Learning to play by ear

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Learning to play by ear

Postby mhartfield » Fri Sep 02, 2011 3:10 pm

Hi all,

Can anyone suggest a good resource, online, DVD or otherwise, for picking up some rudimentary "play by ear" skills.

As a beginner, I'm finding myself getting frustrated at the dulcimer clubs I've been attending because I know so little of the repetoire that I can't do much other than play chords, or try to learn the song quickly by watching someone's hands during the A/B parts to see if I can pick up the patterns. My right and left hand aren't enough in sync yet that the latter option (learning on the fly) works very well yet :-).

I have an excellent memory for tunes and intervals due to years of singing, I can probably reel off a few hundred folk songs, hymns and gospel tunes (I have fond memories of leading fellow troublemakers in songs during a few protest marches in my misspent youth :-) ). What I don't have is perfect pitch or a great sense of where all of the notes in the tune lie on my dulcimer :| . I'm sure I'll get better with that as I get more practice at Jam sessions, but I'm starting to get the sense that my individual practice time might be better spent trying to improve my familiarity with the sounds of the instrument rather than working on memorizing repetoire, at least for a while.

Of course, there's that whole getting the right hand and left hand working together thing, but I think that will get better however I practice.

Thanks,
Matt
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby Banjimer » Fri Sep 02, 2011 3:50 pm

You're on the right track! The first thing necessary to learn a tune by ear is to be able to hum or sing the melody from memory. The next step involves finding the melody on your instrument. If you are playing melody-drone style in 1-5-5 tuning (D-A-A), 99% of the notes will be found on the melody string. If you are tuned 1-5-8 (D-A-d), you will have to cross over to the middle string for some of your lower notes. Occasionally a melody is in another mode and requires a different tuning to fit the modal scale, but I wouldn't worry about that at this stage. Discussion of modes can be quite complicated and cause more confusion, so don't worry about them until later.

From your description it appears you have the tunes or melodies memorized and can reproduce them by humming or singing. On the fretboard, find the notes one at a time to match those you can hum or sing.

Repetition will make this process easier, but you can begin by selecting simple melodies to start.

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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby Acmespaceship » Fri Sep 02, 2011 8:31 pm

Your youth can't have been all that misspent if you still remember it! Have you tried working out songs you already know? Most of those old folk songs are easy to find on a dulcimer if you give it some time and practice. The only trick is that it won't work trying to play a minor song (like Wayfaring Stranger or Scarborough Fair) when your dulcimer is tuned DAd or DAA. If you just read that and thought, "sure, I know that already" then good. If not, go read Strumelia's four blog posts about modes starting here.

Like you, I was a singer first. I found it very helpful to play the do-re-mi scale up and down the fretboard while singing along. After singing do-re-mi enough times to get bored, start singing Amazing Grace and see if the dulcimer can follow (hint: the melody starts on the "sol" below "do;" if you're in DAd tuning you'll start on the open middle string). Sometimes it's not easy to figure out where the melody starts, but it almost always ends on "do." Often the last phrase of the song ("was blind but now I see") is the first one I can find on the fretboard.

Do this often enough, with enough songs, and you'll learn your way around the instrument. Some people get it right away, others muddle along for months before it clicks. Don't sweat it. If there's a song you just can't get, leave it for now and try a different song.

As for learning the dulcimer club repertoire, maybe you can record the sessions and replay them to memorize the tunes. Or you could cheat and look for tab, just on a few tunes, to get you started. They all had to learn the tunes somehow, right? Ask the other players how they learned the songs. And see if any of them want to play some of those hundreds of folk songs you already know.
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby rendesvous1840 » Mon Sep 05, 2011 12:28 am

I don't know of any books or DVD's to recommend, I may be out of the loop on modern learning materials. This is what works for me: As above, start with the simple songs you knew as a child. They are easier, and your ear will know immediately if you make a mistake. Leave the Mozart for later, when you are more experienced. Next, you will find that a great majority of major key songs will begin on the 1st, 3rd or 5th notes of the scale. Try one of those, and see if you can find the rest of the tune in whatever key your dulcimer is tuned to. If the 1st doesn't work, try the 3rd next. If not that, try the 5th. One of these three notes will be the correct note almost 100% of the time. If you are using a 158 tuning, such as DAD or CGC, the 1st note is the open melody string, the 3rd is the 2nd fret, and the 5th is the 4th fret. If you are using a 155 tuning, such as DAA or CGG, the 1st note of the scale is the 3rd fret, the 3rd note is the 5th fret, and the 5th note is the 8th fret, or the open string an octave below. Do this as an exercise, and as you get better at it, try more advanced songs. If you get stuck, and a tab is available, use it to get past the tricky part, or ask here for more help. It may seem slow going at first, but remember, we get better at what we practice.
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby mrchips » Mon Sep 05, 2011 2:49 am

