How to play a melody by ear

"You guys, what's that bit that comes after, 'Well, I'm not the world's most physical guy..." (Cornell University Library)

If you'd like to be able to play piano by ear, you need to train your fingers to play what they "hear."

No one thinks it's all that amazing to be able to hear a tune and sing it back accurately - it's just what the muscles that control your voice are trained to do. Over time, your fingers will gain enough experience to do this as well.

Read More

Going off the book: Jamming for beginners

This past weekend I had the pleasure of being part of two jam sessions at two wonderful dinner parties. It was nice, considering how much I've been writing about music lately, to actually play it. Jamming with other people is one of my greatest joys in life; one of my dearest wishes as a musician and educator is for those who long to be able to do it to realize how close they are to being able to!

October 2010At Saturday night's party there was an exuberant nine-year-old violinist. We played some of the classical music and fiddle tunes he's been working on, and then we threw him into the soup.

One of my favorite songs to jam on is Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" - it's built on an extremely simple four-chord loop, the melody is very simple but can be embellished, and the loose country feel supports any number of layers of instruments and vocal harmonies.

"Okay! Here are your notes: D, E, F-sharp, A, and B." The D pentatonic scale. I wrote it down for him. "All of these notes will sound good. If you want, you can pick just two notes."

Many musicians have given little thought to individual notes on their instrument: where to find them, how they function together, how to create a melody. My young friend was no different, but soon located D and E and sawed merrily away as we began, lounging half on his back on the couch with his head propped up on a cushion, feet up on the coffee table. He sounded great! We sang and played several verses and choruses of the song, all of us getting more adventurous as it went on.

As the night progressed, everyone from adults to toddlers played various percussion instruments and sang. We all had a blast. The next night, my husband and I jammed with two highly competent amateur musicians on songs by Shelby Lynne, Wilco, Jackson Browne, and Three Dog Night. It was a perfect, warm, fall evening out on a friend's screen porch. Two guitars, an acoustic bass, and a djembe, all by the light of a single candle. Looking for songs that everyone knew how to play would have taken all night, but it's always easy to find common ground when you're willing to play something you know but have never played before, or something that's completely new.

Whether you're an accomplished classical musician or a total musical novice, you might find yourself standing on the sidelines instead of joining in the action. Below are some tips for joining the band.

Start shaking, tapping, or hitting something. One of the easiest ways to participate is to play percussion. Back when I was in elementary school, I'd lurk around my dad's band, whose extremely loud practices took place in the living room so they were tough to avoid (If you can't beat 'em...). My big moment was in "Day Tripper" after the guitar solo when the drums stopped and it was just a wild shake of the tambourine.

Ideally, there are some shakers and tambourines and maybe even a drum lying around. If not, the back of a guitar that's not being used makes a great drum. Raid the recycling to find empty bottles...small ones can be filled with dry beans to create a maraca, while large ones can be smacked with a hand or a stick. You can also whack the bottles themselves against your leg, the table, or the floor. Of course, body percussion (stomping, clapping, snapping, etc.) is always good.

You can keep time with the beat, but the music breathes more when you strike only on the two and four (for example, [one] TWO [three] FOUR). If you're playing a shaker, remember that you have two directions - things are more interesting when you move back and forth ("chicka chicka chicka chicka") instead of just down ("chick chick chick chick"). Experiment with rhythmic patterns to find a groove that feels right.

Sing. If it's a song you know, go ahead and sing along with the melody if it's in your key. If the range of the melody is not comfortable or you don't know the song (or someone else is dominating the melody), you can try some harmony. Try some of the techniques described in my post on harmony singing.

Viva la pentatonic. This five-note scale takes the fear out of improvisation. In a given key, all of these notes will sound good, even if you play them all at once.

Working with beginners, I like to use resonator bells if possible, which allow you to isolate the pitches that you want making it virtually impossible to hit a wrong note. Otherwise, I'll point out the notes on the instrument that are "safe." The piano is a good place to start if bells are not available.

For musicians who know how to play but aren't experienced with improvisation, I write down the notes for them which they are then able to locate on their own instruments.

To determine the pentatonic scale, play the major scale in the given key and subtract the 4th and 7th scale degrees. In other words, play 1, 2,3, 5, and 6 (and 8). This can also be done with the relative minor (play 6, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6). Do, re, mi, sol, la.

