Learning by ear....

Discussion in 'Technique [BG]' started by Joe Nerve, Oct 17, 2001.

  1. Joe Nerve

    Joe Nerve Supporting Member

    Oct 7, 2000
    New York City
    Endorsing artist: Musicman basses, Hipshot products
    I recently had the experience of playing with a guitar prodigy type person. He was able to play ANY song I threw at him including songs my band, The Nerve does (he engineered our CD). The guy is able to hear something - and play it.

    I want to develop that skill. I want to be able to learn songs without touching my bass. I've been practicing with Blink 182 as it seems that would be one of the simplest starts. I am not very good at this but I'm determined.

    Anyone have any suggestions. Just to clarify in case someone misunderstands - I'm talking about being able to listen to a song on the radio in the car, and then going home and being able to play it - correctly. It can be done and I'm determined to do it! Dammit!!! (that's an easy one)
  2. brianrost

    brianrost Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 26, 2000
    Boston, Taxachusetts
    It's called "ear training".

    Start here: can you hear a song and SING IT after you've heard it? I'll bet you can sing a number of TV themes, commercial jingles, etc. pretty well.

    You have to be able to do this FIRST before you can thing about playing it. If you can't sing it, you can't play it.

    Once you get to that level, the rest is the mechanics of how to play on an instrument. That involves learning your scales and chords cold and knowing how they sound so you can recognize them when you hear them.
  3. The single most valuable thing that I learned during my brief stint as a jazz major at the University of North Texas is without a doubt ear training - it brought me to a new level as a musician. I was also surprised to find out that it wasn't as nightmarishly difficult as I had imagined! It's a very attainable and worthwhile goal for ANY kind of serious musician.

    Brian is exactly right - singing is the key ingredient to effective ear training.

    Another component that is extremely useful in learning to sing, intervals, scales, and chords is a keyboard/piano. You don't need to be able to play the Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3, but having that reference is critical when training your ear. If it's a piano - make sure it's in tune!

    There are also a number of helpful books on sight-singing. I know - you want to enhance your bass skills. But learning to sight-sing a piece of music (little or no preparation, with or without a reference pitch) will do wonders for your ear as well. Once you get some of the basics of ear training down, there are resources available for learning more advanced harmonies such as modes and complex chords.
  4. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Singing is without a doubt the most important skill involved. Another good preparation for what you are trying to do is transcribing (which singing is also an important part of). If you want to be able to hear something and play it back, you need to have a mental picture of what the music is and exactly how it will be realized on your instrument.

    Writing things down while listening is the best way I know of to do this, because it takes the raw material of what you are able to hear - which is often pretty vague at first - and hones and sharpens it until it becomes EXACTLY what you are hearing. People who do a lot of transcriptions always have HUGE ears. But it's like any other skill in that you have to start from wherever you are right now and develop it slowly...and like everything else, practice makes perfect.
  5. Bass Guitar

    Bass Guitar Supporting Member

    Aug 13, 2001
    To learn to play by ear - some basic pointers:

    1) Make sure you can hum in tune - this makes a world of difference - play a note eg. E, and hum it, and make sure you can hum what you hear FIRST - some musicians are tone deaf, which is a disability

    2) Listen to a lot of music - not just hear, but LISTEN - listen to the bassline, THINK about how the notes relate to each other - are they 5ths? Are they octaves? Have you played that pattern before? What is the chord progression? Once you become good, what is the key? Where are the key changes?

    3) Play live with other musicians - not just play, but JAM and IMPROVISE - play within the scales, play within the chords

    4) As you listen, hum along to the melody, then the bassline.

    5) Improvise something on your bass, then hum the tune. Then improvise something by humming with your voice, then play what you have hummed on your bass. Keep doing this again and again. Then HUM and PLAY at the same time an improvised tune (ie. anything) - soon, you should be able to play what you hum - ie. build a connection between your imagination and your finger - this is a valuable skill to have when you play with other musicians and when you improvise

    6) Play or practice LOTS - the more types of music you play, the more chord progressions, the more riffs, the more bassline patterns, the BETTER you will be in recognising the same patterns in basslines you hear

    Just my 2 cents, and how I learnt.
  6. I agree that transcription is a worthwhile skill, but I don't think it's necessary to develope your ear. In fact, I think the mental picure that you speak of comes primarily from your instrument. I know when I transcribe, I see the melodic aspects of the music on the fretboard of my mind's eye (how's that for philisophical? :D )
    What I mean is that the first step should be to know your instrument rather than to complicate the learning process with notation.
    But singing is an absolute necessity.

    Just my opinion. :)
  7. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    And you're entitled to it, just like everybody else. But notation doesn't COMPLICATE the learning process, it ILLUMINATES it. I'm not suggesting transcription because I think that Standard Notation looks cool, I'm suggesting it because before you can play something, you need to have a good idea of exactly what it is you're trying to play. Imagining what the notes will look like on your instrument is one step, but it's impossible to "imagine what the rhythms will look like" on your fretboard without first imagining how long each value actually lasts in relation to what came before and what comes after.

