The THEORY of playing by EAR?

General_Lee

Gretschie
Apr 23, 2022
378
Manitoba, Canada
My original learning experience of guitar craft was entirely that of an ear player. Now, don't get me wrong, I've always been fascinated by the look of the musical score and found it both beautiful to look at as well as deeply arcane and mysterious. Sadly, or perhaps happily, there was no one in our area that taught the conventional rudiments of music. It wasn't until I attended university that I finally met a "bona fide" music teacher. Of course the only courses available were classically based studies. I took a theory course, but was quite ill equipped to absorb the dry, esoteric material that was geared more toward piano students anyway. Still, I never lost my fascination for at least the idea of formally understanding what I could only (sort of) play by ear.

Post university, I finally decided enough was enough and I began to teach myself, through guitar-oriented material that was finally coming on line, the real ins and outs of theory, from a "practical" point of view. IOW, how could I marry my natural (sort of) ear based talent to an approach that could open doors such as studio work, teaching, writing, and of course more advanced playing?

So, did I accomplish this goal? Well, herein lies the root of this thread. Question: can formal theory and ear playing live together peacefully, even synergistically. Well, I'm sure most of you have some experience and POVs on the matter. What then is your experience/take on the subject? What is mine? If anyone is interested, then lets get this thread started and see if we can find some clues from each other how/if this dual threat can/has/has not been accomplished.

BTW, I'll fill in the gaps in my own story as we proceed. As well, I'll do my best to give helpful hints to anyone looking to up their game both theory and ear wise.

PS. Don't be too impatient along the way, as my access to the net remains limited and sporadic. I'll still be watching/participating with extreme interest...
 

Emergence

Synchromatic
Gold Supporting Member
May 25, 2022
720
New York
Can theory and playing by ear coexist? Neither does well without the other.

My musical background was public school music, starting with tuba in 4th grade and gradually adding in other brass instruments. I played in band, orchestra, and stage band in school. I wouldn’t say I was classically trained but I could read music and play a few instruments. I started teaching myself guitar in 7th grade. I learned from chord books and sheet music and by 10th grade was playing surf by ear. I figured out chords to Stones and Beatles stuff and played in a garage band. I taught myself bass, double bass, to play in a jazz combo in college and reached the point where I could figure out the chords to late ‘60s protest music to play in coffee houses. By ‘74, things changed. I was in graduate school and working on a career. I got married and had kids and really started career building. There was no time for guitar anymore.

I came back to guitar in my 50’s. The kids were out of the house and my career was near it’s peak. I wanted to play country and broaden my repertoire. Country isn’t simple. I downloaded chords and lyrics and found chords I’d never seen before. Solos rarely worked from the pentatonic box. There was no way to make progress without learning scales, chords, arpeggios, how to solo off chords. In short I needed to learn theory as it applied to modern pop music genres, not just classical.

The theory I needed to learn was easier to master than the engineering principles I used on my job and there was no math involved. I escaped from the pentatonic box and learned as I needed something new. I learned a few modes. I learned a few finger styles. That’s more technique than theory until you begin to understand why some finger styles work better on some songs than others. And like I said, it was easier to learn than engineering. There’s no field theory or any other mind bending stuff.

So now I’m retired. And I’m still learning. I learn what I need as I need it. Sometimes I wonder if I should go back to school but why? I’ve always been able to learn what I need as I need it.
 
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fretbuzzard

Gretschie
Apr 18, 2009
256
Not here.
Well, university music curricula usually include courses on theory, ear training, and performance at the very least, and jazz students spend a lot of time transcribing solos - which draws pretty heavily on both aural and theory chops, so I’d say yes, they go together nicely.
 

Hammerhands

Country Gent
Aug 26, 2011
2,517
Winnipeg
Herb Ellis said either, "I only play it if I can sing it." or maybe, "If I can sing it, I can play it."

You can only get so far playing by ear, but I guess far enough.

I wish my ear was better. This is a major chord, this is a minor, this is a diminished. A good ear would pick out the chord, the key, the note vs. the chord and the key, and what else is there?

There are things that can be more than one thing, so you may hear it one way but it works because it is [also] something else, sometimes something else entirely, and if you think of it one way, when you try to use that idea somewhere else, it isn't going to work, and unless you understand the theory, you may never know why. I can use that here...if this and this happens maybe as close as you will get by ear.

