Chapter 1
The Most Fun in Music

istening to music is fun; playing music is more fun; playing music by ear is the most fun of all. If the player remembers the music he is playing by means of his ear, he is playing by ear. But most players who have learned to play by the traditional method of reading notes on a page and then punching keys on an instrument do not trust to their ears to tell them what is coming next. Instead, they remember the notes by name or by their chord name, or they have a visual memory of how the notes look on the page, or they use some other nonmusical system of recall. Naturally this turns their attention from the sound of the music and encourages the habit of watching keenly the mechanics of playing with almost total disregard for the music itself.

Practicing music is not fun. So say most of the children who are taking lessons and many of us adults who once took lessons but "wouldn't practice." But practicing is in­deed fun for many children. Listening to music is fun; and when listening to music is the chief activity in practice, practicing is fun. This is even more true for adults than it is for children; children get pleasure from the intellectual and physical exercise involved in practice. Perhaps adults do also, but there is not so much novelty in it for the adult. However, when one practices the music, and not the mechanics, the result is fun—or the person just doesn't like music.

People who play by ear are generally considered to be especially talented. This is entirely a fiction. They do not play by ear because they are talented; rather they are talented because they play by ear. They use their ears in determining what is correct to play, and this constant activity develops their ability to manipulate musical sounds.

In contrary fashion, the person who never plays by ear frequently renders himself less and less "talented." When this neglect is perpetuated year after year, the individual does become one-sided and cannot play even the simplest little tune by ear. This does not mean, however, that he cannot learn to play by ear but rather that he particularly needs to use his ear and overcome his weakness. If the advanced musical performer is unable to play by ear, he can improve his performance decidedly by learning to play by ear—even if he learns this method of playing only to a rather small extent. The musical feel and insight which this develops is commonly considered talent.

 For those who do not play any musical instrument or who play merely for their own amusement, ear playing offers an opportunity for rich self-development. How much we get out of life depends upon our experiences, which in turn depend upon the keenness of our perception—upon our ability to feel minute differences in our sensations. The blind man does not enjoy painting, and the deaf man gets nothing out of music. But many people who have- perfect hearing are unable to remember a musical tune, and even the most ardent concertgoer is limited in his enjoyment of music by his inability to remember themes or to differentiate between slightly contrasted harmonies. Just as the epicure enjoys his food more than some of us who cannot sense the difference between various spices, so the person who has developed a sensitive ear gets much more out of music than the person who "can't carry a tune in a basket." Our personalities and our lives are made richer by experiencing the subtle expressions of great artists and great composers.

Anyone who can hear can learn to play by ear. Nor is a teacher necessary. Learning to play by ear is much like learning to talk; one fools around with the various keys or finger positions until he strikes a combination that he wants or likes, and then he knows how to get it again. The basic nature of such learning consists in forming an association between some muscular pattern and a pleasant response. The pleasant response of a musical sound or phrase associates itself with the finger pattern that produced it, and when we have learned this we have learned how to get that musical idea whenever we want it.

The boy whistles and the girl turns round. The next time he wants the girl to turn round he does not say to himself, "Now I must whistle"; nor does he stop to think how he holds his tongue or what particular inflection he needs in his whistle. He just whistles. The bond between his desire and the muscles of his mouth is firmly established. He could have learned to do this by imitating someone else; we can learn to play by ear this way, too. He could have been told how to make this particular whistle, or he might even have read how in an instruction book; but in that case his whistle probably wouldn't have been effective. I doubt if the girl would have turned round.

So it is in music. When we couple the musical effect we are seeking with the feeling in our muscles, the bond is much more efficient than when it goes through intellectual and other nonaural channels. Notation and technique tend to interfere with this process. You are your own best teacher for ear playing.

To be sure, there are great individual differences; some people use their ears much more than others. Most people have an efficient visual memory and can recall in the mind's eye just how a certain person or house looks; others do not have this ability.

Many people find this difficult to believe; they have such a vivid visual memory themselves that they cannot conceive of a person who is devoid of it. The same holds true with aural memory—the memory of sounds. Some people can hear music in their imagination very completely; others carry only a vague impression. However, anyone can develop this ability. One must begin at his own state of advancement; the one who has it the least needs it the most.