    Transcription takes rhythm from, "uh, this note is kinda long, and then, uh, there's 3 shorter ones, but the second one is kinda maybe a little longer than the other two, and then there's some kinda, you know, medium length notes..." to the next level. Once you've transcribed the rhythmic aspect of a song, you know exactly what you're trying to do. And like I said, the guys I know who transcribe a lot are the same guys whose ears drag the ground when they walk. This is no coincidence.
  8. I've been trying to do this. Sitting down with my bass and playing snippets I remember from songs. Indeed, you need to be able to sing the part, at least in your head. Then find the first note, find the second note, find the third note, etc.... Or sometimes, whole chunks will come to me when it's a common pattern. Other times, I will have to go out of order, like if the fifth note is very prominent and easy to peg, I can use that as a reference and backfill the blanks.

    It works better with my fretless bass, since I can slide smothly to the note I'm seeking. Also, knowing enough theory to know what notes might be likely to show up is very helpful.

    The guitar player I've been playing a lot with was a music major and can pretty much play any song he's ever heard, chords and all. It's amazingly useful, despite the fact that he never plays covers.

    I took one musicianship course in college where we had to transcribe stuff and hear chords and stuff. For extra challenge, it was a jazz-oriented class, so we would have to say whether it was a #11 chord or b9 chord or whatever. I could somewhat do it at the time; it just takes practice.
  9. I totally agree. I think that an understanding of rhythm and harmony is what separates the men from the boys. However, my point was that I don't believe a young player has to focus on notational skills in order to develope his/her ear. Yes, it provides an excellent tool and resource for visualizing harmonic and rhythmic structure. Yes it helps to define theorietical concepts. And yes, players who transrcribe well or even read well for that matter tend to be better players. But I still say that your notational/transcription skills cannot be thoroughly developed without a reference to your instrument. I witnessed this first hand by seeing vocal majors struggle with ear training in college. Instrumentalists had an easier time. Only those vocalists with piano skills could keep up.

    Ideally, players should learn all of the above simultaneously (reading, harmonic theory, rhythmic theory, transcription skills, applying it all to your ax). I was fortunate enough to have, I'm assuming you have too. But that's not true for everyone. I feel for anyone who wants to better themselves as musicians and missed those essentials early on. And I think it's our job (as bassists) to break it down for them so that they can undserstand it all and improve their playing.

    Again, I think everything you said is valid. I just think your suggestions to take on ear-training and transcription (especially if he doesn't know how to read) can take years to hone and it needs to be approached in a simpler fashion, starting with the bass. :)
  10. ChrisIsOurTime


    Oct 9, 2001
    I've just started trying to learn all my intervals perfectly by ear on a website, good-ear.com (I have no idea how it compares to other ones, its just the first one I found). So far I've already noticed a difference.

    How important is singing though? I mean I can sing but not well. Do I need to be a good singer or just hum the notes? I can do that but I can't project or actually sing a song well. Is it possible to just hear it in your head and not actually sing it?
  11. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY

    I think singing is EXTREMELY important. I teach jazz theory at a couple of Universities in town, and in my class, we have a rule: If you can't sing it, don't tell me you're really "hearing" it, because I'm not buying it. I have a pretty lousy voice, but I can sing on pitch enough to identify what I'm singing. All of the really good musicians I know can sing their parts even if their voices sound like crap.

    If you can sing it, you're hearing it.
    If you can "kinda" sing it, then you're "kinda" hearing it.
    If you can't sing it, then you ain't hearing it.


    (Disclaimer: IMO)
  12. Phil Smith

    Phil Smith Mr Sumisu 2 U

    May 30, 2000
    Peoples Republic of Brooklyn
    Creator of: iGigBook for Android/iOS
    I think singing goes without saying if you HEAR it in your head. If I've remembered how something sounds, whether I imagined it or heard it before, I can sing it, which means that I can also play it. What kills me is that there are some melodies or snippets of melodies, that stick to your brain like velcro even the first time you hear them, whereas others are slippery like grease.

  13. thanks for the tips everyone!
  14. Munjibunga

    Munjibunga Total Hyper-Elite Member Gold Supporting Member

    May 6, 2000
    San Diego (when not at Groom Lake)
    Independent Contractor to Bass San Diego
    I agree that being able to sing the part is critical. The next thing is to recognize intervals and know their patterns on the fretboard. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
  15. markjazzbassist

    markjazzbassist Supporting Member

    Apr 19, 2005
    New Orleans, LA
    listening to mass amounts of music all the time, and playing along with and practicing a lot also helps.
  16. Andy3825


    Jul 31, 2005
    Meriden, CT
    I'm going to have to go and agree with everyone that being able to sing the song (even in your head, but vocally is better) is best. Also, sing notes so you know what one sounds like, so when you hear that certain lick and go to learn it, you are kinda able to narrow the note down within like 1 step of the actual note. As someone said before, learn what chords sound like, intervals, and popular chord progressions (you see A LOT of some progressions...5th-2nd-3rd-1st is very common for example). Basically, just get more familiar with notes, intervals, and chords, and be able to sing whatever you wanna learn.