For example, if you're in the key of C major, your pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, A in any octave.

Play root notes. If the pentatonic scale seems like Greek to you (Psych! It is Greek) back way off and play root notes. This means that for every chord of the song, you play the note it's named after.

A chord is just a group of notes. Doesn't it make sense that a chord called "G" would have a G in it? Luckily, it does. So every time the G chord comes around, you play G.

This strategy can work in a few different ways. First of all, if you're a less experienced musician this allows you to play along with a simple chord progression. In "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," the chord sequence is D-Em-G-D. So, while the rest of the musicians play the chords you would play the notes D, E, G, D respectively.

Another use for root notes is for more experienced musicians who find themselves with an unfamiliar instrument or a bass guitar in their hands. Root notes are a great way to warm up and explore the instrument while contributing to the overall sound of the band.

A third use for the root note strategy is to familiarize yourself with a song you haven't played before. If you can recognize the chord that someone else is playing but you don't have time to get into position for it, aim for the root note. Since most pop, rock, and folk music is inherently repetitive, you'll be able to play a little more with each go-round.

February 2010Learn the language. If you want to go beyond following along, you'll want to learn the language of music, which is basically music theory. Out of a seeming universe of possibilities, the experienced musician sees just a handful and can narrow it down to one in an instant. Here, I'm not talking about the infinite variations and permutations that enthusiastic players might cycle through as they expand the sonic vocabulary of a song; I'm talking about the structure that underpins this exploration which follows predictable, accessible rules.

It is so amazing and exciting to witness a child making use of new musical knowledge within minutes of its acquisition. The advantage that many children have is simply fearlessness. I hope I have made you a little more comfortable with the idea of jamming. Your contribution to the musical soup will be appreciated and valued regardless of your level of experience! When things are really cooking, no one can tell who's who anyway.

Achieving fluency

Just here, perhaps, I had better explain our use of the manual alphabet, which seems to puzzle people who do not know us. One who reads or talks to me spells with his hand, using the single-hand manual alphabet generally employed by the deaf. I place my hand on the hand of the speaker so lightly as not to impede its movements. The position of the hand is as easy to feel as it is to see. I do not feel each letter any more than you see each letter separately when you read. Constant practice makes the fingers very flexible, and some of my friends spell rapidly--about as fast as an expert writes on a typewriter. The mere spelling is, of course, no more a conscious act than it is in writing.
Read More

Five things guitar teachers do that seem helpful but aren't

I've had a lot of transfer students from other teachers over the years, and I see the results of guitar teacher laziness. There are obvious issues, such as poor documentation and poor organization (a bunch of tabs in a dog-eared stack of paper is all you have to show for two years and $2,000). However, there are some things that actually seem like selling points but are really further indications of a lack of a strong teaching foundation. Here are a few:

1) Your teacher stays up all night creating detailed tabs for you - When a guitar teacher creates a custom, detailed tab for you, that benefits your teacher as much or more than it benefits you. There's nothing wrong with having a "reach" song that you're working on, and it's awesome if your teacher creates a custom tab from time to time. That said, you should also be playing easier songs that you have a shot at figuring out on your own. if all you're doing is learning from tabs, you are learning to play songs, but not necessarily learning how to play the guitar.

2) Your teacher never puts down the guitar - Playing together with your teacher can be very beneficial for students at all levels. However, a teacher who never puts down the guitar to let you play alone may be hampering your ability to play independently, especially at the beginner level.

3) Jaw-dropping displays of guitar prowess are a part of every lesson - Your lessons should be about you, not about your teacher. If you feel intimidated or in awe of your teacher, you might not feel comfortable asking questions or showing that you are having trouble with something. It's great to know that you're studying with a person who has some serious chops, but beware of show-offy noodling or demonstration of skills that supposedly "can't be taught."

4) Your teacher lets you learn whatever you want - It's great for a teacher to help you learn songs that you love - that's the whole point. However, your teacher should also challenge you with material that will develop your ear, encourage your ability to read, or help you learn specific technical skills. Also (especially relevant to younger students) your teacher can help broaden your horizons by sharing music that you might enjoy, based on what you're already expressing interest in.