In order to understand how we reproduce music we must analyze the process. There are two big divisions in any musical performance, regardless of whether the player learns by ear or by notes: first, he must be able to remember what the music or notes or fingers are; and second, he must be able to find them on his instrument. A person may recall the notes by seeing them on the page in his mind's eye; or he may carry the feel of them in his fingers; or he may remember the names of the notes or of certain combinations of notes; or he may remember the sound of the tune and harmony—that is, he may hear it in his mind's ear. Of course this last is the most musical way; but any other way may be completely efficient. Most players use a combination.

The ear player necessarily trusts to the ear most of the time; but he may, after having discovered how to play a certain passage by ear, hold it in his memory by the looks of his hand on the keys or by the feeling of the position of his hand, etc. The important difference between learning to play by ear and learning to play by note is that the ear player absolutely must hear the music while he is learning it, but the note player may learn it without using his ears at all.

The second part of the process, that of playing the note or chord after one has recalled it, seems to give the advantage to the note player. If he knows the name of the note or can see it vividly on the page, he should have no difficulty in striking it. The ear player may hear the note vividly and still not know where it is on his instrument. But the person who has learned to play by note is unable to strike a note which he merely hears, because he has never developed this set of associations; and, therefore, he must always learn and re­member all his notes by some nonmusical means. The ear player, however, has spent his time finding the notes he hears and is very efficient at it.

Moreover, if the ear player makes a mistake, he will probably play another note that sounds good; but if the note player makes an error, it is likely to be a very sour note. If you are reciting a poem which has no meaning for you, any mistake which you make may render the text ridiculous; but if you have niemorized the poem by its meaning, you may substitute words and still not destroy the meaning. That is merely saying over again that playing by ear is more musical than playing by note.

These two processes—that of recalling the music and that of then producing it—develop together; but the player should discriminate as to where his difficulty lies in order that he may help himself more efficiently.

A person must begin at his own level, but the manner of development, as well as the speed of progress, varies with different individuals and with the same individual at different times. How much music have you heard? How much can you recall? How much do you enjoy? Try to recall the tunes vividly. Sing them aloud or sing them in your inner ear. This is the first step in learning to play by ear.

Practice is necessary for playing by ear; it is a popular mis­conception that ear players never practice. Perhaps their practice does not resemble the laborious repetitions and painful technical exercises of the traditional music student; but they do work at the numbers which they play. The note reader can play much music at sight, and the ear player can immediately reproduce much that he hears; but they have both practiced to gain this ability, and they both must practice when they wish to render something that is difficult for them.

The ear player plays along as far as he can and then searches for the next note or chord. He tries this and that until he finds a satisfactory solution; or he may give it up and come back to it another time. This is practice, even though it is more fun than crossword puzzles or solitaire. Practice is not necessarily drudgery!

The more popular ear players, however, do much of their practicing right while they are playing. Watch one at the piano and you will see his left hand reach in the direction of a note of which he is not sure. In the next verse he may touch the note softly—the wrong note. In the next verse he tries another, and when the right note is found it is often thumped out with particular delight. Each subsequent playing brings in some new refinement and the player introduces ideas of his own and frequently, in the case of popular music, improves upon the original. This may or may not be called practice, but it is effective and lots of fun.

The ability to read notes is a decided advantage to the ear player, but it frequently takes away from the desire to learn to play by ear. All note players, however, play to a certain extent by ear; phrasing, expression, tempo, and tone quality are thus learned. Even rhythm is generally carried in the ear. But when a person has learned to play interesting music by note, he is seldom willing to take the time necessary to develop his ear playing. Nor is he willing to work at easy little folk tunes or music of the level which his ear can grasp.

The ear player practices only what his ear can grasp; the note player undertakes anything which he can figure out, and then gradually his ear comprehends it. This makes possible the performance of music that is far above his musical com­prehension; but if he wishes to play by ear, he must practice music that is below his level of musical comprehension. Anyone who has done it, however, will insist that it is well worth while. The ability to read notes allows one to help himself with ear playing just as we use a dictionary to help ourselves in pronunciation. However, we can talk without a dictionary and we can play without notes.