But those cases are not going to limit you much, and are possibly rarely ever encountered by someone who only plays by ear.

It's all meaningless if you can't hear it. You can know by experience or theory what you will get when you play something, and when it doesn't come out as you expect, you can note it or you can delve into why.
 

wabash slim

I Bleed Orange
Feb 10, 2010
18,836
lafayette in
I play piano and guitar by ear. I've had people ask me to teach them how to do it.
I can't even explain it to myself, how could I possibly teach it to someone else?
I had a couple of months of piano lessons as a youngster, so I have a vague idea how notation works, but realized I could just play the song rather than figure out what the dots meant. I can play along with records/CDs. Someone said that it was easy for me as it was the same band. Fine---started playing with the radio---any song, commercials, jingles, etc. If I hear it, I can play it. Can't explain how.
 

dmunson

Gretschie
Dec 19, 2015
491
Charlotte, NC
Personally, I think you can go as far as you want playing by ear. It has served me very well for the last 60+ years. The secret, if there is one, that you need to keep your ears open to all of the aspects that combine to make you the player that you want to be.
For example, play with musicians that are more experienced, read up on music theory, specifically as it relates to the guitar, and ask questions about anything that you have trouble relating to yourself.
Playing by ear does not mean isolating yourself in any way. It'a actually a way to connect with who you really are, as a muscian.
 

Jelly Roll Horton

Country Gent
Nov 10, 2017
2,043
Portland, OR
Herb Ellis said either, "I only play it if I can sing it." or maybe, "If I can sing it, I can play it."

You can only get so far playing by ear, but I guess far enough.

I wish my ear was better. This is a major chord, this is a minor, this is a diminished. A good ear would pick out the chord, the key, the note vs. the chord and the key, and what else is there?

There are things that can be more than one thing, so you may hear it one way but it works because it is [also] something else, sometimes something else entirely, and if you think of it one way, when you try to use that idea somewhere else, it isn't going to work, and unless you understand the theory, you may never know why. I can use that here...if this and this happens maybe as close as you will get by ear.

But those cases are not going to limit you much, and are possibly rarely ever encountered by someone who only plays by ear.

It's all meaningless if you can't hear it. You can know by experience or theory what you will get when you play something, and when it doesn't come out as you expect, you can note it or you can delve into why.

"You can only get so far playing by ear, but I guess far enough."
This is true of everything, isn’t it? ;)
 

Craig Encinitas

Gretschie
Gold Supporting Member
May 3, 2021
413
Encinitas, Ca
I learned to play piano by ear. So much easier than guitar. Middle C will always be Middle C. Guitar is much more about feeling. When I watch tutorial videos on how to play something on guitar, unless the instructor is left handed, I have to flip the image around in my head. And they go way too fast!

Look at any piano video. Camera above the keyboard, both hands in view. As I sit with my keyboard in front of the computer, it’s almost too easy. Doesn’t mean I can play the new song at full speed, but the visual is 100%.

So…lately I just listen. Stop the song if I can’t keep up, and try and play it. Also, jamming with friends makes learning easier. Because my buddy is happy to play a phrase over and over until I can find it on my guitar.

How cool that there are many ways of learning?
😎 🤘🏻 🎸

Oh yeah…and tablature. 😉
 

General_Lee

Gretschie
Apr 23, 2022
378
Manitoba, Canada
Lots of great observations and clues so far gentleman.

Getting back to my own experiences on the subject, I will reiterate that I only came to a theoretical understanding of what I was doing by ear, quite late, and by most standards of learning, quite slowly. This was mainly because, in spite of my university experience, nearly all the "practical" theory I needed was completely self taught. It literally took me decades to learn to read music and I'll never be a "sight" reader. But one of the things I know now is that you don't have to be a good reader to still get a lot of mileage out of basic theory.

Now let me clarify that when I use the term "theory", I'm speaking about tools that assist, rather than replace, playing by ear. IOW, those aspects of harmony/scales/rhythm that can save you time on your quest to become a more proficient ear player. Think on this...
 
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General_Lee

Gretschie
Apr 23, 2022
378
Manitoba, Canada
Continuing. For example, here is a very short synopsis of some of the things I've come to understand about marrying theory and ear training:

1. You do NOT have to be able to read musical notation very well. This is a good thing because reading notation for the guitar is one of the most time intensive and difficult things you can do with the instrument.

