Playing by ear is a skill that can be learned. This could be likened to the skill of an artist who sketches what he or she sees. Learning to take what we hear and transfer it to a keyboard or other instrument takes some effort for musicians who aren’t able to do this intuitively. I’d like share some of factors that have been integral to my development of this skill.
#1 – I’ve developed a keen awareness of the sound of each pitch of the scale through the singing of many melodies with syllable names and numbers. While I’m learning a tune, I try to determine which pitches of the scale I’m singing or playing. Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers provided helpful insight in the following line from The Sound of Music, “When you know [and hear] the notes to sing, you can sing [play] most anything.” Thinking about the interval between pitches is also very helpful in playing by ear.
#2 – When I’m confident in playing the melody, I begin searching for chords that will support and enhance the melody.
#3 – A discipline that has proved to be foundational for continuing development is the playing of an ascending and descending scale in different keys, starting with basic chords.
#4 – The satisfaction that comes through increasing our vocabulary of chords is another significant factor in learning. After we’d laid a foundation of basic chords (I, IV and V) the harmonizing of the scale is enriched as we include minor (ii, iii, and vi), sequential chord progressions, secondary dominants, jazz chords, modal harmonies, and more. A key factor in learning is to discover the joy that comes through growing and creating.
#5 – Keeping the play instinct alive is important. Early stages of playing by ear by might seem like your grubbing around seeking pleasure, and that’s O.K . As you become more aware of recurring melodic and chord patterns, your grubbing could be described as informed grubbing.
To illustrate the above steps I selected the song, “April Showers,” a song I’ve wanted to have on my song list. I don’t have perfect pitch, so after I had sung the tune, I went to the piano to see what key I’d had chosen and found that the final pitch of the melody was G. Next, I located the beginning pitch, D which is down a 4th from G. Most of the pitches lie within the range of notes shown in Example Two.
As I played the melody I noticed how it leaps from D up a 5th to A, then up a 6th to B, and up a 7th to C and up an octave to D (see Example Two).
Along with the thinking of pitch, I was also aware of the number of beats in each measure and the rhythm of the starting pitch or pitches. The first downbeat falls on the word “showers” which is preceded by three pick up notes, also known as notes of anacrusis. This pattern of three eighth notes leading to the downbeat is used several times. Although you might already have an established vocabulary of chords, let’s start with the three basic chords which, in this key are G, C, and D (I, IV, and V). The beginning phrases can be played with just two chords, G and D (see Example Three).
The value of scale harmonization is obvious when applied to a melody like this with its upward scale-wise movement (see highlighted chords in Example Four).
There are other chords based on the G major scale that can be used to enhance the harmony (see Example Five). Two different chords are used on the word, “showers.” As the soprano pitch, A, is sustained it becomes the 5th of the D major chord. On the word, “flowers” the soprano pitch, C, is sustained and becomes the 7th of the D major chord.
In working with the chords in any key, it’s important to know the chords that are available (see Example Six). Upper case Roman numerals are used for the major chords, and lower case numerals denote the minor chords of the major scale. Roman numeral vii0 is a diminished chord.
A satisfying accompaniment for “April Showers” will require the use of minor chords and the alteration of these chords (see Example Seven). In measure 6 the pitch D on the word “raining” is the 7th of an E7 chord. The vi chord (Em) is altered by changing it to E major, which leads strongly to Am, the ii chord. Teachers of music theory call this the V7 of ii. I’m using the upper case numeral (VI) to indicate this alteration.
Another alteration can be seen in measure 8. The pitch B on the word “isn’t” is the 9th of an altered ii chord. The upper case numeral (II) denotes this change. This same chord appears in measure 15 on the word, “song.” In addition to being aware of bass pitches, it really helps to be aware of which chord tone is the melody. People with a natural gifting in playing by ear do this intuitively. However, each of can learn to hear the function of soprano pitches. When you find yourself hearing that a pitch of the melody is Sus4, or 9th, give yourself a pat on the back. The good Lord designed us to create and to grow. Enjoy the journey of life-long learning.
Written by Louis Silvers and lyrics by B.G. De Sylva
First published in 1921