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  1. #1

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    Hey!

    I don't think there is such thread here - been around for years by now. So, maybe it could be a good thing to have.

    I was wondering how many people even have such crazy goal and what did it take to get to the point of playing just by ear... and also, what parts of the playing then - melody? impro? comp?

    ----

    I've been doing this on/off for 5-6 years now and I remember it seemed impossible for 2 first years at least. The next 2 it seemed possible but sounded like crap. Last years, now it seems it was worth doing it this way.
    Now, when focusing well, it seems that really the ears become the boss and in the minds eye, I've started to "see".. or imagine the stuff (those learned bits and pieces) without ever looking on the fretboard.. and not even forcing this to happen.
    It's a strangely satisfying feeling and can honestly suggest people to try this.. although its a loo...oong way to achieve anything.
    But then again, I'm not too talented..


    But yeah, any good experience in this matter?
    Last edited by emanresu; 12-07-2020 at 08:42 PM.

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  3. #2
    It's always a goal to play by ear. It's my goal but you need to ask what "just by ear means". Hear something, know where you are on the piece, play a sound you imagined? That's pretty standard for a player who does it a lot. But it's not easy to get to, I admit!
    I've played with people who play "strictly by ear" and sometimes it's really expressive, but an idea can be one that doesn't respect the piece. Playing by ear is something that I think comes from learning to listen with awareness, and being aware of form and knowing how to get the sounds you hear from the instrument. Really, most of the people I know that play professionally do play by ear, with a very informed ear!
    Hope you're successful. It feels great when you get there!

  4. #3

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    Quote Originally Posted by emanresu
    Hey!

    I don't think there is such thread here - been around for years by now. So, maybe it could be a good thing to have.

    I was wondering how many people even have such crazy goal and what did it take to get to the point of playing just by ear... and also, what parts of the playing then - melody? impro? comp?

    ----

    I've been doing this on/off for 5-6 years now and I remember it seemed impossible for 2 first years at least. The next 2 it seemed possible but sounded like crap. Last years, now it seems it was worth doing it this way.
    Now, when focusing well, it seems that really the ears become the boss and in the minds eye, I've started to "see".. or imagine the stuff (those learned bits and pieces) without ever looking on the fretboard.. and not even forcing this to happen.
    It's a strangely satisfying feeling and can honestly suggest people to try this.. although its a loo...oong way to achieve anything.
    But then again, I'm not too talented..


    But yeah, any good experience in this matter?

    As for melody: I can play those entirely by ear. I was able to do that as a kid on the violin (which my teacher complained about since it did hinter my development in slight reading) and can do that on guitar (well expect for complex "busy" be-bop type melodies like Anthropology).

    As for improv and comping: I don't know how one would really know if they are playing "entirely by ear"; Of course when I play I song I know well and have played often, I'm not "thinking" when I improv. I.e. I'm in a zone and expressing what "lines" I'm hearing in my head, but I do unitize prepared passages (licks, melody lines, etc...), that were learned. Is that playing "entirely by ear".

    I have no idea.

  5. #4
    Thanks!

    Hm. "entirely by ear". With improvisation, that would be sort of.. everything switched off exept ears and hands.
    I guess the easiest way to explain this (just my view (not the best one for sure )) is how I approached this. I put a backing track on, then just let the hands do their thing until they'll start to follow the right path. So it's kinda backwards way to learn.
    Meaning I had no conscious help from knowing the patterns or fingering or chords or keys whatsoever. Just when there was a chord/key change, my hands learned to go on from the spot they had just reached "automatically".

  6. #5

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    no i can’t do this ....
    i always know ‘where’ i am , the key centre
    which roman numeral of the key i’m on ,
    or heading towards

    if/when i don’t know this info , i just feel lost and i just meander around aimlessly
    till i can find where i am again

    good for you tho , my ears just aren’t that strong
    (yet ?)

  7. #6

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    Quote Originally Posted by emanresu
    Thanks!

    Hm. "entirely by ear". With improvisation, that would be sort of.. everything switched off exept ears and hands.
    I guess the easiest way to explain this (just my view (not the best one for sure )) is how I approached this. I put a backing track on, then just let the hands do their thing until they'll start to follow the right path. So it's kinda backwards way to learn.
    Meaning I had no conscious help from knowing the patterns or fingering or chords or keys whatsoever. Just when there was a chord/key change, my hands learned to go on from the spot they had just reached "automatically".
    Ok, that makes sense. I did this also with backing-tracks from Aebersold CDs I had. First I started with the CDs of Major and Minor keys using the random feature. I'd listen to the first chorus and then start my improv on the next one; Can I play "in key"? Yea, that was easy. (but I found this useful in developing my ear,,,, as in picking out a key center quickly by ear).

