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Learning to Play By Ear

 
"When bands write great songs using just 'three chords and an attitude', it makes your job a lot easier"
 
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So perhaps you've learned your basic chords or scales on your respective instrument. You've been working on your technique, and it's starting to come together. There's a couple of songs that you like to play and they sound OK. When you play your axe, you're starting to get a feel for when it's really in tune. What now?

I cannot stress enough the importance of being able to play by ear. Everything that you've ever heard anyone play on your instrument is at your disposal - you just have to figure it out. Learning how to play tunes or instrument parts using your ear is just like anything else you practice: the more you do it, the easier it gets. If you do it often enough, you won't even need your instrument to figure it out. The concept of teaching your ear to decipher musical structures as they're being played is called ear training and it's been practiced and honed for centuries.

The current state of learning aids for ear training is quite well these days (thank you for asking). With a variety of books, CDs, DVDs, and even software, there's plenty from which to choose when you decide to add this important skill to your arsenal:

Ear Training Books
In the musician world, there are two reknowned learning institutions, the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and Musicians Institute (MI) in LA. Both have their own take on ear training. For Berklee, it's Essential Ear Training for the Contemporary Musician and for MI, it's Ear Training - The Complete Guide for All Musicians. Homespun, which makes a large variety of books, CDs, and DVDs for all musicians and styles, has their take, which is Ear Training for Instrumentalists featuring a whopping 6 CDs full of exercises and drills. If you're a guitar or bass player, you'll definitely want to check out Ultimate Eartraining for Guitar and Bass by Tribal Tech's Gary Willis. My friend Chris, who's a working electric jazz bassist in NYC, absolutely loves this book.

Ear Training Videos
For videos, Berklee has produced Harmonic Ear Training (DVD). This 73-minute DVD will help you recognize chord progressions quickly and listen to music more analytically. Bass players get a real treat, as jazz bass great John Patitucci has released John Patitucci - Electric Bass 2: Soloing Ear-Training And Six-String Technique Video, which teaches soloing by stressing the importance of ear training.

Ear Training Software
As you might expect, software is a natural choice for teaching ear training because it's interactive. The cream of this crop is Ars Nova Practica Musica which is both Windows and Macintosh compatible, covers just about every aspect of ear training, and features customizable exercises. Ear Training Coach is a more affordable option and offers a 10-grade curriculum in ear training and sight-reading. However, the piece de resistance and the one tool that should be in everyone's ear training bag is the SlowGold CD-ROM. This nifty piece of software lets you slow down any piece of music on CD or MP3s without changing the pitch. So if you're learning to play a passage from a recording, and it's too fast, just run it through SlowGold to hear every single note at the exact pitch it's played.

Ear Training Hardware
Not surprisingly, music equipment makers have gotten into the ear training game, and not surprisingly, the offerings are particularly good for electric guitar and bass guitar. The Tascam CD-GT1 MKII Guitar Trainer and the Tascam CD-BT1 mkII Bass Guitar Trainer features the same slowdown technology of the SlowGold software, but have housed it in a standalone unit with a built-in CD player, effects, and a headphone jack for silent practicing. Tascam has even made one the vocalists, the Tascam CD-VT1 Portable CD Vocal & Performance Trainer, which has a Vocal Cancel feature that removes the vocal from the CD during playback. Karaoke will never be the same ...

Learning aids aside, one really useful exercise is to pick out a recording of a simple tune that you like. Listen to it very carefully. See if you can determine when the band is changing chords. If you can pick out where these chord changes occur, then you'll know the points in time when you need to determine what the next chord is.

Tune your instrument to the recording. Take the first chord in the tune. As it plays, try to pick out a low note on your instrument that best matches that chord. There should one note that resonates with the recording. Did you find it? This is the root note of that chord. If this note is a C, you know that the first chord is a C (something). It could be a major chord, a minor chord, a 7th chord, but whatever it is, it's a C version of that chord. If you're listening to "Hey Jude", the root note for the first chord is an F. If you're listening to "Wonderwall", it's an F#. If it's "Layla", it's a D ...

Now that you have your root note, the next step is determine what the quality of the chord is. Is it a major or minor chord? Is it a power chord? One surefire way to determine this is trial and error. Assume it's a major chord. Test out this possibility by playing the major chord for your root note along with the recording. Does it sound good? Does it resonate? If so, you've just figured out what the first chord is. If not, try a minor chord. Play the minor chord for your root note along with the recording. Does this sound good? Does this resonate? Try a few different choices. If you get stumped, look at the sheet music or transcription of this recording. This is your answer key, so to speak. If you're just starting out and need a lot of easy tunes for practice, there's some great 3-chord songbooks such as The Guitar 3 Chord Songbook and Favorite Songs With 3 Chords.

After you're figured out the first chord, go to the next point in time where this changes, and figure out what the second chord is. Repeat this process until you've covered the entire tune. A lot of popular music is cyclical in that the same 3-4 chord pattern will often repeat throughout the tune, so you may not have to figure out more than 3-4 chords for the entire song. Yes, when bands write great songs using just "three chords and an attitude", it makes your job a lot easier.

So why would you want to do this? Well, first of all, you're improving your ear. Secondly, you're improving your knowledge of chords because you're forcing yourself to play a variety of chords. If you know your root note for a particular chord is an F#, but you don't know what the quality is, you may have to test out an F# major chord, an F# minor chord, an F#7 chord, and so on. This solidifies your knowledge of chords throughout the paramters fo your instrument. The more tunes you figure out, the easier it is to find and play these chords. The other benefit of going through this process is that you're playing along with recordings, which is going to make you're playing better, because you're subconsciously absorbing all the nuances of the recording into your playing.

The main thing is to not get discouraged and to do it on a regular basis. Turn on the radio and try your hand at whatever's playing. If you don't like the tune, change the station. Put it on the classical station - yes, you can play along with classical ones too. Don't be afraid. It's all just music, and in the end, armed with just an ear and a knowledge of some basic chords for the trial-and-error process, you can figure out how to play it ...

Christopher Sung is a guitarist, an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a small-business owner - probably in that order.
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