When a person begins to play by ear, he must not be too particular about the results. One begins by getting the over­all effect and then gradually refines the rendition. His per­formance will, of course, never be better than he can hear; but at first it will not be satisfactory even to his own ear. Indeed, no one ever plays as well by ear as he would like to; but neither do the note players ever play as well as they would like to.

Nearly everything we learn in life is learned in a general way first and the details and refinements are added later. This is very distressing to the note player, who frequently works at just a few measures until he has them perfect and
then adds a few more measures until they are perfect, etc. He is greatly annoyed by a single note that sounds wrong to him; but one can't learn to play by ear and be such a perfectionist. He may know exactly how the music should sound, but he is like the amateur trombone player who expressed his dilemma: "I blow in so sweet, and it comes out so sour!"

Indeed, this rather careless—or carefree—approach to music is just what makes ear playing so enjoyable. We need a relaxation of our rational life, and we enjoy the freedom from discipline and concentration which is the characteristic of good ear playing. Our most notable ear players started when they were young and practiced as naively as they practiced their native tongue. The little child is happy to spend hours making vague gurgling sounds which eventually become refined into beautiful English. Let the ear player follow his example.

We have all heard the person who was so anxious to get just the precise words in the precise place that he was unable to speak at all. This is very irritating to the listener, and the similar procedure in music may be even more exasperating to both performer and listener. Indeed, the agony of pupil recitals often hangs on just this point. Instead, we should treat our music like a foreign language in which we are content to get across our main idea without worrying too much about the correct grammar and pronunciation.

We adults find it difficult to realize how much learning takes place without any conscious effort on our part. William James reports the case of an ignorant servant girl who was thought to have connections with the spiritual world because she recited long passages of Greek, which she obviously had never studied. Upon investigation it was discovered, however, that several years earlier she had worked in the home of a Greek professor who recited these passages in Greek while waiting for his breakfast. Although we may not be able to learn with such naive abandon of intellectual concentration, we may, nevertheless, take a lesson from the servant girl and permit our impression­able ears to retain as much as they can. In other words, our intellects often interfere with our learning process; we force a conscious analysis which blocks our native talent.

Nor can we be too certain of the order in which this musical learning should take place. Often the thing which strikes the ear most poignantly is learned first rather than the most simple item. A little five-year-old coming to me for his lesson once played passionately the opening strains of Tschaikowsky's Marche Slave. He had heard it several times on the phonograph and it had caught his ear; or he had happened to strike on the piano the notes which make up the familiar motive. For him that was the natural beginning point. In other words, we begin by learning to play what we want to play—within limitations. For the child these limitations are scarcely noticeable; but for us adults—well, our ambitions may just be too great at the start.

In arranging the material in this book, however, it is necessary to hold to an order; we have chosen the logical order from simple to complex. It is not presumed that it will suit any particular student; rather, let the student follow his own inclination and read the text for suggestions as to profitable procedure.

The following three chapters provide all that is necessary to "play by ear" in the popular conception of the phrase. This provides the material necessary to play the popular songs that are called for in the jam sessions around the piano at a social evening. On the other hand, those who wish to play the Moonlight Sonata and similar works will find it profitable to pursue the book to the end, even though they are not interested in following all the suggestions for practice. One may skip about in the book at pleasure; the chapter headings indicate where to find the desired material.

The student should be warned, however, against following only his own inclination. In listening to music we notice whatever comes most easily to our attention; but often, when we feel a lack in our rendition, we have missed the thing which is essential to the composition but does not naturally strike our attention. Thus most beginners are dissatisfied with the melody because they miss the harmony, which they hear only vaguely as they listen to a composition. The entire argument of this book is to bring these vague impressions to the front and make them sufficiently vivid so that they may be reproduced on the instrument. By learning to play by ear one also learns to hear more in music. Thus true appreciation and enjoyment grow.

No notation whatsoever is necessary to play by ear. In giving directions, however, some method of designating tones and keys is essential. Numbers and letters are used throughout the text to indicate all that is essential during the first year of ear playing. For those who already know notation, the staff and notes are included whenever this might aid quick comprehension. Those who do not know notation will quickly pick it up, if they so desire, by comparing both the letters and staff notation when they are given together. All should be strongly warned, however, against playing from the notation; such a process defeats our entire purpose. Look at the numbers, letters, or staff notation; then close the book and allow the keyboard and the inner ear to associate in that cooperative function which we call playing by ear.

