you want to try and keep a close ear out for any sound effects in the song that you could imitate. Not all sounds can be duplicated, nor will all duplications sound good on the piano, so use your judgment when  picking which sound effects to play, and which to leave out. The next thing I’m going to  point out is probably one of the most important things to try to imitate, and that’s the rhythm. No matter which genre of music you’re listening to, rhythm is a very important  part of music. When playing songs on the piano, you want to focus on the rhythm of two things: the melody, and the harmony. The rhythm of the melody will probably be the easiest to imitate. To do this, all you would have to do is play the melody, or in other words the lyrics, in the exact rhythm that the words are originally sung. The rhythm of the harmonies is a little harder to imitate. The reason I say this is because the way you  play the rhythm of the harmonies in your song may not be exactly the way the rhythm of the harmonies is played in the original version. The challenge is, you want to ultimately  play the harmonies, but play them to the rhythm of the beat, or the drum pattern. A trick I usually do, which I found actually works very well, is I try to imitate the rhythm of the nd  kick of the drum pattern. If you notice, most of the time, the snare is hit on every 2  and th 4  beat of a song. A beat is the basic pulse underlying music. This is pretty universal for most songs. However, the part of the drum pattern that often changes from song to song is usually the kick pattern. As I mentioned before about the importance of imitating the small details to set each song apart, the kick would be the detail you would want to imitate to set one song’s rhythm apart from another. Along with the rhythm, some other details you would want to keep in mind but not always necessarily match to the original song are: the tempo and the overall mood . Tempo and mood go hand in hand in music. By tempo, I mostly mean the speed of the song, fast or slow. The mood, happy or sad, can be gathered by the tempo of the song, the mode of the song (major or minor, major being happy, minor being sad), or the words of the song. Most songs with happy lyrics are played in major keys, while those with sad lyrics are played in minor keys. We’ll go over the difference between major and minor chords in a later chapter. I mentioned that tempo and mood are things you want to keep in mind but not necessarily imitate because these are the components that allow you to be expressive when you play a song. What I mean by this is, you can take an overall tempo, or mood, and exaggerate it to express the overall feeling they produce in your own unique style. Me personally, I like to take sad songs, and play them slower than the tempo of the

6 original version to help exaggerate the overall sad mood. Likewise, with happy songs, I’ll maybe play them a little faster to give a lighter feel. With these examples, you can see that although I’m acknowledging the tempo and the mood of the overall song, I’m not expressing them the same way they were expressed in the original version. Music is all about expression, so feel free to express the various moods of songs however you see fit.


III: Basic Triads We will now take a closer look at how to build the harmonies that will support your melodies. As mentioned before, in music there is a term called chord  which  basically refers to a group of notes played at the same time. For a guitar this is multiple strings, at least three, that are strummed at the same time, a nd for a piano it means multiple keys, at least three, that are pressed down at the same time. The harmonies that you play will be derived by the chords. Let’s learn the basic structure of a chord. On a piano, a basic chord is made up of three keys with unique spacing between each key. Now, before we play our first chord, let me make it known that learning your scales will help you find your chords easier, but learning your scales is not imperative for learning chords. With that said, let’s start off with a major chord. Go to a piano, or keyboard equivalent, and push down any key you wish. That key that you push down is going to be your starting point, or in musical terms, the root   of your chord. The root is the first of three notes that make up a chord. I’ll push down a key as well so we can do this together. Now, starting from the root key, count up, or to the right, the next 4 keys you come across. You do not want to include your root key in your count, only use that as your starting point. Go to the key to the right of it and that’s the first key that you’ll count. When counting, you also want to be sure to include every key you come across,  both black keys and white keys. It is very important that you do not skip any keys in  between.


Once you’ve landed on your 4  key, that key is the second note of your chord. We’ll refer to that note as the 3rd  of the chord. rd  So far we have the root, and we have the 3  of the chord, leaving us one more rd  th note: the 5 . So now what you want to do is, using the 3  as your new starting point, just as you did with the root, you want to go to the next key, whether it be black or white, and this time count up 3 keys to get to your next and final destination. That final key you th land on will be referred to as the 5  of the chord.


