The Mystery of Playing by Ear

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Playing by ear is a term used to describe the musician’s ability to improvise a melody or a melody coordinated through a series of chords. To some it is a mystery and to others, it comes natural. What abilities do musicians have when performing music by ear? Can this ability be learned and is it important?

First let’s discuss what playing by ear really means.

1. To perform by ear requires an ability to function on an instrument which is capable of reproducing the desired pitch.

2. This series of pitches need to be placed in a proper order so that a melody or improvised series of notes correspond to that melody and the series of chords it is played with.

3. In addition to the proper pitches, the player must also time the performance of each note at the correct time in the sequence.

4. All of these requirements must be executed at the discretion of the performer as an instantaneous response to the music at that moment.

Sounds pretty cool, yes?

When listening to such great musicians who played by ear, the names Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Hendrix, J. S. Bach come to mind. Each had the ability to create magnificent performances on their instrument at any moment, each performance would be equally great and each performance was different from the last. In order to explain how musicians are able to play by ear, several factors come into play.

1. The musician and his/her instrument must be in one with each other.

If you struggle with the technical side of your musicianship, you will never be able to play by ear.

2. The musician is connected to his/her instrument through practiced responses.

Trumpet players, feel the notes before they play them in their fingers.

Trombone players feel the slide position in their arm before they play the note.

Piano players feel it in their fingers and singers feel it in their throat.

3. The musician has a strong center focus to the pitch of each note.

If you are tone deaf, you will never learn to play by ear.

Some may ask; can playing by ear be learned? Yes! Re-read the material above and realize that some are born with this ability and others must develop it through time and practice.

When I say that some are born with all of the above requirements (other than learning the technical side of your instrument), I need to mention that the very proficient are many times blessed with perfect pitch which makes the learning process infinitely easier and faster.

A very good example of a person who is a fine musician, able to play by ear with ease, is a friend who I visited with early this morning. He plays great Dixieland Trombone and can repeat from memory hundreds of Dixieland recordings note for note. Each tune we played, he locked in instantly on the melody and played with great confidence. As an experiment, I asked him to play one of his best licks but this time up one step. His expression was that of a completely bewildered individual. He painfully moved his slide up and down trying to get the “feel” of the correct slide position. He had no idea which position to begin on. This is a perfect example of a person who has a great ear and is able to recognize and repeat every note from the records but because of a limited degree of technical ability, the “feel” was of no use.

Playing by ear requires the ability to recognize all pitches, convert those pitches to a action through one’s motor responses and complete the cycle by making the appropriate movement in the slide, valve or piano key.

If you would like to improve your ability to play by ear, there are things you can do to make this happen to some degree.

1. Learn all there is to know about your instrument.

2. Play along with recordings every day.

3. Memorize solos played by other great musicians.

4. Begin to develop the “feel” in your fingers as you listen to music of any kind.

5. Listen to music and try to repeat small phrases as they are being performed.

6. Sing a series of notes and try to repeat them with your instrument.

Some may ask, “How long will I have to do this until I am able to play by ear”?

My response would be, “How gifted are you”?

Bruce was a member of the faculty at the University of Northern Iowa, School of Music in Cedar Falls from 1969 until his retirement in 1999. He has performed with many well-known entertainers such as Bob Hope, Jim Nabors, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Anita Bryant, Carman Cavalara, Victor Borgie, the Four Freshman, Blackstone the Magician, Bobby Vinton and John Davidson.

2 thoughts on “The Mystery of Playing by Ear

  1. Anonymous

    Thanks! This will surely help me improve!

    • Bruce Chidester

      I do hope so and thanks for visiting our site.

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