    Then I moved on to actual jazz standards (I have about 20 of his CD) for songs that I hadn't learned yet and thus didn't know what the primary key was or the chord progression. For fairly basic songs (songs that didn't change key often like modal tunes, or did so in a very structured way), I was able to improv over them but otherwise I was lost. Since I have heard most jazz standards I ended up just playing the melody (with only minor variation) chorus after chorus. But when I tried to actually improv I would get lost.

    Maybe I should have just continued with trying to actually improv until I "got it" but since I lack patience, I just opened the book and looked at the music. I.e. I needed to know the actual chords being played in order to improv.

  8. #7

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    I can play by ear in some ways pretty well and in other ways pretty poorly.

    If I know a melody I can play it in any key anywhere on the neck with few or no mistakes unless it really jumps around.

    If I can feel the harmony (meaning I know it well enough that I can pre-hear the changes) I can improvise on it, in any key. If the harmony is less familiar, I can usually hack my way through it by waiting to hear the chord before I try to play on it.

    But, for comping, I find it much harder. If the changes are pure vanilla and I know the tune well, I can play it in any key without having to think about the names of the chords. But, there are tunes I can play in the key I learned them but struggle to play in a different key, meaning I haven't internalized the sounds adequately. I see this as an ear training issue and I think it comes a lot more easily to some people than others. I've worked on it a lot and my progress has been a lot more limited than I would like.

    It is a basic skill that the NYC wedding musicians of my youth all had. Any song, any key, same bored expression on their faces. I don't think it's quite as common nowadays. In my corner of the world, I don't see a lot of casual gigs where nobody is reading. Maybe they exist and, somehow, I don't see them. Rather, I usually see a book open, even though sometimes the players don't seem to be looking at it.

    The last corporate gig I played -- which was a little above my usual station in life -- I was surprised to see that two pretty well known local players had a book open for completely straightforward versions of oft-played standards. I sat next to the saxophonist who must have known the tunes -- and he opened the book we were sharing without asking me if I needed it. I thought, well, maybe he's just being careful since we hadn't played together before, but the bassist did the same thing with his own book.

    I was happy about it. Most of what I do involves reading so I'm comfortable with it. I could have played or scuffled through most of the tunes, but it would have made me nervous, so I was happy not even to have to ask for a chart.

  9. #8

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    I can do it, for the most part, on tunes I know really well.

    I say "for the most part," because if I'm playing a faster line, I don't really think I'm "hearing" every note before I play it.

    It's more like a hear a contour, a general shape of the line. I hear touchstones, points I want to emphasize.

    I think part of shedding a tune is getting to that point where your fingers can "connect the dots" between the things you truly hear. But it's not change running, you're in control....does that make sense?

    I've posted here before about what I call the three stages of being able to improvise on a tune.

    1. You tell your fingers where to go (practicing, trying ideas, getting to know a tune and it's quirks)
    2. Your fingers tell you where to go (you've internalized that and now you can run changes...you're not really in control, it's more like auto pilot...depending on the day, it can be great or noodly)
    3. You tell your fingers where to go, but on a more "meta" scale...you have an idea in mind, and you can control how you get there

  10. #9

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    Play entirely by ear.

    Not a very good idea. But it shouldn't be done entirely by theory either, that's just as bad.

    Like making a meal. Get the recipe, do exactly what it says (that's the theory) and maybe it'll come out OK. But, after a try or two, add a bit of spice, a bit of this and less of that (that's the ear), and you've got something delicious. If you're any good, that is :-)

  11. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by ragman1
    Play entirely by ear.

    Not a very good idea. But it shouldn't be done entirely by theory either, that's just as bad.

    Like making a meal. Get the recipe, do exactly what it says (that's the theory) and maybe it'll come out OK. But, after a try or two, add a bit of spice, a bit of this and less of that (that's the ear), and you've got something delicious. If you're any good, that is :-)
    I agree 100% that its not a good idea
    But I had lots of free time and was curious because no one ever suggested to do it that way - meaning not so many have tried going "all in" with this. So, I did

    There was a workshop video somewhere where an older guitarist (well known but I cant remember who it was) said "then I thought f@#$ that, I'm gonna play by ear only"... He played just fine.