5) Your teacher keeps you in your comfort zone - There are many guitarists who are stuck. They tend to have students who are stuck. If you have been playing for a year or more and still can't play a song all the way through, have never jammed with anyone but your teacher, and don't feel a sense of identity as a guitarist, it's time to re-evaluate. A good teacher will hold you accountable for not only daily practice but actual mastery, and will help you set and reach appropriate goals.

Have you had any of these experiences in learning guitar or any other instrument?

Chords are colors

Imagine that you are in a room that is illuminated by one strong light. As you are listening to a piece of music, the color of the light changes with every chord change - from blue, to red, to green, back to blue.

In that blue light, everything in the room looks blue, and when the light is red, everything in the room glows red. Everything you see is affected by that color.

Photo by DocklandsboyEverything you hear is affected by the color of the chord as well. Violin, flute, guitar, bass, piano: each instrument that produces a musical tone will obey the laws of harmony and become a part of that chord, reflecting its color just as each visible surface will absorb and reflect color in accordance with the laws of the light spectrum.

Chords are not like colors. Chords are colors. Harmony is color you can hear, and with this understanding you can solve the mystery of what chords you are hearing in a given piece of music.

Although the options may seem limitless, the list of most likely chords in a given song is actually pretty short: They are a family of six, who will often have friends over for dinner.

Based on the seven notes of the major scale, you'll get three major chords and three minor chords. And 80% of the time, you will use the three major chords.

Yes, for all you music theory nerds, there is a diminished chord too, but that's like the end of the onion - you throw it away unless you're making soup stock.

The subtle, muted palette of our Virginia Avenue location is clearly visible here.The diatonic chords (those that are native to the key) are called I (one), ii (two), iii (three), IV (four), V (five) and vi (six). Each chord (and for that matter, each tone of the scale) has a different color that you can train yourself to hear. Their friends (chords borrowed from other keys) have distinctive colors as well.

When people sit down and play a song perfectly on the first try having only heard it a few times, it seems like magic. It's not. Trained musicians recognize the colors of the chords and scale tones they hear and have a command over the physical interface used to produce them (that's, you know, the instrument).

Here are a few ways in which chords are colors:

  • They can be described but not defined. You can describe blue as calm, peaceful, cool, but that is completely subjective. Likewise, I can describe the I chord as grounded, settled, and warm but that is a subjective description of an objective reality. Each musician must develop their own experience of each chord.

  • They can match or clash. Fluorescent orange really stands out if put in a baby's nursery of lemon, baby blue, and lavender, just as the bVI (flat six) chord sounds jarring amidst the usual I, IV, V, vi. I learned to identify these "borrowed" chords before I learned their normal, diatonic cousins because they stood out so much.

  • They can be used strategically to evoke emotion. Combinations of colors can be soothing, patriotic, aggressive, sophisticated, neutral, or romantic, whether visual or aural.

  • They can become dated. Avocado, rust orange, and the major seventh chords of Bread and The Bee Gees were all very much at home in the kitchens of the 1970s.

  • Variations can be too subtle for the casual observer to detect. To the layperson, it's green; to the designer, it's sage. And that's actually a minor ninth, not a minor seventh.

  • They are learned through trial and error. We start learning about color when we learn to talk. It's amazing that toddlers learn so abstract a concept so early in life. However, there is a lot of, "No, this isn't purple. This is green," on the way there. "No, that's not the V chord, that's the IV chord."

As you listen to music to hear the colors created by the chords, don't just listen to your instrument in the mix (for example, the horn section). Remember the room with one light in it, and how everything is affected by the color.

Hearing these colors is not an innate talent that you either have or you don't. Identifying chords by their color is an ability that anyone can develop. I hope this post will help you to better understand the nature of this skill, so you can put it to good use!

Beware the Song Machine

Along with learning things in the same spirit in which they were created, I believe in teaching things the way I learned them (while of course allowing for different learning styles). When working in pop music (i.e., anything that is not classical or jazz), this has some counter-intuitive implications.

Most guitar teachers (and those piano teachers who teach in pop/rock styles) learn the drill pretty quickly: student wants to learn Song X, teacher transcribes Song X after having spent a few minutes working it out by ear. Student goes home, dabbles with Song X, brings in Song Y, and the cycle continues.