Play those three keys together, and you have now played a major chord. The root, th the 3 , and the 5  make up every basic chord structure in music. The key I started this activity on was a C. Taking a look now back at my experience with this activity, I began with a C as my root, and then I counted 4 keys to the right: black key, white key, black rd  key, white key. The final white key I landed on was an E. So now, with the E as my 3 , th I counted up 3 keys to the right to get my 5 : white key, black key, white key. The final rd  th note I landed on this time was a G. So, if I play my root, 3 , and 5  together, or in other words, my C, E and G, I will play a major C chord. rd 

The name of this chord is C because the C key was my root. If you began this activity on a B, then you played a B Major chord, or if you began on a G-flat, you played a G-flat Major chord. The name of the chord is based on the root key.  Now let’s take a look at playing a minor chord. We’re going to begin this activity the same way we began the previous one, by picking any key and pressing that down. I would prefer that you use the same key that you used in the previous activity as your root,  just so you can hear the difference between a major chord and a minor chord built from

9 the same root, but if you choose to play on another key, that’s fine too. So start with your root, but for a minor chord, we’re going to switch the numbers. You’ll notice that to play rd  th a major chord, we used the spacing of 4 and 3 to get to our 3  and 5  of the chord, now rd  we’re going to use the reverse of that and count 3, then 4 to get our minor chord 3  and th 5 . From your root, count up in the exact same manner, 3 keys to the right, to find your rd  th 3 . From there, you then want to count up 4 keys to get your 5 . Play them all together and you have now played a minor chord.


Before starting this activity, I didn’t specify which hand to play these chords with, or which fingers to use because I wanted you to focus more on how to build the chord rather than worry about how to play the chord. There is a proper way to play these chords, in terms of which fingers to use to push down which keys, but my motto in  playing is do whatever you feel is most comfortable. If and when you decide that you want to enter piano competitions, then we’ll worry about the proper way, but for now, let’s just focus on being comfortable. There is one more component to these chords that I want to incorporate, and that’s the bass key. You will use the exact same procedure in finding a bass key to play for a major chord, as you will for finding a bass key to play for a minor chord. To play the chord and the bass key, I would prefer that you play the chord with your right hand and the bass with your left. Try to space your hands about shoulder length apart so that they are not fighting each other to play the same exact keys. To play the bass key with your chord is simple. Remember the root key you used to build your chord with? Well, whether major or minor, that key is also going to be your bass key, only lower on the  piano. If your root was a B, then your bass is also going to be a B to the left of your chord. In other words, you can pick any B that’s to the left of where you started, and there’s your bass key. For those unfamiliar with the letters of the keys on the piano  please refer to the examples on the following page:


Playing both your bass and your chord together, you have a complete major or minor chord, depending on which chord you chose to use for this example. Pick any key you want as your root, if you follow these methods I provided, you can play a complete major or a complete minor chord anywhere on the piano. Before moving on any further, I want to address something that may be confusing starting out, and that’s the labeling of sharps and flats. A piano has both black and white keys, the black keys being sharps and flats. You may be wondering, how do I know what to call it? Is it a sharp, or is it a flat? That’s a very good question. Your answer is relative to how you approach the black key. Let’s look at the model below:

Let’s say we’re looking at the C at the very bottom of the piano. You’ll notice that if you go to the right from that key, the very first key you run across is a black key, then a white. Well that black key, in relation to the C you started on, since you traveled

12 up the scale to reach it, or in other words, you traveled to the right, it is called a sharp. In music, moving up means you’re moving higher in pitch. The black keys also have names  just as the white keys do, but to figure out their names is a little different. Each black key is named by the key it directly follows. Beginning on the C, moving right to the black key, the black key is therefore called a C-sharp. Sharp because you traveled higher in  pitch, or to the right, to approach it, and C  because it directly follows the white key C when moving to the right in direction. If you continue going up the scale, which again means up or higher in pitch, you then come to a D, then another black key. This black key we’ve now come across, since we’re going higher in pitch, and it directly follows a D, is a D-sharp. Then we meet an E, then an F, F-sharp, G, G-sharp, A, A-sharp, B, and then we find ourselves back to a C. Remember, going up the piano, the black keys are referred to as sharps, and are named by whichever key they come directly after.

 Now let’s start from the opposite end of the piano, starting from the highest B key, and work our way down the scale. Coming down the scale, the black keys are referred to as flats and are given the name of the key they come directly after. Starting from the B, to the left of that is a black key. That black key, since we’re now moving down the scale, or in other words, to the left, is called a flat, and since it comes directly after a B when moving left in direction, it’s called a B-flat . Then we have an A, A-flat, G, G-flat, F, E, E-flat, D, D-flat, C, and then finally we end on B.


The black keys are called sharps when moving up the piano from left to right, and called flats when moving down the piano from right to left. Try testing yourself on these keys and see how quickly you can name the keys accurately. One thing I used to do when learning the names of keys, was I would close my eyes, press down any key, open my eyes, and then try to name the key as quickly as possible. Try to use the shape of the key that you press down, as well as its location, to your advantage in naming the key.  Now that you know the letters of the keys on the piano, as well as how to build a  basic major and minor chord, let’s move on to a few other chords you may find in trying to learn these songs by ear.


