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playing melodies by ear

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I just had a piano lesson with a focus on playing by ear. We talked about how singing by ear and playing by ear are very different as one can use theory when playing piano by ear (or accordion). Singing is less theoretical even if we use the same inner/internal ear. Also, when I play by ear I think a lot about harmony. If I hear eg A-C-F I can hear the notes a chord as they sounds harmonius together. I guess singers focus on harmony as well.
Do you use theory and harmony when playing melodies by ear?
And are piano and accordion teachers taught how to teach people how to play music by ear or do their education focus more on how to teach technique? If a parent can help their child/children learn to speak why wouldn't a person who can play by ear be able to help a student play by ear even if it wasn't a part of their education (when studying to become teacher)?

We focused on this tune: 5992243525_8dd093862b_n.jpg
My teacher say that this could be written as alla breve. I thought alla breve made the song slower. This is not a slow song at all. I guess it depends on if you want to feel the bass notes which would bassically only be two per bar. What do you think?
 
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Jim2010

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On the simplest level, if we think of a voice and an instrument as being "equivalent" (things that can produce sounds), learning to sing (by ear) and learning to play a single line melody on a piano (by ear) would be essentially the same process. A child hears all kinds of sounds (words, songs, sounds of cars, birds, etc.) and experiments trying to reproduce them using their voice. Similarly. a child can hear melodies played on a piano and experiment trying to reproduce them on the piano. Once the method of reproducing the sound is discovered through experimentation, it is just a matter of remembering how to repeat the desired sound. Most of us are better at reproducing sounds with our voices than we are on musical instruments. I think that is partly due to our listening to and talking with people 16 hours a day, every day of our lives, whereas we only spend a relatively short time each day with an instrument.
Music theory is part of the remembering-how-to-reproduce/how-to-recognize process, not the hearing process.
A child can hear a melody of three notes and walk over to a piano and figure out how to reproduce the melody by simply playing various notes until they find the right ones. They don't need to know that the three notes form a second inversion major triad. But after they have learned how to reproduce the melody, knowing that the notes form a second inversion major triad might help them remember how to do it and how to recognize it if they hear a matching pattern again at a later date.
 

Tom

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"If a parent can help their child/children learn to speak why wouldn't a person who can play by ear be able to help a student play by ear even if it wasn't a part of their education (when studying to become teacher)?"

I don't think it matters so much that the teacher can play by ear, but how good a teacher they are. I see no reason that teaching to play by ear can't be taught by a competent teacher, teaching someone with the (future) ability to play by ear. As our friend Paul says, not everyone can learn everything.
 

jozz

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nb. alla breve in my mind doubles the tempo

i will be taking piano lessons shortly, so i'm happy to follow up what's going to be method
 

donn

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Do you use theory and harmony when playing melodies by ear?

Maybe, but I don't know if we mean the same thing. I know what key I'm playing it in, where that key is for my left hand. I don't really think of that as "theory", but I suppose one could call it a key signature and voilá. I'd say that at the point where it might seem to diverge from the bare necessities of getting the tune together, then no, I don't use theory so much.

For example ... recently here someone brought up "Return to Sorrento", an old Neapolitan song that I liked enough that I was moved to try to pick it up. Or the part of it I liked anyway. Well, there are a couple excursions from the most common form. One being the switch from minor to major, which was easy to hear as such. The other is when towards the end of the major part, it runs outside that key for a couple notes. Not the first tune I've learned with such a device, but naturally it's a lot easier to find the chord you hear, when it's one of the 7 roots in your key. I don't remember for sure how I found it, likely I listened to it a few times and tried to sing the root, located that pitch on a keyboard, and then found it on the left side - but if I did it that way, I didn't retain the name of the root or its relation to the key, I just know roughly where to find it (all too roughly, I'm afraid.) Nor do I know anything about the key change that's implied here, but it isn't uncommon at all in more compositional western music, and maybe if I were better informed about such things they'd be less of a head scratcher when I encounter them.

My teacher say that this could be written as alla breve.

