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Learning to Play By Ear


The benefits of learning to play by ear

Learning to play music by ear is one of the most rewarding skills any musician can learn. Unfortunately, many music educators neglect this critical area in their teaching. But, with the right approach and a bit of patience, even beginner music students can learn the skill. Let’s explore some of the benefits of learning to play music by ear and where to go from there.

Learning to play music by ear incorporates many essential music skills into one exercise. A more advanced student will use their knowledge of intervals, chord theory, and scale theory to decipher a musical passage. In contrast, beginner students will be rewarded with a greater knowledge of music theory, helping solidify future lessons.

Furthermore, learning to play music by ear can benefit any musician’s improvisational skills, better equipping them to explore music with other musicians. And considering that playing by ear becomes easier the more it is practiced, it’s a worthy discipline for all musicians.


Work on small sections, one by one

Music students can choose any piece of music to start. Beyond their favorite songs, they can explore TV and video game music, classical music performances, YouTube clips of famous musicians, and countless other sources. The important thing is to work in small sections. Even a short four-bar phrase is a great place to start. Once they’ve deciphered a small piece of the music, the rest of the pieces will fall into place more easily.


Identify the key

For most budding musicians, learning to play by ear feels anywhere from somewhat uncomfortable to downright impossible. That’s because they often start at the first note and try to keep up. That can quickly overwhelm them. A better place to start is to find the key, or root, of the musical passage. Even if they’re only learning to play a two-bar phrase, this offers insight into which notes are in play.

Remind them, that it’s not crucial to identify the key by ear alone. Have them explore the notes on their instrument, use their ears, and trust their musicianship. They’ll find the key in no time, and once they’ve identified the key, the chord progression and melody are ready to unveil themselves.


Integrate intervals, chords, and scales

With western music styles, there are only 12 notes, and only seven of those notes are most relevant to any given key. With that in mind, intermediate and advanced students can apply their knowledge of chord and scale theory to work out the piece’s progression and melodies, and beginner students can use their ear-learning exercises to supplement their first lessons in chords and scales. It gives them a real-world application for basic music theory.


Understand the value

As soon as a musician can conjure sounds from their instrument, learning to play short musical phrases by ear is one of the most valuable skills you can teach them. After all, learning to mimic sounds is how we learn language as young children. The same applies to the language of music.

The key is to keep it fun, be patient, and understand that it becomes easier to play music by ear the more they practice. Tell your students to keep at it, and they’ll find their musicianship blossoming in ways they did not expect.

Paul Kobylensky The New Rockstar LLC. Music industry content creator and copywriter

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