When you learn to play by ear, most people learn to hear the music in either ‘relative’ pitch, although a few people are able to hear the music in ‘absolute’ pitch (sometimes known as ‘perfect’ pitch).
Relative pitch is where you can identify the melody (and usually the chords also) relative to the musical ‘key’ or scale being used, without being able to identify what the actual ‘key’ or scale is. For example – if you listened to a recording of the opening melody of Three Blind Mice, you could express the melody in relative terms as:-
Mee Ray Doh – Me Ray Doh – Soh Fah Fah Mee – Soh Fah Fah Mee or in numbers:-
321, 321, 5443, 5443.
By being able to identify the melody in relative terms, you would be able to walk up to a piano, select a key to play in eg C and play the melody so that other people would recognise the tune. Whatever key you choose to play the tune in, may or may not the same as the key in which the original recording was played.
In contrast, if you were able to identify the tune with absolute pitch, you would be able to identify the original key and the actual notes, rather than just the relative notes eg if the original key was C – the notes of the melody for Three Blind Mice would be E D C – E D C – G F F E – G F F E
Or if the key was G – the notes would be B A G – B A G – D C C B – D C C B
Practice Makes Perfect!
Some people believe that the skill to identify music with absolute pitch (perfect pitch) is a skill which requires certain genetic qualities or ‘natural abilities’ whilst others believe that like relative pitch, it is a skill that can be learnt. Ether way, most agree that both skills require practice to improve accuracy and ease at which you can play by ear.
Reading Notation vs Playing by Ear
How do the different method of playing piano compare ie reading notation and playing by ear? As someone who can both read notation and play by ear, I find the 2 methods opposite approaches to the same end goal – like any different approach – one method will suit different people better than another – with both being equally valid. I learnt to read notation and play classical music from the age of 6 to 14 and then joined a band and learnt to play by ear.
I think standard notation is great if you want to play classical music or jazz. If you want to play popular music – the way I learnt, was to focus solely on the chord structures and the melody line – which is far easier than trying to work out each individual note. Once you start doing this – compare what you think with the actual chords (there are lots of free sites online that tell you the chords – e.g. for guitar etc..) and you hone your accuracy skills. The melody becomes easy when you consider that there are usually only 7 different notes used in pop (the same as the do, re mi scale). If you think in relative terms, rather than absolute terms e.g. number the notes and chords are 1, 4,5 (in C this would be C F G) and in the key of G they would be G C D. This way it becomes easy to work out songs in your head instantly and use a few simple patterns and rules, to create your bass riffs and style to jam around the chords and create a professional sounding result.
Playing By Ear
I find that playing by ear is much more enjoyable than reading ‘dots’ and is relatively easy when you discover the simple patterns and patterns within patterns that the vast majority of popular (and a lot of classical music) is comprised of. Typically, songs may often use less than 5 different chords and the melody often sticks to the standard 7 note scale – so realising this makes it pretty easy to work out what the chords, melody and harmonies are. Many chordal and melodic patterns can be understood as a ‘whole sequence’ in a split second – just as when listening to speech – we recognise phrases instantly, instead of only hearing each individual letter or syllable, then mentally calculate what words these form and then work out the meaning of the sentences. For me – it is the pattern recognition that makes plating by ear so quick and with a few simple rules, enables you to add bass lines, fills, and accompaniment, around a framework of a few chords.
By comparison – for me, reading the dots is the opposite approach – where each individual note, timing and pitch is dictated to you, to be followed as closely as possible to the arrangement written down. The chordal patterns are not easily identifiable and the music is taught in a didactic approach which does not encourage improvisation with the objective to produce a faithful reproduction of the written arrangement. This method works well for new music which you have not heard before, group ensembles where specific musicians are required to play specific arrangements, or pieces with very technical and complex musical passages, which do not follow obvious ‘patterns’ or chordal structures.
In my experience, reading notation is more suited to classical music – where playing by ear is more suited to popular music. By using the process that I use to play by ear – I have created a the DecPlay ‘relative’ pitch methods of teaching music using numbers that take the best bits of playing by ear and the best bits of notation which dramatically reduces the time taken to learnt to play (typically to less than 1 hour) for complete beginners.
Learning to play by ear bring a whole new understanding to music. It is a fantastic feeling to hear a new piece of music and immediately recognise the chords and melody and the constituent parts that the song is built from. It is even more fulfilling to be able to walk over to a piano and start to play this song for the first time – adding in your own interpretation and style.