I had to look it up; I normally call this "in two", or "cut time." It's about how many significant beats there are in the measure - nothing to do with how fast. It's important to the feel of the tune, I think it's a sort of common failing of amateur musicians who will play a lot of tunes in common time that should be cut time. So it's nice to have words to speak about this with others, but of course everyone has to understand it at the level of how it feels, not just ... as theory. That's a real problem, and it's just as well to communicate the feel directly as well, by demonstration.
 

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Maybe, but I don't know if we mean the same thing.
I think by theory, we mean being able to recognize and name patterns in music.

So it's nice to have words to speak about this with others, but of course everyone has to understand it at the level of how it feels, not just ... as theory.
Yes, the terminology is nice to have but not as important as hearing and feeling the patterns. I now know the chord progression in a bossa nova is a minor 2-5-1 and the weird chord is half-diminished but I learned to expect it and worked out two ways to play it before I knew what it was called.

Do you use theory and harmony when playing melodies by ear?
I find theory most valuable when working out the chords of the song by ear—not a skill that every accordionist needs but it’s something I enjoy. The Stradella bass system is really helpful for learning about how chords relate to each other and being able to feel the movement from tonic to V IV and vi chords has improved my ability to hear chord changes.

When playing melodies by ear, I'm not always aware what key signature or chords or notes are being used, but taking the time to identify the key signature and do some scale and arpeggio warmups can mean less trial and error
 
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"If a parent can help their child/children learn to speak why wouldn't a person who can play by ear be able to help a student play by ear even if it wasn't a part of their education (when studying to become teacher)?"

I don't think it matters so much that the teacher can play by ear, but how good a teacher they are. I see no reason that teaching to play by ear can't be taught by a competent teacher, teaching someone with the (future) ability to play by ear. As our friend Paul says, not everyone can learn everything.
What I ment was that parents who have no education in teaching infants to speak can help infants to speak (at least their own kid(s)). I was thinking that even if a teacher had no specific education in teaching a person to find out the notes by ear he/she should be able to help a person. Do we really need to care about a teacher's education. I mean, isn't it more important how patient a teacher can be more important? My teacher needed to be very patient with me when he helped me play Helan går by ear. I really only knew the first three notes and the last note of the tune before. What do you think?

What I often hear is this "If you want to play accordion or piano by ear sing the melody first" and I think to myself "so I need to be a good singer before playing an instrument by ear? Is this even that important".
Why do people even say this? I often try learning to sing (I am also a singer) a melody and play it on an instrument at the same time.
 

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What I ment was that parents who have no education in teaching infants to speak can help infants to speak (at least their own kid(s)). I was thinking that even if a teacher had no specific education in teaching a person to find out the notes by ear he/she should be able to help a person. Do we really need to care about a teacher's education. I mean, isn't it more important how patient a teacher can be more important? My teacher needed to be very patient with me when he helped me play Helan går by ear. I really only knew the first three notes and the last note of the tune before. What do you think?

What I often hear is this "If you want to play accordion or piano by ear sing the melody first" and I think to myself "so I need to be a good singer before playing an instrument by ear? Is this even that important".
Why do people even say this? I often try learning to sing (I am also a singer) a melody and play it on an instrument at the same time.
Hi Dan,

Let's say it's "helpful" (rather than "necessary") to have the melody in your mind when learning the song by ear. If I'm playing a traditional song that I've heard all my life, it's there. If I'm learning a new song, especially one I've never heard, it definitely helps me to take the time to be able to "sing" it, even if internally. I am not a good singer. As far as teaching goes, I agree with you, patiance and experience can be more helpful than education. Good luck with your playing!
 
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Hi Dan,

Let's say it's "helpful" (rather than "necessary") to have the melody in your mind when learning the song by ear. If I'm playing a traditional song that I've heard all my life, it's there. If I'm learning a new song, especially one I've never heard, it definitely helps me to take the time to be able to "sing" it, even if internally. I am not a good singer. As far as teaching goes, I agree with you, patiance and experience can be more helpful than education. Good luck with your playing!
do you sing the melody even if you have difficulties with singing? What I have found as a singer is that much of the ability people have with singing a melody is more from "muscle memory" and technique rather than having a good inner ear. So I don't think singing a melody is always that helpful.
 

