Playing “By Ear”

“The ear, once stretched by a new sound, never returns to its original limitations.”

This blog marks a new direction for me; I have decided that rather than blather on with my “opinions” (and piss people off—I tend to be just a bit passionate about the banjo!), I would concentrate on actual “facts”—my learned/experienced observations in the form of mini banjo/music lessons. This is of course in the hopes that you may decide to study with me at some point (in person or via Skype). My last blog, A Tale of Two Musicians, got some good responses, so I thought I would follow along in that vein.

Since “playing by ear” was the only choice I had in my youth (having been a non-reading, “un-learned” musician), I’ll start with an expansion on the “natural” side of things, and how to develop/improve your music-hearing/ear-playing skills.

Simplified explanation: If you dont hear music in your head (or don’t know what it is you’re hearing), you’ve got to figure out how to get it in there! Complicated reality: This is easier said than done! There are things you can do to achieve/ improve this, but it may mean a lot of extra work. Just being aware that you don’t hear music in your head (or at least don’t know what you’re hearing) is an important step in the right direction. Think about it: What do you listen for in music, if you don’t know what to listen for? “Ear training” is the answer! You can literally train your ear to hear the elements of music, and at the same time learn about those elements; they are the key to hearing and understanding music.

For example, if you don’t know what a “perfect 5th” is and/or simply can’t hear it, then train yourself to hear it and to know what it is (and yes, it’s a very important thing to know)! Listen to an example of a P5 over and over again while looking at the music, and play it ad-nauseum, until you recognize the sound and look of it, can sing it in all keys, and can distinguish it from all the other intervals. While it is fairly easy to learn how to strum along to three-chord songs, becoming a better musician requires a bit more work. I have no magic wand—nor does anyone else.

How seriously do I take intervals? So seriously that I would take the time to sequence them on my computer—with a lovely computerized banjo sound no less—so you have examples to listen to and play along with! You’ll find them on this blog site, under the Technique tab, in a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Ear-Training Lesson #1” (you may have to download it to play the midi files). You’ll also find the “Perfect 4th” (the natural companion to—and “inversion” of—the Perfect 5th), and the “Tri-Tone” (augmented 4th/diminished 5th—the dreaded “Devil’s Interval,” actually “outlawed” in the Dark Ages), which just happens to be the most important interval in our music (more on this in my next lesson). Learning to hear, sing, and play these three intervals is a major step in learning to hear and understand music.

Don’t be scared by these big words; you will be shocked by how easy this is! I even show you how to play them (on plectrum/5-string and tenor—only two working fingers required!) so you can provide the ear-training examples yourself. I’m being so flip about this because many folks have themselves convinced that they “just can’t understand concepts like this,” so why even try? I’m here to tell you that you can learn this (or your money back if I’m proven wrong)!

The next important concept to learn about is the Circle of Keys. You may have heard it called the Circle or 5ths or even 4ths; I prefer Circle of Keys—same thing. I won’t try to explain the concept in detail here; just know that it is—among many other things—a mathematical chart of how our music “progresses” (as in Chord Progressions). Think of the chord progression to Five Foot Two in the key of C: C-E7-A7-D7-G7-C. That is the classic example of the Circle at work, and is how I was first introduced to the concept. Look at the Circle in the PowerPoint presentation and see if you can find the logic (and the chord progressions in all other keys). I also show you how to “play the circle” (on plectrum/5-string and tenor) so you can hear it yourself; ideally, you should be able to sing along with it—and eventually sing it accurately without accompaniment.

“What’s that you say; singing?”  Why yes, I have said that a few times—thank you for noticing! The voice is the most important and natural instrument of all—and unfortunately, the most neglected. Hum a note—any note—to yourself right now. If you did it, did you look around first to see if anyone might be within earshot? Heaven forbid we let anyone hear how terrible we are. . . In my experience, a majority of musicians believe they can’t sing, so they don’t (and wouldn’t be caught dead doing it!). It is also my experience that those who can play by ear almost invariably can sing, or at least are not afraid to! Do you see the connection? More importantly, do you see what you’re missing?

So go ahead and hum that pitch; those vibrations you feel are literally musical vibrations. There is no more direct way to hear/feel them then by using your own voice to sing/vibrate within your own head. I’m not talking about professional- level singing here! I’m talking about being able to match a pitch and sing intervals. If you can’t match a pitch, then train your voice to do so. Can you talk? Then you are trainable! I would be glad to meet with you and see if there is hope for you; stop telling yourself you can’t and let a trained/experienced professional determine if you can or can’t! If you can’t sing pitches, how do you expect to learn to hear them? I hope I have emphasized this enough! So if you didn’t sing with the intervals before, do it now.

One of my favorite quotes: “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Paraphrased by me to fit this subject: “The ear, once stretched by a new sound, never returns to its original limitations.”

Anyway, back to the Circle of Keys progression: Singing along with the exercise— and eventually being able to sing it without accompaniment—is one of the very best ear-training exercises you can do. In my next lesson, I will show you how to combine this with a 7th chord exercise that will blow your mind, and cause you to hear music in a way you never could before.

Remember, the whole point of these exercises is to learn to hear music and play by ear. Like I said earlier; what do you listen for in music, if you don’t know what to listen for? I know music theory can be a dull and boring subject, but if knowledge improves your playing—and it will—then how can it possibly be dull or boring?

Plus, being able to hear “deeper” into the music will make it all the more enjoyable to listen to. You might even begin to understand why many of us who can hear music cannot stand shallow pop music; 10 seconds in, and everything that the song is going to say has been said, leaving “it’s got a beat and I can dance to it.” In my opinion, this pretty much sums up today’s American Pop-Culture music “education” system—not that good teachers don’t try, just that many schools/communities don’t support the Arts and/or it’s teachers sufficiently—especially at the elementary school age, where it’s easiest to learn to hear music. Many of you know firsthand what it’s like not getting enough music at that impressionable age; it cheats you for the rest of your life, and it means a lot of extra work as an adult who wants to become a musician (unless you just happen to be naturally “gifted”).

As I said, I hope you will choose to study with me at some point, but to be perfectly honest, I would be overjoyed to see you study with anybody! I take banjo improvement very seriously (can you tell?), and I think you should too; the better you play, the better the banjo as a whole is presented to the general public. The better perception they have of the banjo, the more interest there may be in learning to play; the more interest there is, the more work all banjo teachers will have, and the more chance the four-string banjo has of surviving into the future! As an extension of this plea, I would ask that you help us working professionals (many of whom have no other source of income) afford to continue playing by buying our CDs and/or books! You will help the “banjo economy” by doing so (which will help us all —including yourself!), and encourage us to do more.

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