Play Without Written Music

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Have you ever been amazed by someone who can play music or a song, just by listening to it?

  • Have you ever wondered how they do it?
  • Is it possible for anyone to do this, or do you have to be born with the gift?
  • Would you like to learn how to do this?

You Can!

What this Means to You

What would this mean for you? It means that anything you hear (within your skill level), you can learn to play.

There’s no need to read music, buy music, or even figure out what style and musical choices need to be made in the music (this last point is especially important if you’re new to playing music).

The world of music is opened up to you! Additionally, if you’re learning music from a master of a genre, it’s like you’re taking a private lesson from them; they’re teaching you all their approaches and techniques through the song/piece.

You Already Have This Skill

Learning to play music just by listening (we’ll call this learning by ear) is not a gift only given to the chosen few; it’s available to everyone! In fact, you already possess this skill. How do I know this? Because it’s a skill that the vast majority of people have on this planet: the ability to learn and speak a language.

Learning to Speak

How do we learn our first language? Do our parents sit us at a desk, write the word CAT on the chalk board, point to the word, and say, “CAT”? Or, does a cat run by and the parent says, “CAT” (obviously, this is the correct answer). This approach we use to learn a language is the same approach used to learn music by ear.

Applying this Skill

In order to understand how to apply this skill to music, let’s briefly cover some of the approaches we used when learning to speak:

  1. We listen to the language around us
  2. We copy what we hear
  3. We put it all together

That’s it! It seems pretty simple, but then again, how long does it take to learn a language? It takes children a few years, and probably the same (or longer) if we attempt a second language as an adult.

It’s not going to take you a few years to learn a song, but just remember to be patient with yourself and this skill will continue to grow and develop within your musical language skill set. Let’s look at a few steps to help you apply your skill to learning by ear.

  • Choose

    Choose a song that really speaks to you; something that you would be excited to play

  • Listen

    Listen to this song multiple times a day. When you know it better, it’s easier to learn

  • Copy

    Copy everything! You’ll not only learn the notes, but the style, articulation, and other musical approaches

  • Play

    Play with the recording and play without the recording to solidify what you’ve learned

  • Share

    Once you learn a song or piece by ear, make sure you share it with others. Have a performance for friends and family!

Playing by Ear

Next week we’ll get into more details (to help you learn songs faster) and provide answers to common issues and frustrations when learning a song by ear. For example:

  • What do you do when you can’t figure out a couple notes?
  • What should you do when there’s a measure that’s too difficult, but the rest is at your skill level?

In fact, if you have some questions of your own about learning by ear, go ahead and write them in the comment section below and I’ll be sure to cover them in next week’s post.

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Comments 6

    1. Post

      Thanks for the question Byron. By copy everything I mean to copy notes, articulation, style, dynamics, rhythm, etc. However, that’s a lot to think about at one time. Start on the notes and rhythms first, and then branch out to the other items.

      1. Hi Jeff

        I think that is where the ‘difficult’ part comes in – starting and getting the copied notes correct, hearing the progression correctly. With theory background (which I and many others don’t have) you have to learn the notes rather than understand them, i.e. the stuff fifths and sevenths and other monsters are reportedly made up of.

        1. Post

          Hi Theo,

          Yes, figuring out the first note can be difficult, and this is the case for most people attempting to learn by ear for the first time. There are some approaches (that make this easier) that I’ll go over in the post at the end of this week. Concerning the theory: are you asking for assistance in understanding 4th, 5ths, and other intervals?

          1. Hi Jeff

            I guess I do need to know that theory, but perhaps I need quite a bit more before I climb into that?

          2. Post

            A very basic understanding of theory is all that is necessary for a beginner, and the nice thing is, you can learn it as you go. It’s nice that music theory is not a prerequisite for learning an instrument. However, down the road, it will help you play at a higher level. Thanks Theo!

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