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Playing by Ear - Melodies

We already know a lot of melodies. Just need to train our fingers and hands to get them out.

PUBLISHED: Jun 25, 2014 UPDATED: Jun 11, 2019 • VIEWS: 2 • LESSON CODE: UL06m

Instruments: ANY ukulele Subjects: beginnerintermediateadvancedintervalsscalesmelodyarpeggiossequences

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Playing by Ear - Melodies

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

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This training involves the mind, hands and ear connection. Of the three the hands need the most work.

Melodies com from four sources:

  • Scales
  • Intervals
  • Arpeggios
  • Sequences

ALL four of these can be addressed for training the ear and hands to work together.


There are six (6) essentials scales for contemporary music to master and 17 for someone exploring the jazz repertoire. All melodies will be from one of these scales.


An interval is the distance between two notes. Scale, intervals and sequences are all made up of intervals. The most common intervals that are used for creating melodies are seconds and thirds. However ALL common intervals of every scale need to be explored. This typically means seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths and octaves. These intervals all show up in melodies and improvisation.


Arpeggios are simply the notes of a chord played as single notes.


A sequence is a melodic phrase of any length repeated from each scale degree of a scale.

Checkout the Related Material for this lessons for links to related lessons on Scales, Intervals, Arpeggios and Sequences.

Learning a Melody

When learning a melody to later *play by ear* you first must really know the melody.

To learn any melody, whether a simple melody that stays on one key and scale to a complex jazz standard that modulates through several keys and scale. You need to Learn the melody and one fingering in one key. This is your reference, go back to key and fingering if needed. use the following steps to master this process.

1. The starting melody note relative to the key and scale that the melody cam from. This implies that you can analyze the melody relative to harmony, the chords. This is your reference, go back to key and fingering if needed.

2. Identify the starting melodic interval based on the starting key of the song. And example would be This Old Man starts in the perfect fifth of a major scale and descends a minor third.

3. Identify the intervalic distance, type and direction of the second interval.

4. Further identify a few more of the starting melodic phrase of line to get to full essence of the melody. This is all for reference and training the ear to hear the melody.

All the work comes when trying to play the melody in any key starting on any finger.

Notating the Melody for Reference

You can notate this information using any method you like. However learning and using one of the following two established methods will serve you better in the long run.

Intervalic Method - Identify the first interval with the interval type followed by the scale degree number related to the scale the melody came from. e.g.

  • M = Major
  • m = Minor
  • P = Perfect
  • A = Augmented
  • D = Diminished

TEST - Simple Melodies

Grab your ukulele and from any Major Scale that you can play. Try the following songs by ear without looking at any music.

This Old Man - Starts on the fifth note of the scale and the first interval is a descending minor third ( P5 down m3 ). In a C Major scale ( C D E F G A B C`) that would be G descending to E.

Brother John - Starts on the root and ascends up to the second ( R up M2 ) and then the third and back to the root, twice. In C major this is C D E C, C D E C'

If you can do this right out of the box - GREAT - Your totally playing by ear. Your fingers know right where the notes are. I personally struggled with this early on and after going through all the above - the scales, intervals, arpeggios, scale and sequences started to have more success a bit more success.

What typically happens is you play wrong notes and know they are wrong notes. Your fingers are more than happy to not follow your inner ear. It just means the hands need a bit more training to get in line and get with the show and follow your ear.

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