Some teachers are especially enthusiastic about creating professional transcriptions for their students. They spend their own time outside of the lesson working out every detail of the recording.

This works - to a point. The student is learning songs. However, the teacher is actually the one learning the instrument. How's that for counter-intuitive?

Randy Pausch, in The Last Lecture, talks about the "head fake," in which students think they are learning one thing but are actually gaining something deeper. In this case, the teacher has set up his own head fake. He thinks he is teaching the student, but in reality, through the process of working out a song by ear, assimilating it, transcribing it, and then teaching it, the teacher is the one who gets the benefit. The student just gets the by-product!

Through the process of working out song after song, the teacher's musical ear gets ever sharper, his transcription skills get quicker, and his facility on the instrument increases. This, my friends, is how you actually learn how to play an instrument: by teaching yourself songs. That's how the teachers themselves learned (and continue to hone their abilities).

Yet, instead of teaching the student how to figure out songs, the teacher functions as the student's Song Machine: bring in a recording and the Song Machine will spit out a transcription, teaching the student nothing but the superficial details of how to play the song. This is the opposite of teaching something the way you learned it.

This whole idea dawned on me when I started getting annoyed at a couple of students who were bringing in songs each week, but never following through by learning them well. I felt taken for granted because they weren't even mastering the songs I was giving them. "I ain't yer Song Machine," I grumbled to myself. "I never had anyone to work out songs for me."

Hey! Wait! That was not a grievance: that was my secret weapon. I'd always been my own Song Machine. And after many years of playing and teaching, it's become a well-oiled machine.

At first, a student doesn't have the skills to work out a song by ear, so we usually start with a few simple songs. But right from the beginning, I'm going to show how those songs were built. As I model the protocol for figuring out a song, I will also explain what I'm doing and why, and get the student doing the heavy lifting as soon as possible. Teach a musician to fish, if you will. 

I hate just being the Song Machine for my students. There's no depth to it. The student gets the song, but the Song Machine gets to keep all the quarters.

Baby Driver

I played very little piano today, focusing more on guitar. It was a relaxed family day, so it would have been weird if I sat in the living room playing piano for hours. Instead, I played a bit with my brother-in-law, Jesse - we did “And Your Bird Can Sing” with me on rhythm and him on lead, a few Paul Simon tunes, and “Gone For Good” by the Shins. Jesse is a terrific singer and guitarist, so we can do some good harmonies and figure out stuff on the fly.

We listened to “Baby Driver” and “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” two fun shuffles off of Bridge Over Troubled Water, thinking about playing them. We discovered that they are both tuned down a half-step to Eb. I used to wonder how you could tell something like that quickly without exhausting all other options first, but I’m getting better at doing it. I think a lot of that has to do with confidence - I assume that if it’s too hard for me to play, I’m probably not playing it correctly. If my voicings have a bunch of awkward stretches or it’s hard to get a good sound from a certain chord, I’m probably playing it in the wrong place or I’ve made a bad assumption. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle: you might make guesses at the ones you don’t know or leave them blank, and as you work your way around you can make corrections or even have something click that didn’t before, just because you’re seeing it in a new way. I love working out songs by ear.

I dug out some old guitar books of my dad’s and played through them. The were busy, crappy arrangements of public domain stuff like “Greensleeves.” Given that my whole philosophy of learning music revolves around songs, I believe that the quality of one’s learning materials is the most important thing in music instruction - more important than the quality of the instrument, or even the skills of the teacher. So this by-the-numbers Mel Bay stuff was not very useful or satisfying to me - it’s really hard to make those pieces sound good, even if (especially if!) you play them exactly the way they are written.

And then…later on in the evening, driving with Jesse, my sister Ashley the birthday girl, and Jonah (my adorable sixteen-month-old nephew), I found a much more important use for my musical skills than hacking through some hacky guitar methods: I sang the baby to sleep. I was sitting next to him in the back seat as the sun was setting, leaning close and going from vigorous play songs like “Bingo” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” to lullabies hummed gently in his ear. As I watched his eyelids droop, I felt a grace that served to put all of my musical strivings in their proper context. It is all for this kind of joy and love that I play.