2. You do NOT have to spend your days and hours practicing pure scales. (see comment above).

3. You do need to understand that the simple major scale is the key to understanding pretty much any pop (country, jazz, folk, blues, rock) style that you might care to talk about.

4. The reason the major scale is important is that it not only opens the door to practical harmony, it also open the door to practical ear-training (i.e. development of the ear beyond pure trial and error). The major scale is the easiest scale to hear. Period.

5. If you can play any song in one key, practical theory allows you to quickly develop the ability to play the song (at least the changes) in any key.

More later...
 

Henry

I Bleed Orange
Apr 9, 2014
19,224
Petaluma
Can theory and playing by ear coexist? Neither does well without the other.
Absolutely. Knowing theory vastly helps with playing by ear. Understanding intervals, keys, etc. is critical imo to learning by ear efficiently enough to be practical. Unless you are listening to something that is very avant garde, most music follows basic structures and patterns. Knowing or understanding those means you can figure out a song within a minute, rather than having to listen to it over and over again. If you're a paid pro or session player, that can make your pay day.
 

General_Lee

Gretschie
Apr 23, 2022
378
Manitoba, Canada
Indeed. Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Tommy Tedesco, Glenn Campbell, et al, were/are of course studio heavyweights. They've all forgotten more about theory than most of us will ever know. And they all played the guitar like virtuosic fiends, technically as well as feel wise. Now that, of course, is not to say any of us actually need theory. And many here can cite any number of guitar greats that never read a note in their lives.

But whether or not they ever studied formally, each and every one of them (and therefore us) was subject to the basic principles of organized music. My point? None, except to encourage further study...even if its just myself that I'm trying to encourage...:)
 

stiv

Country Gent
Sep 12, 2014
2,619
Firenze, Italy
I’m experiencing the opposite. I’m a guitar player by ear (well, if we want to exclude 2 months of finger style guitar lessons that I attended when I was 17, and it’s been my only contact with written music since recently) always played that way. Being also a singer helped me a lot at the very beginning, you could sing the notes and then find them on the fretboard (even combinations of them). Two years ago when I started to learn piano (through the internet, mostly) I did the same (more or less… I was watching it instead of listening to it, although some rounds became familiar even after listening to that). A couple of months ago I wanted to give a try to real piano (blues/boogie) lessons… the first thing the teacher (a well known local boogie pianist, big Johnnie Johnson fan) did was listening to me play. After that, he simply explained to me that without at least a basic training on reading music (combined with specific classic piano techniques method) I wouldn’t be able to make significant progress in order to learn some blues piano. I experienced that immediately, as the first few tips he gave me about timing and accents basically erased all the things I’ve learned to play with my left hand and I had to patiently start again from the basics. At this point, I’m finding the classical techniques very hard to learn. As a 55 years old I don’t have the elasticity on my fingers that it allows me to easily learn the basic exercises, also the hand independence has become a very hard task to accomplish. I tried to study (and consequently read music, as piano methods only exists in written form, although with CDs aid) as much as I could but this hardly amuses me as noodling over a John Lee Hooker or Lightning Hopkins record in my music room with my old piano.
I’m very undecided. I know I’ll never be no Otis Spann in this lifetime, but if the goal was to have some fun (and maybe end up playing the piano in some no-great-expectations band) this classical training wasn’t planned.
It’s a cruel, cruel world when you want to learn something new :D
 

General_Lee

Gretschie
Apr 23, 2022
378
Manitoba, Canada
The distinction for me lays not so much in the attempt to learn traditional "classical" techniques vis-a-vis instrumental ability/chops, but rather again, in the concepts of learning elementary "intellectual" elements (for lack of a better term) to assist your natural capacities as an ear player.

For example: a simple major scale comprises 7 notes in a specific and fixed order. The intervals between any two notes of the scale (especially the root and any other) can be quickly learned, and more importantly, heard. Once we understand that most chords and melodies in a given key are largely based on this intervallic structure, we can quickly begin to hear and identify certain common (and even not so common) movements in C. If the movement is based on the root-4th-5th degrees of the scale say, then its easy to use this understanding to transpose the progression to any other keys we may be intellectually familiar with. The pattern say: C-F-G then simply becomes D-G-A (in the key of D) That's "practical" theory...
 


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