Playing by Ear - The Ultimate Goal

The ultimate goal for any musician when playing a musical instrument.

PUBLISHED: Jul 21, 2011 • UPDATED: Oct 8, 2015 • LESSON CODE: UL06 • VISITS: 28

ukulele Subjects: intermediatebeginnerintervalstheorytransposing

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Playing by Ear - The Ultimate Goal

Playing by ear is the ultimate goal for any musician when playing a musical instrument. It's true whether you're singing, banging a drum, strumming a guitar, or our favorite instrument, the ukulele.

If your fingers can already interpret and follow what your inner ear commands, you’ve obtained your goal and are playing by ear. However, the fact is that it's actually very uncommon for individuals to be able to "play by ear" with no apparent effort.

If you are like most people new or relatively new to learning to play an instrument, you need a plan to train your fingers to follow your ear melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically. This comes from an understanding of the music principles that drive music and lead the ear to direct the fingers so that then, and only then, can you start on the road to Playing by Ear.

Whether performing or practicing, music involves three elements: your mind, your hands, and your ear. When performing music, your ear directs your hands. And if all goes well, your mind is not involved and only gets involved when things don’t go as planned. Getting to this performance goal, whether it’s simply performing for your own enjoyment or on stage takes work and an organized approach to developing an "ear-hand-mind" connection so all will work together.

Common wisdom states that it takes 10,000 hours to master any skill. This is essentially true - it does take hours and hours of dedicated, quality practice and exploration. I've found this to be especially true when learning any musical instrument, even the ukulele, despite its reputation as an easy to learn instrument. Getting really good and getting comfortable in performance and learning to play by ear takes not mindless hours and hours, but an organized, dedicated, systematic approach with distant goals and building blocks to ensure that you reach that ultimate goal.

The Internet is full of debate and examples of people who seem to be able to cheat at this without putting in the time. I regret to inform you that there is NO shortcut, and simply putting in the time alone is also not always enough. A lot of people put in the time. So what makes someone more successful when learning a musical instrument than another? Or, more importantly, how can you set yourself up for success?

Tips for Success

Here you go - my tips for success:

Get a coach, advisor or teacher - and not just any coach. Whether you have a coach, advisor, teacher, guide, guru or whatever you call them, they must be successful with a proven track record of helping others obtain their goals - not simply good players. Finding the right coach can take work, trial, and error. Some look to performers of their chosen instrument to become their teachers. This can be good place to start, but not all performers make good teachers. However, they probably had a good teacher. It's sort of like getting past the Academy award-winning actor and finding their most significant teacher - the behind-the-scenes person who played an invaluable role in the actor's success. Early in my development, I found Chuck Anderson. So hopefully you're be as lucky as I was to find a great teacher, coach, or mentor early in your development.

Practice Deliberately - have distinct goals and a plan for each session. Monitor your success, practice specific skills and problem areas, and constantly strive for improvement. If your practice sounds good, you're probably not really practicing but may simply be repeating something you can already do. Work instead on what you really need to improve: work on what you can’t do, or want to do better.

Teach Others - we learn by doing, and learn more and learn better when we teach others what we know. There is nothing like presenting what you know to others to truly understand it yourself. In all my years of teaching, I've found this to be extremely beneficial in my own musical development.

The Mind, the Ear, and the Hand - each one of these needs training, with specific steps to obtain the playing by ear goal. The ear needs to recognize the intervals, chords and rhythm that make up the melody, harmony, and rhythm of a song. But for all of the training needed for the mind and ear, it's largely up to the hands when playing an instrument, that is, they need the most training to successfully execute what the ear wants. So, make a plan, set your goals, find a good teacher, and practice, practice practice!

"Playing by Ear" vs. "Learning by Ear"

Don't get "Playing by Ear" and "Learning by Ear" mixed up. It's hit and miss to try and learn by ear. You need to train your ear and brain to understand what is going on in order to play by ear. Understanding the principles of how music works will go a long way on your ability to play by ear.

Start with training your ear to identify (hear) and sing melodic intervals.

End of Lesson - Thanks, Hope You Enjoyed It!

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Related Lessons

Related Lessons for Playing by Ear - The Ultimate Goal at this time.

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Understanding Diatonic Intervals • Updated: Dec 9, 2011

An interval is the distance between two notes. An interval has a name and a type. Intervals can be played one note (melodic) or two notes (harmonic) at a time, ascending or descending.

Simple and Compound Intervals are taken from a major scale.

Chromatic Intervals are NOT taken from a major scale. They are derived from the diatonic intervals.

