Learning to Play By Ear

September 3, 2010


Popular musicians spend a great deal of time listening to and copying records.  Most of them do this without the aid of a master teacher.  Through listening to music, usually a singular genre, extensively, popular musicians develop their ears to the point where chord changes and melodic/solo ideas can be played on their instrument.

As a guitarist who learned formally and informally the process of playing by ear, picking up riffs and solos “off the record”, I’ve found that playing by ear is part of the process of becoming a guitarist.  However, in a classroom setting we generally do not have the amount of time required to allow this concept to evolve organically.  My thought has been it is possible to teach a student how to play by ear, learn something “off the record” by providing a scaled down, isolated musical events.  Here are a few tips:

1) Focus on teaching students to hear chord changes through root movement
Record a simple 4 bar pattern like the one below playing only the root of each chord.  Have your students pick out the bass note on the guitar and name the note (F# for example).

Listening Chord Progression

2) Have students decide what the quality of the chord is
The next step is to provide your students with the same progression, this time playing the full chord.  Have your students idetify the chord quality.  Most will feel comfortable referring to major chords as “happy” and minor chords as “sad”.  This is the worst designation I can think of when it comes to chord quality, but to be honest I cannot think of anything better. Sidebar: chords are neither “happy” or “sad”, it is simply our perception of the chord, and that is not a consistent thought among people.

Have the student label the chord next to the bass note.  The student now has the chords he needs to play in this example as they have the bass note, the chords name, and the quality of the chord, major or minor.

3) Identify the rhythm
The last step in learning to play this example by ear is to figure out the rhythm.  Due to this being an entry level exercise the rhythm played on the recording should be quarter note strums.  You can record more complex chord progression with more exciting rhythmic patterns once the student has a grasp on the concept.

Once a student feels comfortable with this idea, have them try to go through the same steps with a more difficult chord progression/strumming pattern.  The goal should be to assist the student in hearing chord inversions, timbral differences (notes played up the guitar neck sound different than the same note played down the guitar neck), and rhythmic complexities.


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