  12. #11

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    Quote Originally Posted by ragman1
    Play entirely by ear.

    Not a very good idea. But it shouldn't be done entirely by theory either, that's just as bad.

    Like making a meal. Get the recipe, do exactly what it says (that's the theory) and maybe it'll come out OK. But, after a try or two, add a bit of spice, a bit of this and less of that (that's the ear), and you've got something delicious. If you're any good, that is :-)
    Great analogy. I also do a lot of cooking and I'm very good at it (well after help from my Italian wife who comes from a line of chefs, my Japanese Mom).

    If see something on the Food Network I wish to make, I google around 3 \ 4 different recipes and from these create my own, taking something from A, something else from B, etc...

    I do the same thing if I want to learn how to play a jazz standard. I google to get various versions of the sheet music and check out the printed sources I may already have (e.g. Aebersold, real-books, etc..). I then create my own chord progressive based on these various sources. Yea, there is often a primary source (for both my recipe as well as chord progression), but rarely is there only one source.

    AND once I have my own version it will morph over time; E.g. I play with a friend and he says: have you tried to using these chords for that passage of Body and Soul instead of what you're doing.

    Recipes and playing jazz rarely should be static.

    PS: the only problem I have with my recipe is with my mom. Once I made curry "my way" and of course this was different than the very traditional Japanese curry she has made for the family for over 40 years! She didn't dig my improvisation!

  13. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by mr. beaumont

    1. You tell your fingers where to go (practicing, trying ideas, getting to know a tune and it's quirks)
    2. Your fingers tell you where to go (you've internalized that and now you can run changes...you're not really in control, it's more like auto pilot...depending on the day, it can be great or noodly)
    3. You tell your fingers where to go, but on a more "meta" scale...you have an idea in mind, and you can control how you get there
    Thought to record this for greater good.. for the thread to get more real.
    So, what was it.. 6ish years in and still on nr.2 on your list


    I know maybe 10 tunes that I can noodle this way.
    At least there's something to do after retiring

  14. #13

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    Quote Originally Posted by emanresu
    Thought to record this for greater good.. for the thread to get more real.
    So, what was it.. 6ish years in and still on nr.2 on your list


    I know maybe 10 tunes that I can noodle this way.
    At least there's something to do after retiring
    Sounds pretty good to me...would like to hear without the metronome

    By the way, those 3 levels im talking about, its not a graded scale. Any player anywhere can be at any level at any given time. Its not like, I made it to level 3!

  15. #14
    Thanks!

    That 3rd level is still far away. I have tried but haven't even come close with this method. Compared this to knowingly aiming for correct chord-arps - still impossible for me to get to this.
    I mean, when I know the tune well enough, I can follow the chord notes most of the time and it feels better instantly. It's much easier to play a meaningful solo but I'm still obsessed to do it the insane way.

  16. #15

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    I haven’t read the thread but here’s my take.

    Socrates said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’

    Well, how did he know??!

    This question is academic as far as I’m concerned. I aim to learn music by ear as much as possible. It’s better.

    But I still relate lines to scale positions and so on. It’s too late for me!

  17. #16

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    Quote Originally Posted by emanresu
    "then I thought f@#$ that, I'm gonna play by ear only"... He played just fine.
    Yeah, after years of suffering :-)

  18. #17

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    Quote Originally Posted by jameslovestal
    She didn't dig my improvisation!
    That's the other thing. You won't be loved by everybody

  19. #18

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    I often improvise (better word noodle) on a tune what I know very well by ear without even remembering what chord on I am, and without what scale would be the appropriate, and without knowing what note I am playing. Of course I am completely aware of the form, exactly knowing were we are, and also aware the tension release progress.

    It looks similar to play by ear, but it is not. Some notes surely are but in general those are muscle patterns, what I know how will sound, so I can assemble them.

    I also noticed, I can improvise "melodies" containing second steps, but way harder with greater steps. (surprise) Also the embellishments are coming by muscle and not by ear.

    ***

    Regarding faster tempos I think the role of muscle memory is mandatory. You simply can not play that line without previously practicing it.

