How to learn music by ear: a step by step guide

supreme_lickster
Sep-13-2020

Learning music by ear is one of the most valuable skills you can develop as a musician. In this article, I will share with you my step-by-step procedure that will allow you to pick up any piece of music from a recording, reproduce it, and make it your own.



What is the best way to learn jazz improvisation, or music in general?

When you think about what “learning music” entails, you may find that there are several different approaches you can take. The musicians I have interacted with so far tend to fall in one of the three categories:

The scribe

The scribe is a visual type, who gains the most experience through interacting with music by reading and writing. As a consequence, the scribe is extremely comfortable learning tunes from sheet music.

The theorist

The theorist seeks to understand the inner workings of music from an academic perspective. The theorist learns best by analyzing each piece of music in terms of harmony, scales and modes.

The auditor

The auditor relies on active listening and ear training. The auditor picks up musical lines by listening to someone else playing, and by copying and experimenting on acquired musical vocabulary.

Which category do you fall in?

In reality, you are probably a mix of all three types. As you should be!

A well-rounded musical education should include a healthy amount of scribing, theory, and listening.

Let me rephrase the question then.

Which is your favorite way of learning music?

Out of the three choices above, my undisputed winner is the auditor.

In my opinion, getting comfortable with listening is the number one thing you should focus on, before you even try to learn any music theory at all.

Learning by ear is the most natural way of learning music

As an example, let’s listen to the simple and catchy theme of the 1960’s TV show “The Adams Family”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ5IWRz78DY?start=9

By far my favorite musical adaptation of this song is the one below, starring an exceptionally talented cockatiel who made it to YouTube fame for good reason:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dD_tPNYgy58?start=14

Adorable, isn’t he?

The bird seemed to have picked up the Adams Family theme with astounding precision. Granted, there is some room for improvement to get all the notes right, but the general pitch and most of the rhythm is spot on.

What kills me is that he even found a way to imitate the finger snapping!

Let’s take a moment and think about what this means.

Can the bird read and write sheet music?

Does he have an advanced degree in music theory?

Has he ever had a music lesson?

No, and no, and… maybe.

We must conclude that the bird learned the Adams Family theme entirely by ear.

He may not be a formally educated musician, but if nothing else, he is an excellent auditor. Call him a natural!

Just like birds, humans have an innate capability to pick up musical lines by ear.

I have previously drawn the parallels between learning music and learning to speak a language.

Music can be considered a form of language (sing me a song), and conversely, language can be considered a form of music (if you’re into rap).

Babies learn to say words not by reading and writing, not by studying grammar, but by listening to and imitating other people.

We all have this capability.

Thus, if you think you will never be able to learn music by ear, think again. You have done it before!

All it takes is to give your natural talent some attention, develop it gradually, and it will turn out to be extremely useful.

Learning music by ear is arguably the most powerful skill you can develop as a musician.

This is doubly true if you aim to learn jazz or any other form of improvised music, as your musical vocabulary will first and foremost be acquired through active listening.

To get you started, let me share with you a step-by-step exercise you can do to develop your listening skills and pick up melodic lines by ear:

1. Pick a short section of music

If you don’t yet have extensive experience with learning music by ear, I suggest you start with a simple tune.

Make sure you pick a tune that has a clearly recognizable melody line and try to avoid polyphonic pieces and thick clusters of chords.

Also, don’t try to deal with an entire piece at once, but pick a short section, I suggest 1-4 measures at a time.

Unless your brain is a supercomputer, you will find it a lot easier to learn a short phrase than a long one.

There’s a reason that the first words you learned as a child included “mama”, “no” or “bye-bye” and not “floccinaucinihilipilification” or “hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia”.

Keep it simple!

The Adams Family theme from above is a good example of a “manageable” tune to learn by ear.

2. Listen to the tune and pay close attention to the melody

Let’s pull up the Adams Family theme again and focus on the 4 bars with the title melody.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZZ5IWRz78DY?start=26&end=34

Try to follow the voice of the singer and focus on the melody. If you get distracted by the instrumentals in the background, try to ignore them and focus on the voice alone.

If it helps, lock yourself in a quiet room and wear headphones, so that you can focus 100% of your attention on the music.

After a while, your brain will learn to block out anything but the part you are interested in and want to learn, and you will “hear” the melody clearly in your head.

3. Practice singing the melody

Once you can “hear” the melody clearly in your head, try to sing it, or whistle it, or “whisper whistle” it like so:

lick[256,0]

You don't have to worry too much about articulating perfect notes here, the point is to create a mental image of the melody in your head.

Actually singing the melody will force you to pay close attention not only to the individual notes, but also to rhythm, accents and dynamics, and will imprint a precise “image” of the melody into your memory.

4. Practice playing the melody on your instrument

Once you can comfortably sing or whisper the tune, try to reproduce it on your instrument.