Any instrument may be used in learning to play by ear. Indeed, it often seems that the more instruments attempted, the more likely one is to learn. The variety of technique involved compels the player to rely more upon his ear. If the pianist picks up a flute or cornet, he will immediately begin to play it by ear, since his ear is more efficient than his knowledge of fingering on the instrument.

The melody or single-line instruments are naturally more easy to learn by ear. We have all played tunes by ear on the recorder, or mouth organ, or toy xylophone. The piano appears the most complicated of all, but this is because the player expects to play not only the melody but also the harmony and complex figuration which accompany the melody. If one will be satisfied with playing just the melody which would be played on a single-line instrument, then the piano is the easiest of all. Here one can see all the black and white keys arranged in logical order, and they may be played with any finger that is convenient. In just a few moments one begins, either consciously or unconsciously, to gauge the tonal intervals with great ease. For this reason, the piano is the instrument under primary consideration through­out this text. However, we are not going to be satisfied with playing just a single-line melody, but shall include the harmony and polyphony and—well, just how far do you want to go?

Those who already play the piano by note are strongly encouraged to learn to play by ear. Most pianists cannot play by ear and are secretly convinced that they have not the talent or are unable to learn. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Not only will such players learn rapidly but they will find that their regular performance from notation is greatly improved. They will play more musically, because they have learned to hear more in the music. Most pianists listen only to the top part; but the greatness of the masterworks does not lie chiefly in the top part. One can produce an adequate interpretation only in so far as he is able to hear everything that the composer put into the composition.

Such advanced players, however, must not be discouraged by the very trivial material with which they must begin; this merely indicates the rich extent of the return which may be had from their effort in this direction. The start will be discouraging, but they soon will be entertained with their own psychological observations; and improvement will be rapid and satisfying.

The old superstition that those who learn to play by ear are thereby handicapped in learning to play from notes is not true. Quite the contrary—they become much better sight readers because they read by musical units instead of by separate notes or by nonmusical groupings. True, there are some ear players who find it so easy to play by ear that they are never willing to put forth the little effort necessary to learn notation; but it would have required even more effort for them to learn notation before they learned how to play by ear. As a general rule, the good ear players are the good sight readers.

Many advanced players find it difficult to memorize music and become convinced that they are unable to memorize. This is only because they have never really heard the music which they produce. They have always figured out the notes, and this process took so much time and concentration that they actually heard what they were playing less than if some­one else had been playing the composition. It is practically impossible for anyone to memorize unrelated notes for there are various possibilities for relating notes—by visual patterns, by fingering groups, etc. The most effective system is by the sound patterns—by ear. This is the musical way, isn't it? Let the person who finds it difficult to memorize learn to play by ear. He will then find memorizing easy and certain.

For the young pupil who will not practice or who seems very unmusical or who comes from another teacher with no apparent results of instruction, let the teacher begin with ear playing and then gradually add the note reading. However, the unmusical beginning with just note punching may have been worse than no beginning at all; the child may be set against music. For such a child select some very easy ram­bunctious tune and let him use his fists on it. He may thus be encouraged to get some enjoyable feeling out of the music and discover that music can be fun.

Ear playing is also profitable for any pupil, right along­side of his regular assignments. It helps the unmusical pupil to feel his music and to interpret it more musically; it relieves the monotony of both lessons and practice; and it takes so little of the lesson time—just enough to hear the little piece and to suggest the next step for improvement.

Note playing does not prevent a person from playing by ear; and, similarly, ear playing does not prevent a person from learning to use notes, which is to be encouraged at all times. Eventually the ear player will decide to learn notation.

This has been a rather lengthy explanation of the process of learning to play by ear. It has seemed necessary because of the great amount of superstition and false information in the field. With this background the student should now be able to chart his own path with confidence.


Listen to simple tunes many times over.
Hear your favorite recordings over and over.
Try to think them all the way through in your mind's

Better still, try to sing them or whistle them.
Make a list of the folk tunes and nursery rhymes
that  you know; these will be a good beginning.

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