    It is possible to play by ear in different levels, slow tempos, higher level medium tempos, it is possible to hear what second (half or whole) next so build a second step line by ear, but harder to do it universal steps. Entirely is is not possible, not even Coltrane.

    So the "entirely" word in the OP question a problem, and maybe misleads... When improvising the artist using her/his tools creatively to express something. The more musical the tools the better. Ear is unevitable to achive notable result, (but not enough)

  20. #19
    Quote Originally Posted by christianm77

    But I still relate lines to scale positions and so on. It’s too late for me!
    Not sure of that. When I started, I didn't have a clue how to make it work. That means so much time was spent poorly. And also - I am not too talented in most things that a musician really needs.
    Probably could take way less time for talented and already well-experienced players.

  21. #20
    Eh?

  22. #21

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gabor
    I often improvise (better word noodle) on a tune what I know very well by ear without even remembering what chord on I am, and without what scale would be the appropriate, and without knowing what note I am playing. Of course I am completely aware of the form, exactly knowing were we are, and also aware the tension release progress.

    It looks similar to play by ear, but it is not. Some notes surely are but in general those are muscle patterns, what I know how will sound, so I can assemble them.

    I also noticed, I can improvise "melodies" containing second steps, but way harder with greater steps. (surprise) Also the embellishments are coming by muscle and not by ear.

    ***

    Regarding faster tempos I think the role of muscle memory is mandatory. You simply can not play that line without previously practicing it.

    It is possible to play by ear in different levels, slow tempos, higher level medium tempos, it is possible to hear what second (half or whole) next so build a second step line by ear, but harder to do it universal steps. Entirely is is not possible, not even Coltrane.

    So the "entirely" word in the OP question a problem, and maybe misleads... When improvising the artist using her/his tools creatively to express something. The more musical the tools the better. Ear is unevitable to achive notable result, (but not enough)
    For me there is a "gray zone" between muscle memory and playing by ear. Either way, if I'm using either I'm not thinking about theory, what scale I'm playing (or need to move to for the next passage), etc...

  23. #22

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    Quote Originally Posted by jameslovestal
    For me there is a "gray zone" between muscle memory and playing by ear. Either way, if I'm using either I'm not thinking about theory, what scale I'm playing (or need to move to for the next passage), etc...
    tried to say something similar, just way longer :-) And also concluded the "entirely" does not enlighten the way. (and also tried to describe what is not playing by ear)

  24. #23

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    It depends what is meant by "playing entirely by ear". If it means improvising over a song with no pre-conception of what is to come, it's only going to work after the first chorus, and only then if you have exceptional ears. That is because you will alway be responding to what has gone and never anticipating what is to come. For example, if you know a modulation occurs in bar 9, you can respond accordingly. If you don't, the moment will come and go so quickly you won't be doing the harmony justice. If, on the other hand, it means using your ears instead of a chord sheet, that allows you to focus on listening and the mechanics. I think most jazzers will tell you, that is what you are supposed to be doing. But you are going to need some notion of key, changes, form etc. Having said that, as an exercise, trying to figure out keys, changes, form etc, by listening alone has to be good for your ear. So, it makes sense for training, but not for gigs, unless you are very experienced. Just my humble tuppence worth.

  25. #24

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    I wish IRealPro could change keys randomly.

    That way, you could practice figuring out a tune without even knowing what key it's in.

    That's useful for two reasons.

    One is that some leaders will simply start playing a tune and you either get it or you don't.

    In fact, I've rarely been in that situation, although it has come up a few times.

    The second reason is that it's practice in figuring out a tune from sound alone. The idea is for your fingers to go to the next chord without the linguistic side of your brain doing any analysis. Probably everyone here can do that for a IV chord in a blues. I think it would be nice to be able to do that for a wider spectrum of harmony.

  26. #25

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    I find these sorts of discussions a bit theoretical tbh

  27. #26

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    I guess I have the ability, after many years, to play "totally by ear". I play my ipod on shuffle and when something interesting comes up I pick up the guitar and can play along with no thought as to the key or scales etc. I think more in terms of intervals and melody than theory. But, of course, that's because 50 years of experience is telling me what to do.

    I've been told I have good ears, and its useful. People often call me to sub for somebody on a gig and I can usually hang in there without rehearsal.

    But that's not something you want to do all the time. If you're going to play interesting stuff, you've got to be aware of all the possibilities and that requires a little more thought and analysis.