IV: Advanced Harmonies I will now introduce you to a few more chords that you just may find in the songs ths that you learn. There are three chords I want to teach you which will be referred to as 7 , diminished, and augmented chords. Just as we learned our major and minor chords in the last section by finding a starting key and counting from that key to our next destination, we will use that same approach to learn these chords as well. ths ths First let’s start with the 7 . 7  add a unique sound to any song, but may be some ths of the harder chords to figure out by ear. 7  can also be played in both major and minor ths th modes. There are three kinds of 7 that I will show you how to play: minor 7 , th th th th dominant 7 , and major 7 . To begin, we’ll start with a minor 7 . To play a minor 7 , rd  th  begin by playing any minor chord. Remember, our chord will have a root, a 3 , and a 5 . th To play a minor 7  chord, you’re simply going to add one more key to the minor chord th th that you already have, and that will be referred to as the 7 . To reach our 7 , we’ll start th with the 5  as our starting point, and in the same manner we did in the previous activities, th we’ll count up 3 consecutive keys. Remember not to include the 5  as the first key, but th  begin your count on the key to the right of the 5 . The third key that you land on will be th your 7 .


Play all four keys together and you have now played a minor 7  chord. If I were to conduct this activity starting from the key of C as I did in the previous section, my th minor 7  chord would be a C, E-flat, G, B-flat. th th Playing a dominant 7  and a major 7  are very similar in their structure. They th  both begin with a major chord. First let’s play a dominant 7  chord. To do this, start off th with any major chord. Now use your 5  as your starting point and count up three th rd  th consecutive keys. Your third key will be your 7 of the chord. Play the root, 3 , 5  and th th 7  together and you have played a dominant 7  chord.



 Now we’ll play a major 7  chord. To do this, just as you did with the dominant th 7 , again we’re going to start off with any major chord, but this time, rather than th th counting three keys up from our 5 , we’re going to count 4 keys up from our 5 . Putting rd  th th th this root, 3 , 5 , and 7  together, we have now played a major 7 chord. You may th notice that the major or minor mode of the 7  depends on the mode of the chord it’s built th th on. If you play a 7  on a minor chord, you are playing a minor 7  chord, and if you play th th th a 7  on a major chord, you are playing either a dominant 7  chord or a major 7  chord.

Before we begin playing songs, we’ll take a look at our last 2 chords: diminished and augmented chords. Diminished and augmented chords, although are not as common in songs as the 7ths may be, they still show up from time to time, so I felt it was important to show you how to build these two unique chords. Let’s start with a diminished chord. To build a diminished chord is simple. First rd  th you must pick your root. Then, count up three keys to find your 3 . For your 5 , count another 3 keys to your destination. Play these three keys together and you play a diminished chord.


17 An augmented chord is the exact opposite of a diminished chord. To build an augmented chord, you must first start with a root, and from there count up 4 keys to find rd  th your 3 . Then, you’ll count up another 4 keys to find your 5 . Playing those three keys together will give you an augmented chord. So recapping, the note spacing in a diminished chord is root, 3, 3, while the note spacing in an augmented chord is root, 4, 4.


Up until this point, we have covered, what I believe to be, all the basics necessary for learning how to play songs by ear. We’ve distinguished between melody and harmony, we’ve learned the letter names of the keys, and along with that, we’ve learned th how to build major, minor, 7 , diminished, and augmented chords. I encourage you to study and practice playing the material you’ve learned in the previous sections. Your experience with these harmonies, along with your ability to recognize them, will help you learn how to play songs quickly and easily. With your music knowledge, I have the greatest confidence in your ability to play by ear. So, let’s start playing!


V: Ready to Play Have you ever listened to songs within the same genre and noticed that some of them may have sounded very similar? If this thought has ever crossed your mind, you’re not alone in this observation, matter of fact, you’re probably right. Each genre of music contains its own characteristics that set it apart from other genres of music. A group of songs may fall into one genre but not another because of the lyrics of the songs, the images of the artists of the songs, and the chord progressions of the songs. As we mentioned earlier, a chord progression is the movement from one chord to the next. One thing you may want to note is not all chord progressions work well together, or in other words, not all chord progressions sound good when played with each other. I can play one chord in the middle of the piano, and then jump all the way down to the end of the piano and play another chord, and follow that by another chord played all the way at the top of the piano. Yes, that would technically be considered a chord  progression, but it wouldn’t be something you’d like to listen to. Chord progressions are used to support the melodies of songs, but to do this, you don’t need to necessarily include a lot of chords within the song. To be honest, most songs are just fine using as little as two or three chords throughout the course of the entire song. As you begin to  play, you’ll find that most songs use no more than 4 chords. Throughout the course of a song, the chords are played in patterns. To give you a better understanding of what I mean, we’ll take some of the typical and most commonly used chords used in the key of C major and label them with numbers. If a song is played in the key of C major, the most common chords you will hear in that song are chords made up of the letters C-E-G, F-A-C, G-B-D, and A-C-E.


