I receive quite a few emails from people who are just getting started with ear training. Usually they've read a few of my ear training articles and they might have even tried one of my free online ear training tools. They're eager to improve their ability to play by ear, however they're also frustrated by their early attempts at ear training. The simplest of intervals elude them and chords sounds like a mishmash of notes. At this early stage it's easy to give up and so they wonder: do we need to be born with the ability to play by ear, or can we really learn it through practice?
I think it's natural for people to wonder if the ability to play by ear can actually be learned, especially when you consider how few people seem to have the ability. In an average high school band program, for example, the vast majority of students can't play anything accurately by ear. They might be capable instrumentalists, but they can't play any music unless it's written down. I was one of these students myself. When I was in high school, I just assumed that everyone depended upon written music (unless they memorized the written notes). I had no idea I was musically-challenged!
It wasn't until I was a junior in high school that I finally encountered somebody who could play anything perfectly by ear. I discovered his ability one day while I was rehearsing a tricky spot in one of my solo pieces. He was standing about ten feet away from me, listening to me play the same three or four measures over and over again. When I stopped to take a break he picked up his trombone and played the exact passage I had been playing, and it was perfect. I asked him how he was able to figure out the notes without reading the music and he stated simply, “I don't know how I do it, I just can.” Shortly thereafter I then tried to play by ear a few times myself but failed miserably. I couldn't even get close to the right pitches. In the end I figured it was something you had to be born with so I stopped trying. Boy do I wish I hadn't given up...
As I discussed in an earlier ear training article, I believe the reason that most of us cannot play by ear stems from our music education. Most of the people I knew in middle and high school learned how to play their instruments the same way I learned, in concert band class. From day one, everything we were ever asked to play was written down and we never bothered trying to play anything unless we had written music to read from. Unfortunately, since we didn't try to play by ear that ability was never developed and we ended up with poor aural skills. While band classes churn out loads of students who are similarly dependent upon written music, there is a relatively large group of musicians who can play well by ear precisely because they learned to play WITHOUT reading music all the time. To which group of instrumentalists am I referring? Well, I suppose you might guess from the picture... I'm saluting those who are about to rock: guitarists.
When I attended music school in college, I was surprised to discover that almost all of the guitarists that I knew could play very well by ear. There were plenty of occasions where they'd hear a melodic passage and within seconds they'd be playing it perfectly on their guitar. Similarly, they could listen to a tune for the first time and readily figure out all of the chords by ear. I'm not saying every guitarist can play well by ear, but in my experience all of the good ones could play at least fairly well by ear. By comparison, all of the good trumpet players I knew couldn't play well by ear. In fact, most of the trumpet players and other concert band instrumentalists that I knew in college couldn't play much of anything by ear. So, why were the guitarists so much better at playing by ear? It would have been too much of a coincidence to suggest that they were all born with the ability. No, that wasn't it. They were better because that's how they learned to play.
Guitarists are a great example of how the ability to play by ear can indeed be learned. While us band class students were only playing stuff that was written down, guitarists were learning tunes and riffs by ear from day one. Imagine the budding guitarist who wants to learn the solo from Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Believe it or not, there was a once a time when he or she couldn't readily access the full score to that solo (the horror!). Instead, the "Stairway..." solo had to be learned entirely by ear, note for note, while listening to the original recording over and over. Similarly, if you wanted to learn the Hendrix intro to “Hey Joe,” you didn't look at sheet music. You learned directly from the recording. This continual process of learning from recordings would gradually improve one's ability to play by ear, making each successive tune easier to pick up. In time the ability to play by ear becomes second-nature. Coincidentally, learning by ear is also how the early jazz musicians learned to play jazz. It really is the best way to develop strong aural skills and those lucky guitarists just stumbled into it!
It's funny to me how the band geeks (French horn and trumpet players, I'm looking at you) get all high and mighty about how they're real musicians because they can read music and because they play serious stuff like John Philip Sousa marches and tunes by Aaron Copeland, yet it's those devoted guitarists who are more actively developing the skills required to become real musicians. To be fair, though, guitarists do have an advantage. As a guitarist you can't help but want to learn all of the riffs and solos of your favorite rock songs. After all, you hear those songs all the time and the lead instrument is the same thing you play: dude, the guitar! And due to the fact that those riffs aren't all written down for you, you're pretty much forced to learn them by ear. As a French horn player, however, you'll probably NEVER hear your instrument in popular music so you're much less likely want to pick up your horn and emulate something you hear on the radio. That's too bad for us band geeks. We missed out on a lot of free ear training practice. The good news is that it's never too late to start learning to play by ear.
Before I go, I would like to encourage the young guitarists of today to resist the urge to learn tunes from the abundant online tab archives. Sure, it's easier to play something if you've got all the notes in front of you, but doing so will make you a music-dependent band geek just like the rest of us. And that's not rock and roll at all...
For more information about ear training and jazz improvisation, as well as introductions to my ear training tools, check out my Learning to Improvise - Ear Training article.