There is in reality only one way to play by ear and that actually fairly simple to do. All you have to do is get the overall beat down as close as possible, then figure out the chord progression then finish it off with the melody. Nothing overly completed but it takes a LOT of practice at it to get right. One way to actually use that driving time somewhere is to stick in a CD of ANYTHING you like then mentally start picking out those 3 elements. Do a bit of that with any music you hear anywhere and sifting out those 3 elements of any tune will be come automatic. Then grab your MD, cd player and the CD and actually play what you feel while listing. You will notice where you're "off" a bit so deal with that and you're done. Once that tune you want to learn feels right to you then you are ready to take it to the actual melody level. Here you have many options such as the sheet music and any number of things with technology as a bit of CD ripping and looping the "difficult" sections.

I dont want to sound like I'm oversimplifying it but in reality that's all it is and LOTS of playing/practice. At a jam there are a number of tricks you can you can use to learn to make the proc4ss easier. One is to watch where another players fingers are on the fretboard. Often that will tell you far more than trying to sift out the usual jam background sound issues. If you happen to know a bit about other interments such as where the notes are on one then all you gotta do is read the guys fingers. :lol: We all want to do a tune perfect every time but that wont ever happen. Loosen up and get it as close as you can without getting all stressed out and almost nobody will actually notice the "oops". Once you let that first "oops" stress you out its downhill from there. If playing is all about having some fun and relaxing then keep it that way. If its about making a living with it then you do have to get a bit more serious about it but the basic idea still apples. DONT get stressed out.
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby harpmaker » Mon Sep 05, 2011 5:46 am

I understand your frustration as I play strictly by ear. Even after years of trying to play other instruments, standard music notation is still Every Good Boy Does Fine and a bunch of funny shaped dots and squiggles :lol: Tab is almost just as useless to me.....unless it is a very very slow song, I just can't get the information from the paper, through my eyes, up to the brain and back out to the fingers fast enough.

A couple of things I do when playing: First, when playing at your club or at a jam, kind of keeping an eye on another players hands can be helpful....but make sure you aren't watching the best player in the club....they will probably be all over the fret board, adding embellishments etc. That is sure to confuse you. If the club has an instructor sit by him/her and let them know you are going to try to follow their lead.

Second, and I know that this is directly opposite of what mrchips just said, by I will suggest you stick with just fretting the melody line for awhile. Let the chords come later. Even if the club is playing a lot of chords, most of the time the note of the chord fretted on the melody line is also the melody note. IOW, the chord starts with the melody and is built from there.

For example, when I am learning a new song, at first I pick it out on the melody string only. Once I have the pattern down, I will go back and play it again but this time doing a full strum across the strings. Then I start building the chords as needed to keep it sounding right.

One other thing....when watching other players, beware of the "Bum Ditty". A bum ditty is that strange little strumming pattern that people seem to use far too much. If you are not used to it it can really throw you for a loop. OTOH, if you are trying to sing the song in your head while playing it can mess you up even if you are used to it. ;)

And always remember this: It wasn't a mistake, it was an embellishment!!
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby mrchips » Mon Sep 05, 2011 5:50 pm

harpmaker wrote:--------

And always remember this: It wasn't a mistake, it was an embellishment!!


Cant be said any better...
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby mhartfield » Tue Sep 06, 2011 12:12 am

Thanks for the tips everyone.

I've got a fair number of tab books as well as a few fakebooks ("Fiddler's Fakebook" and "Rise Up Singing"), and what I'm coming to realize is that for me the tab's not nearly as useful for understanding my instrument as noodling my way through songs that I know well, thanks for validating that my noodling is a valid way to learn :-).