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do you sing the melody even if you have difficulties with singing? What I have found as a singer is that much of the ability people have with singing a melody is more from "muscle memory" and technique rather than having a good inner ear. So I don't think singing a melody is always that helpful.
Yes, even though I don't consider myself a "good" singer, I sing for myself (mostly in my mind) and at my events, which are generally in situations where energy, audience connection, and showing up are more important than ability. Interestingly enough, I feel my singing has improved from playing and performing with my accordion.
 

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As I think about this, most of what I play are songs with lyrics, so the melody is really the words. For a song without lyrics, I will "sing" the melody internally and find this very helpful in learning the tune on my accordion. Just my experience, certainly everyone's path is different.
 

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I didn't expect the question of whether we're good singers to come up exactly this way. To me, that's about things like breath control and coordination in the muscles that control tone production ... clearly irrelevant, right?

I just tend to assume that most everyone possesses some ability to produce musical sound. Hum, whistle, sing, whatever. It doesn't matter if you've cultivated those skills, but here our "play by ear" faculty comes to the surface. That matters because I believe some people think they can play music but can't play by ear - when obviously they can, because they can hum a tune.

What it seems like we're talking about now, is strategies for learning by ear, which is of course part of the deal, but ... somewhat at the margin of competence, right? I mean, if your ear playing is perfect, singing won't add anything here, but maybe for most of us it does. I can imagine that the more reliably you can sustain pitches and hit intervals, the more useful it's going to be, but there's also rhythm/meter. At any rate, it certainly isn't so necessary that it's some kind of rule - you can sing your way to learning a tune, but you sure don't have to.

Whether singing might help in performance, probably that's quite rare with the accordion, but I can think of a well known pianist, so maybe not impossible. The example that really comes to mind is a bass player of the '40s, who may have just cultivated that ability as a performance gimmick, but I've given it a try and it's interesting, felt like it might help avoid mistakes, by more fully engaging my musical faculties and crowding out other mental activity.
 

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What I often hear is this "If you want to play accordion or piano by ear sing the melody first" and I think to myself "so I need to be a good singer before playing an instrument by ear? Is this even that important".
No! You do not need to sing with good tone and intonation, you are just checking whether you are playing the correct note. Humming, or "hearing" the phrase in your inner ear would also work.

Learning music by ear involves a lot of trial and error. Listen, play, adjust. Listen, play, adjust.
You can do this phrase by phrase with a recording or a patient teacher, but if you start with a tune that you know well enough to sing, or listen to a recording many times before attempting to play it, you can rely on your memory to test yourself. Sing or hum, play, adjust.

In my experience, it is much easier to play a familiar tune (children's songs, video game music, songs I like to sing along to when they play on the radio) by ear than something I've never heard before.
 
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What an interesting question!

I just had a piano lesson with a focus on playing by ear.
I never had such a lesson, not one explicitly called that, anyway, on any of violin, piano, or accordion - from a dozen different teachers across four decades.
Far as I knew, it was one of those things you either did-or-didn't-do, but couldn't really be taught, though you can get better at it by practicing it.
[Edited to add: now, there IS usually a companion class to music theory for freshmen and sophomores called 'ear training', which is equal parts taking melodic dictation and learning to sing back what you've written. But in my limited experience with it -- I wasn't a music major -- a) you didn't do it with your instrument, you did it sitting in the theory classroom and b) it was all about correctly writing it down and then about correctly singing what was written, which is quite different than playing, or singing, by ear.]

Do you use theory and harmony when playing melodies by ear?

Yes. I have to. Before I studied a lot of music theory, I had no ability whatsoever in that direction. Afterward, I knew enough of what patterns were likely to be present that the range of possibilities was much reduced (assuming a simple tonal piece) and I was reasonably likely to be able to identify the next note in sequence in two or three tries.

When I compose, I hear an idea in my head, but don't know what the note-names, or most of the intervals, are. I write it down on unlined paper to see the contours of it, then take a stab at what I think the harmony is, then at what notes I think the melody had. It can take some hours, and of course where I finish is not necessarily the same place I started.
When I try to write down someone else's idea, the process is the same, but I don't have the advantage of hearing it in my head and I can't change it if I find something different that I like better partway through. Heh.