In step 3, you copied the melody from the original recording to your memory. In this step, the goal is to copy the melody from your memory to your instrument.

Like above, pay close attention to notes, rhythm, accents and dynamics, and try to get as close to the original as you possibly can.

It may take you several attempts to get this right. The key is to stay focused and hold yourself to a high standard of perfection.

5. Record yourself playing

This is the most important step of the exercise.

Have you ever listened to your voice in a video or audio recording?

It turns out to be extremely difficult to imagine your detailed speech mannerisms from an outside perspective. And you may notice that your voice sounds nothing like you thought it would.

The same is true if you play your instrument.

In fact, it is even more difficult to critically analyze your “instrumental mannerisms”, because at the time of playing, your mind is occupied with, well, playing your instrument.

Thus, the only way to check whether you really copied the melody faithfully is to get an outside perspective.

You could ask someone to listen and give you feedback, but it will be rather difficult for them to point out where and how exactly you messed up.

Recording yourself seems to be the perfect way to solve this problem.

Your recording will tell you precisely what you actually played on your instrument, and any mistakes you might have glossed over during playing will become blatantly obvious.

Here’s my piano rendition of the Adams Family theme:

lick[257,0]

Your recordings also double as your collection of musical vocabulary. Keep them in a safe place so that you can refer back to them later.

One place to safely store your recordings is right here on the LickStack. Just create an account and use the lick upload form.

6. Compare your recording to the original recording

This is the moment of truth.

The goal here is to check if you made any errors while copying the melody from the original recording to your memory and then to your instrument.

One after the other, listen again to the original recording of the melody and to your instrumental version.

And once again, pay attention to notes, rhythm, accents and dynamics.

I am very confident that I have outdone the bird, but I am also sure that I could get closer to the original if I tried harder. It is up to you how strict you want to be with yourself.

If you feel like your playing matches the original recording well, then congratulations! You have successfully learned to play a melody by ear, and you may move on to the next melody, maybe a more challenging one.

If for some reason you are not satisfied with the result, you can simply go back to step 2 and repeat the exercise. It will get easier and faster every time you repeat it.

What next?

The six steps above outline an exercise to practice learning music by ear.

Apart from an ear training exercise, this is also an excellent way to pick up musical vocabulary. Once you have learned a theme like the Adams Family theme above, you can start making it your own by coming up with variations.

Here is a variation of the Adams Family theme:

lick[258,0]

And here is another one:

lick[259,0]

Can you come up with yet another variation?

Try to develop the skill of creating variations too. It will serve you well during improvisation. Once you feel comfortable with a piece of musical vocabulary, you are ready to use it in your improvised solo, like so:

lick[260,0]

If you keep developing your active listening skills. You will one day be able to pick up musical lines in real time.

This is the ultimate goal, as it makes playing in a group a lot more interesting.

Once you reach a certain level of proficiency, you can easily pick up a few lines from whichever standard you are playing, or you can pick up a few patterns from whoever had a solo before you, and when your turn to solo comes around you will already have some material ready to work with.

To reiterate: There are several aspects to learning music, all of which are important. Reading and writing is helpful, a basic understanding of music theory is helpful, but active listening skills are key.

Listen and learn. Be like the bird.


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The Adams Family theme.
"Whisper-whistle"

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The Adams Family theme

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The Adams Family theme variation

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The Adams Family theme variation

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The Adams Family theme jazz variation


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Ice | 2 months, 1 week ago | 1 response
I learned piano to grade 1 when I was about 10, so I can read music but I don't. I play sax entirely by ear, I don't know what the notes are. I use the chords to play jazz piano, but melodies and improvisation by ear. I lead a few small groups and I run several jam sessions, one of them specifically for less experienced players. Almost nobody in my bands or in the jams plays by ear. Nobody seems to teach ear playing, or tell learners that it is necessary to play jazz. I guess that's partly because ear playing is something you have to do for yourself. I very much agree with what you say in your article. I say to people that learning by ear is a natural human (and parrot!) ability: people learn to sing hymns, or pop songs, or the tribe's chants, without needing written music or theory. I'll be directing people to your article. Thanks.
supreme_lickster - 2 months, 1 week ago:
You are definitely an auditor type! I also feel that ear training is not as "mainstream" as it should be, and I had to figure out how to do this entirely on my own. But ear training isn't necessarily something you have to do by yourself. I think you have a golden opportunity being part of several groups and jam sessions. You could propose a short warm-up exercise where you all listen to each other. Someone plays a musical theme and everyone tries to repeat it. Or how about focusing on "call and response" when you trade 4s or whatever? There are many exercises you could think of as a group, all of which I imagine would be fun and useful to make the group "think" more as a group. Thanks for spreading the word about this article. I hope it will be helpful to others, too!

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