Each chord that I just spelled out has a numeric value, based on its root, in relation to the key it’s in. As I mentioned, we are in the key of C, so that makes C our number 1. So a chord with a root of C will be called a 1 chord, since C is also the key we’re in. It can also be viewed as our home key. You would then simply number each corresponding letter of that scale, following C, its relative number. D would be 2, E would be 3, F is 4, G is 5, A is 6, B is 7, and then we start right back at C being 1.


It’s important to know that just because the C I ended my count on wasn’t the same exact C I started my count from, that fact doesn’t change its numeric value. In the key of C, any C would be considered a 1. Now, let’s build chords with different keys as our roots, keeping in mind their respective numerical values. So if a chord is built on an E, it would be considered a 3 chord in the key of C, simply because, in relation to C, E is the third letter you come across.

If we built a chord on D, that chord would be considered a 2 chord in the key of C, simply because, in relation to C, D is the second letter you come across. Looking back at the most commonly used chords in the key of C, I mentioned a chord with C as the root (C-E-G), a chord with F as the root (F-A-C), a chord with G as the root (G-B-D), and a chord with A as the root (A-C-E). Giving numeric values to these chords, the C-E-G would be considered the 1, the F-A-C would be considered the 4, the G-B-D would be considered the 5, and the A-C-E would be considered the 6. So recapping, the most commonly used chords in a major key are the 1 chord, 4 chord, 5 chord, and 6 chord. In music, the order in which these chords are played, or the patterns they’re played in, can come in different combinations. As you start playing, you’ll notice that chords are played in common patterns. Once you get to the point of noticing the patterns of the chords, the

22 chord progressions in songs will begin to be predictable to you, which is a good thing. If you can find yourself listening to a song on the radio and accurately predict which chord will follow another, then you’re in great shape because you’ll know how to play the chord progressions in your mind before you even reach for a piano. I now want to show you the technique I use in learning the songs I hear. We’ll  break this method down into two parts that work hand in hand. The first part we’re going to look at is a little method I like to call the “Stop and Go Method.” Executing the Stop and Go Method, or we’ll call it SGM for short, basically means that I use either my computer, or iPod to listen to a song in small sections in order to learn it. I use anything in which I can control the flow of the music, in terms of pressing play a nd pressing pause. Remember, I mentioned earlier that when starting out doing anything you’re new to, you always want to start slow, and then speed up as you get more comfortable with what you’re doing. The SGM is a perfect example of starting slow. The first thing I learn is the chord progression. The reason for this is because, compared to the melody, it’s the hardest thing to pick up seeing that you’re trying to listen for multiple pitches being played at the same time. The melody found in the lyrics is easier because it’s usually one pitch at a time, which to the piano interprets to one key at a time. When executing the SGM, I’ll start listening to the beginning of a song and  play a few seconds of it, just enough to hear the first chord, then I’ll stop the music immediately. What I want to accomplish by stopping the music right away is I want to stop the song while the chord is still in my head. If I’m listening for a chord, it’ll be a lot easier to find that chord when it’s the only thing playing in my mind, opposed to if I let the entire song play from start to finish, and the n try to think back to the very first chord I heard in the beginning of the song 3 minutes ago. Since we’re trying this method out for the first time, I’d suggest that if you can arrange it so that you’re listening to the song while trying to play it on a keyboard or piano at the same time, that arrangement would  be the best way. I stop the music so that I can focus in on the sound I heard last. Here’s where the other half of the learning process comes in: humming. I made mention to humming in the first section, here I’ll show you exactly how it works. When listening to the song, try to pick out the bass note and hum it. Continue to hum this note when you stop the music from playing. If you can’t find the note on your first try, don’t get discouraged. Simply start the song over and try again. Once you’ve successfully hummed the bass note, then try to match the note that you’re humming with its equivalent on the piano. Starting out, this may not come to you as easily, but keep at it, you’ll get better. The advantage of humming and finding the bass note first is, as mentioned in the previous section, usually the bass note is also the root note of the chord being played with it. Let me make it known that the bass note will not always be the root note, depending on the song you choose to learn, but I’d say a good 80% of the time, it is. So with that said, you can now use the process of elimination to figure out which chord is being played with that bass th note as the root. Is it a minor chord? A major chord? A 7  chord? Use trial and error to try and figure out the matching chord. Playing by ear utilizes a lot of trial and error, especially when starting out, so don’t get discouraged if you can’t find the chord right away. Replay the segment of music you initially started off with, and while the music is  playing, try playing your different chords to see which chord matches. Once you’ve found the right chord that fits the puzzle, then you can move on to the next. Let the