Re the analogy to children learning how to speak - a person who knows how to play by ear can certainly play a Simon-says type of game with a student and see if the student gets better at it with time... maybe if you do that young enough and often enough that's how playing by ear becomes a habit... but I don't know whether that's how people try to teach playing by ear to older students, or if there is some method behind the madness. (Maybe that really is the only way people are taught to play ear, and that's why I've never seen anyone teaching a roomful of otherwise-experienced adults how to do it.)

Re Suzuki:

I wouldn't assume that just because learning by ear came up, this is a Suzuki teacher - nor that Suzuki method is entirely about learning by ear.

Suzuki did start with the idea that people could learn to play before they could read music, in the same manner as they learn to speak before they could read words. (As it happens, I started violin, by Suzuki method, before I could read.) Perhaps some students do learn entirely by listening to their teachers and imitating the finger placements and bow movements. As it happens, we always had the music in front of us, and it was more a matter of me learning to equate a note on the page with a finger placement, even if I didn't know its name, and seeing the pattern of notes as a reminder of the pattern of movements I was supposed to memorize -- so I learned to read music before I could read English. After working through about 2 books of Suzuki I had some ability to sight-read new music from the printed page. Ten years of it did nothing to teach me anything about playing music by ear that I had never seen written down.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But I've known some number of Suzuki and non-Suzuki musicians, and some number who could improvise and play by ear and some who couldn't, and not noticed a correlation. (The pattern I did notice was that most of us who focused on classical for many years were spectacularly bad at improvisation and playing by ear, compared to even a relative beginner in a jazz or folk band.)
 
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I think singing is a lot about "muscle memory". People who sing often just sing along to a melody and the use "muscle memory" when they sing it without the melody being played. They use very little "inner ear". Professional singers use "inner ear" because they practiced it.
This is the reason why I don't think singing helps much.
 

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I think singing is a lot about "muscle memory". People who sing often just sing along to a melody and the use "muscle memory" when they sing it without the melody being played. They use very little "inner ear". Professional singers use "inner ear" because they practiced it.
This is the reason why I don't think singing helps much.
It seems unlikely to me that this "muscle memory" feat could even be done, but at least hypothetically, if you had sung a tune enough to do it by muscle memory, you sure wouldn't need to sing it, to learn it on the accordion.
 

TomBR

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The great Shetland traditional (folk) fiddle player, teacher, and composer Tom Anderson said "you should never learn a tune you don't know!"
This was a joke with a serious side. What he meant was that to be able to play (reproduce) a tune you needed to be able to "sing" it or imagine the tune in your mind before you try to play it on an instrument.
To me that makes sense. I don't actually see how you could learn a tune without that?
 

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The great Shetland traditional (folk) fiddle player, teacher, and composer Tom Anderson said "you should never learn a tune you don't know!"
This was a joke with a serious side. What he meant was that to be able to play (reproduce) a tune you needed to be able to "sing" it or imagine the tune in your mind before you try to play it on an instrument.
To me that makes sense. I don't actually see how you could learn a tune without that?

I think he's probably right for a conductor, or for a soloist tackling a complicated piece. And perhaps by "learn a tune" he means to deliberately exclude sight-reading (or he comes from a tradition where people never play with the music in front of them.)

But there are at least two alternatives that come to my mind. The first is that once one gets sufficiently good at sight-reading, one needn't "learn" a piece at all, even to perform it, provided the piece sticks to well-trodden territory. This is sort of like being a newscaster reading a teleprompter. When I played violin in a very good amateur symphony, for a 'real' concert we had at least 4 rehearsals and some weeks to practice-- but for our annual night of Strauss waltzes we got given the music the night before and didn't even play all through all of it at our one rehearsal.) There are professional outfits, especially for recording sound tracks rather than live performances, that play almost everything on about 0.5 rehearsals.

The second is that you don't necessarily have to imagine the sound. You could approach it more like learning the steps of a line dance, just memorizing a series of motions without thinking too much about what it's going to sound like. I don't think I actually know anyone who approaches music in quite that way, at least not all the time. Perhaps people who ring church bells in sequence approach the ropes that way. Writing music with the help of a computer is sometimes like that, if the software is sufficiently bad.
 

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