Ear Training • Updated: Oct 21, 2017

Ear Training is the development of the active and passive capability to relate to music aurally. This includes the ability to recognize melodic and harmonic intervals, chords, chords progressions, rhythm, melody, and harmony.

The Chromatic Scale • Updated: Nov 26, 2018

The only scale in music with ALL twelve notes of one octave. Not much use for improvisation or solos – but a great scale for learning the notes of the fingerboard, figuring out scales, chords and more...

The Major Scale • Updated: Feb 7, 2020

Called the learning scale for a reason. The major scale is a great scale for learning how music and chords work. It’s a core scale from which a majority of your core, essential scales can be derived.

Key Signatures and the Circle of Fifths and Fourths • Updated: Nov 18, 2019

There is a load of information in traditional Key Signatures. Unlocking the principles in this circle leads to a better understanding of music and how things work.

A key signature is a series of sharp or flat symbols placed on the staff, designating the notes that are to be consistently played higher or lower than the equivalent natural notes. Key signatures are generally written immediately after the clef at the beginning of a line of musical notation. Each major and minor key has an associated key signature that sharpens or flattens the notes which are used in its scale.

Playing by Ear - Melodies • Updated: Jun 11, 2019

Playing melodies, licks, riffs, motifs, single note lines by ear is all about getting your ear to recognize intervals and train the fingers-the hand to follow your inner ear and play these melodies on demand.

Playing by Ear - Chords • Updated: Oct 6, 2016

Playing chords, chord progressions, and songs by ear is all about getting your ear to recognize the sound of chords and chord progressions and just like melodies, train the fingers and the hand to follow your inner ear and play these chords, chord progressions, and songs on demand.

This training involves the mind, hands and ear. Of the three the hands always need the most work as they can't hear or understand anything - only what they have been trained to do so.

Playing by Ear - Rhythm • Updated: Jun 18, 2016

Playing rhythm by ear is all about getting your ear to recognize the sound of rhythm and just like melodies, train the fingers and the hands to follow your inner ear and play these rhythms on demand. Learning to play rhythms using a monotone, one note or sound is a lot easier to learn than learning to hear and play melodies.

Rhythm is best learned using Chuck Anderson's Modular Phonetic Rhythm System. I've had nothing but success using this system with my personal private students.

Modular Phonetic Rhythm represents a significant advance in the teaching and application of rhythm. Eliminating many inefficient aspects of rhythm education, Modular Phonetic Rhythm streamlines the traditional educational approach, resulting in a reflexive reaction when play rhythm.

Related Books

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Daily Practice Material for the Contemporary Ukulele
Updated: Nov 20, 2019

Learning the Ukulele Fingerboard - C Tuning
Updated: Apr 19, 2017

Learning the Ukulele Fingerboard - D Tuning
Updated: Sep 23, 2009

Learning the Ukulele Fingerboard - G Tuning
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Harmonic Analysis for Scale Selection and Chord Substitution
Updated: Feb 7, 2019

Modular Phonetic Rhythm, The Foundation and Workbook 1
Updated: Nov 9, 2015

A Guide to Blues Chord Progressions for Ukulele A to Z
Updated: Jun 15, 2006

Exploring Jazz Chords on Ukulele
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Related Songs

Related Songs for Playing by Ear - The Ultimate Goal at this time.

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Any Song Will Do
Updated: Dec 7, 2015

When any song here can be used for the concepts in the lessons.

Related Lesson Series

Related Lessons Series for Playing by Ear - The Ultimate Goal at this time.

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Playing by Ear
Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Learning to play by ear is the ultimate goal when learning any musicial instrument. This series of lessons is designed to get you to that goal. Whether it's melodies or chords, it can be done.

Harmonic Analysis for Scale and Chord Selection
Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Harmonic Analysis is the process used to determine the harmonic function of chords within a chord progression or song. A chord progression is defined as a sequence of chords, each chord has a root and is a particular chord type. The relationship of a chord's to a scale determines its function within that scale's tonality.

This series of lessons are extracted from my book for use with individual private and on-line students-members.

Understanding Intervals
Updated: Feb 21, 2020

An interval is the distance between two notes. An interval has a name and a type. Intervals can be played one note (melodic) or two notes (harmonic) at a time, ascending or descending.

Simple and Compound Intervals are taken from a major scale.

Chromatic Intervals are NOT taken from a major scale. They are derived from the diatonic intervals.

This series is all about understanding intervals.

Related Lesson Files, Resources and Assets

Related Assets for Playing by Ear - The Ultimate Goal at this time.

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Key Signatures - Cycle of Fourths and Fifths
Updated: Oct 14, 2019

A handy reference chart of all 15 major and relative minor key signatues.


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