23 music play a little longer, then use the SGM to find the next bass note to help figure out your next chord. Continue to do this method until you’ve reached the end of the song, figuring out all the chords that are involved. Once you’ve worked your way through the entire song, focusing solely on the chords, then it’s time to learn the melody. The bass note is that which stands out to my ear the most, and along with that, as you may have noticed from a previous section, the bass note is very often the same as the root note. There are some exceptions where the bass note isn’t the same as the root note,  but a good majority of the time, the bass note and the root note are the same. So by finding the bass note on the piano, I can then find the root of the chord it’s being played with. And from the root, all I have to do then is figure out if the chord is a major chord or rd  th a minor chord, and then find its respective 3  and the 5  to go along with it. Before I get ahead of myself, let me take a few steps back and address a few things about the humming aspect of this process. Some may wonder when to begin humming. You can actually begin humming before you stop the song. I do that sometimes myself. I also find that this works better in some cases. Treat it like a sing along. When you hear the words to a song you love, you sing along with the artist, so why not hum along with him too? The truth of the matter is, it doesn’t really matter when you begin humming, in fact, as you get more experienced with playing by ear, you won’t need to hum at all, but since we’re starting off, we’ll incorporate this humming process. The bottom line is, all you want to be sure of is that you can pick out a note from the song, and match that note on your piano. The humming process allows you to be able to isolate notes from songs, as well as works on your ability to match those notes on the piano. As you continue to train your ear, you’ll begin to not only be able to hum the bass note, but there will come rd  th instances where you will actually be able to hum the 3 , and even the 5  of the chord as well; therefore, making it easier to find and match the accurate chord on the piano. Hum the melody of the original song and match it on the piano. Starting off, this  process could take a while, depending on how long the original song is and how fast the singer is singing. For some songs, this may require more SGM than others, but be  patient. Also keep in mind that you want to feel comfortable playing each part with one hand at a time, first, before you try and play them with both hands together. Once you’re comfortable, you can then pair up the melody with the chords of the song. Here is another moment where you should keep in mind that starting slow is the best ap proach. Usually what I would do is play the melody and the chords very slowly until I get to the  point where I’m comfortable enough to play them, together, and at the regular tempo. To do this takes time, especially when starting out, but don’t get discouraged. So recapping this section, we want to keep in mind to break the song up into sections (melody & chords) and to do that, rely on your humming ability to match up the sounds from the song with your piano.


VI: Making It Your Own Congratulations! You have now learned the letters of the keys on the piano, how to build chords, and how to train your ear to learn songs just by listening to them. Before I leave you, I want to give you a few last pointers which may help your creativity. When making my interpretations of songs on the piano, I try to add little elements here and there which may not necessarily be in the original song, but I feel they add uniqueness. One thing I use is dissonance. Dissonance is a combination of two or more notes which causes a painful or “rough” sensation to the ear. To hear an example of dissonance in comparison to its counterpart, consonance, go to your piano and play a C and a C-sharp at the same time. The sound these two notes produce is a dissonant sound. Now play a C and a G at the same time. That sound is a consonant sound. I also try to make sure that the rhythm of the song is displayed with my left hand in unique fashions. By utilizing and mastering these techniques, mixed with your own creativity, you’re bound to make  piano interpretations. You are now equipped with all that I feel is necessary to go out and be able to  play by ear. You have the knowledge, now you just have to go out and do it. Practice,  practice, practice and you’ll quickly see results. Above all, do not give up. I thank you for taking the time to read through my book and I hope you have benefited from it. Best of luck on your new adventure!

Works Cited Grove’s Dictionary of Music & Musicians Volume I. Ed. J.A. Fuller Maitland, M.A. F.S.H. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1908

The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians Volume III. Ed. Stanley Sadie. New York: MacMillan Publishers Limited, 2001

The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians Volume VII. Ed. Stanley Sadie. New York: MacMillan Publishers Limited, 2002

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