BTW, for those who don't have either of those fakebooks, they are a pretty good resource for lyrics and chords for lots of songs in a really compact format (Fiddler's Fakebook also has melody lines). They don't have tab, so they're only a starting point if you can't quite figure out songs from chords or don't already know the "bones" of the tune, but they're a useful starting point. They also both have good references to recordings where you can hear what the tune sounds like.

mrchips, I've started to use the CD/MP3 playalong method, and it does seem to work pretty well for me. I was trying to learn Southwind the other night and put my Nashville Dulcimers version of the song on an endless loop, that seems to work pretty well. The first time through I heard the obvious repeated phrases (4-3-2 repeats several times in that song in DAD tuning), so that I could hit that pattern in time and hear when it was coming up. With a few times through I was able to strum at least the chord at the beginning of each measure and the repeating 4-3-2. If I can get comfortable picking up songs like that it should go a long way towards making the clubs more fun for me. It's a lot more fun to hit that minimal one strum a measure than to be 3 measures behind trying to read through the tab :-).

I also use the "watch your neighbor's fretboard" trick quite a bit in the clubs I've been attending - there are fellow beginner/intermediate players in the clubs who don't do a lot of embellishments, and I can tell, "Oh, they' just hit an Em chord, no wonder that G sounded funky...". That is one big advantage of hanging out in clubs where everyone's tuned the same, it's possible to cheat off the person next to me :-).

Thanks again,
Matt
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby mrchips » Tue Sep 06, 2011 2:07 am

Around here theres something with 3 or 4 strings in who knows what oddball tuning I have it in open, some diatonic fret boards and some chromatics within reach nearly anywhere. Sometimes its on a stick, sometimes it resembles a MD and in a couple places a HD is within reach. I would rather scatter the shop rejects around the house than simply trash them, at least the ones that do sound sweet..

Often the background in a commercial on the TV or something in a movie that grabs me. Ill usually grab something and start seeing if I can halfway pick up on it. Often I cant pick up on the key nor will I retune to match. A quick listen and you got those short scale runs and that sort of stuff in most of it. I just do the same with what I got totally ignoring the key. What that does for me is to nearly instantly pick up on the feel of it and how the melody line runs. Often the harmonics of whatever key yore in and whatever key the sound is in can give some really weird combinations but what youre after is the beat and feel of it. Keys dont really enter into it for that unless your working against somebody else. Youre NOT learning the tune here, youre just picking up on it. :) Once you have that feel then you can do it in any key your instrument is capable of.

Dont get me wrong in thinking I am saying that playing off key along side of somebody else is right, its not and it can be down right annoying to others but I dont think the TV is going to complain if youre noodling around.. :lol: :lol: :lol:
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby bluegrasslady » Tue Sep 06, 2011 4:13 am

mhartfield wrote:mrchips, I've started to use the CD/MP3 playalong method, and it does seem to work pretty well for me. I was trying to learn Southwind the other night and put my Nashville Dulcimers version of the song on an endless loop, that seems to work pretty well. The first time through I heard the obvious repeated phrases (4-3-2 repeats several times in that song in DAD tuning), so that I could hit that pattern in time and hear when it was coming up. With a few times through I was able to strum at least the chord at the beginning of each measure and the repeating 4-3-2. If I can get comfortable picking up songs like that it should go a long way towards making the clubs more fun for me. It's a lot more fun to hit that minimal one strum a measure than to be 3 measures behind trying to read through the tab :-).
Thanks again,
Matt

Matt--I have done this exact same thing in a jam...I may only have a few measures (or chords) "down", but I play them every time they come around again! You can feel like you're making a lot of progress if you end up on the same note (or chord) as everyone else! Ta Da!!! ;)
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby dulcimerman » Sun Sep 11, 2011 4:31 am

All I can ever do is play by ear.
Here is a site that is about learning to play by ear. No dulcimers.
It could still help you learn.

http://toneway.com/

They have some free lessons on the site.
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Re: Learning to play by ear

Postby The Mousetrapezoid » Sun Sep 11, 2011 7:25 am

Lots of good advice here so far! One thing I can add is: find a slow jam! If there isn't a slow jam in your area, consider starting one with those other beginner-level players you know.

IMO, the Fiddler's Fakebook is a very good resource... but Rise Up Singing, not so much. In RUS, the lyrics are sometimes misprinted, the chords are written in freehand rather than set in a typeface so they are hard to read (and they are sometimes inaccurate too), and of course there's no indication of the melody at all.
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