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Thread: Learning songs by ear

  1. #1

    Default Learning songs by ear

    I am an extreme novice on the mandolin. Right now I'm making 30 minutes a day for practice, and most of that time is spent on very basic technique stuff: limbering up, simple picking exercises, scales and chords. I will end by practicing one or two fiddle tunes that I've started trying to learn.

    But I got interested in the mandolin because I realized it was a big part of many of my favorite songs--and could even be incorporated in to those where it wasn't. So when I'm done with my practice routine I will turn on Spotify and try to "learn" along with some of those songs.

    Right now I let the song play and literally start at the top string, pluck, fret one, pluck, fret two, pluck...and so on observing when a note fits the song. Once I've gone all the way down to the seventh fret on every string I end up with a "map" that tells me what key the song is in. From there I just try to imitate riffs or chord strums as best I can. It's slow going!

    Any suggestions on how to do this better? Or is this just the way most people do it?
    Last edited by putnamm; Mar-10-2020 at 10:12am.

  2. #2
    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Some, maybe most, of us don’t do it this well. Great start I’d say! You’ll get lots of great advice here soon...

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Many people start playing by ear using childhood tunes, at least folks of my generation. Mary had a little lamb, etc. simple melodies, grow from there.

    Have fun.
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  4. #4

    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    There will be at least 12 keys of tunes and songs you hear on the radio, maybe even too many for an intermediate player either. You’ll get a lot more mileage if you could try just listening to Neil Young, then memorise the key of G
    -no disrespect intended Neil.

    Go all over the neck if you like, remember where all the G’s are.
    Good luck!

  5. #5
    Registered User Doug Brock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    I applaud your ear training efforts. One problem I see is that your playing the various frets down the string while a song is playing is sort of hit-or-miss, since most songs have more than one chord. If you hit a G note while an F chord is playing in a song in the key of C, you might incorrectly decide that the G isn't part of the song's notes. Many common songs are even more complicated. You might have a flat seven chord (a G chord in the key of A, for instance) being very popular in a lot of fiddle tunes. Many other chords are not typical to the key are common. An example is a "5th of a 5th" - for example, a D7 going to a G7 going to the root, C. The F# in the D7 will not map to the C major scale. The D7 is from the key of G, but it leads nicely to the G7, which is part of the key of C.

    Still, as long as you're enjoying yourself, you should be learning a lot about your mandolin and music in general.

    An easier ear training practice is to just figure out how to play a tune you're familiar with. Don't rush to look up tab or notation - try to play the melody by ear. The more you learn your scales, the easier this will be. You'll still find notes that don't fit into the scale, but that's part of learning too.
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    A tool that can slow down the song without changing the pitch can be very useful. Amazing Slow Downer is popular. I use Music Speed Changer (which is free). Both allow you to loop so you can learn a smaller passage

  7. #7

    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    I think what you are doing is perfect, I have watched pros do the same thing they are just a bit quicker because they are more experienced, practiced, and make certain assumptions like...

    Yes, there are 12 keys but its pretty rare to hear alot of tunes in G# so you can start to narrow things down.

    If its a fiddle tune chances are its going to be in one of the following keys...A, D, G, C...there will be one offs like Rebecca (B) and others but for the most part you can start with those keys.

    If its a song you can narrow it down to the common keys men and women sing in...if it’s Bill Monroe it’s probably Bb, poster above mentioned Neil Young in G.

    After awhile youll hear the key and just know...oh, thats A or whatever. Keep going and dont overthink this you are way past alot of people that have been playing for ages. I have watched people at my jam listen to a tune and after about the 2nd note theyve got it because they took the time to do exactly what your doing.
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    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    I'd suggest casually singing, humming, whistling or even "breathing" the tune first, making sure you have all the melody worked out. Then find an easy key that you can do all the notes on the mandolin in. It's ok to work the melody out on one string first if necessary, but before long you will want to know the string intervals well enough that you can pick the melody out using all the strings. Be mindful of the rhythm and tempo and playing the right notes in as close as possible to the right time; later on a metronome might help with that. Once you can reliably duplicate the melody on mandolin, begin adding harmonically appropriate fill notes to provide solid rhythm support for the melody. Add time, polish and fun, and you've got your song arranged and ready to play.

    Playing by ear isn't for everyone, it requires that you are first able duplicate a tune in your mind before you can duplicate it on an instrument. That's why casual singing, humming, whistling, etc., are so handy, because they do not require any instrument knowledge or really even music theory knowledge.

    If after trying this for a while you feel that you cannot duplicate a tune in your mind, it doesn't mean you cannot play music. In that case learn to read music well enough to play it on an instrument and go from there. There is no shame in not being able to play by ear, many if not most of the world's most accomplished orchestral musicians play the most complicated and beautiful pieces only by reading music. And, reading and playing songs from written music is great even if you can play by ear.
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  9. #9

    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    dhergert,

    I wouldn't mind playing from sheet music at all if I could find the sheet music for some of these songs. A lot of them do not feature the mandolin up front, so even if music is available it is for the melody on guitar or something. And as I wrote earlier, some I'm trying to replicate on the mandolin and they don't actually have any mandolin in them. So I think ear is the only way I'll be able do that. I will keep at it. I'm having fun!

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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Quote Originally Posted by putnamm View Post
    dhergert,

    I wouldn't mind playing from sheet music at all if I could find the sheet music for some of these songs. ... I'm having fun!
    Hmmm, not to discourage you from playing by ear, but I wonder if anyone here could transcribe some of these songs to sheet music for you. Not me, but I know some among us here are extremely strong sight-readers, which in many cases means they could probably also transcribe.

    Glad you're having fun, that's really the key!
    -- Don

    "It is a lot more fun to make music than it is to argue about it."

    2002 Gibson F-9
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    Registered User belbein's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Putnamm: What I do, when I'm trying to figure out the key of something being played, is play the chord alphabet. If, let's say, I get a hit on "D" chord, then I can usually narrow it down to they keys of A, D, or A. Then I guess.

    I sometimes also cheat and use a mobile based tuner that uses a microphone. That's harder because there are so many tones in the air. If I'm playing with people, I always ask, but usually nobody (except classical and jazz musicians) ever know what the key is.

    One more thing to do, and you don't need your instrument: Get Fretboard Learn, an app for your phone. It lets you quiz any range of strings and frets on your instrument. It's very effective. I don't have a good memory, but it's helped me. It probably singlehandedly let me make the switch from GDAE tuning to CGDA, and saved my mandola from the dustbin of history.
    belbein

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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Learn basic chord positions, then try to find a chord that fits into the song you're listening to. Once you get the key the song is in, it is much easier to figure out how tp play by chopping with the chord progression and then getting a beak or the melody down. Best of luck and just keep at it.

  14. #13
    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Quote Originally Posted by putnamm View Post
    I am an extreme novice on the mandolin. Right now I'm making 30 minutes a day for practice, and most of that time is spent on very basic technique stuff: limbering up, simple picking exercises, scales and chords. I will end by practicing one or two fiddle tunes that I've started trying to learn.

    But I got interested in the mandolin because I realized it was a big part of many of my favorite songs--and could even be incorporated in to those where it wasn't. So when I'm done with my practice routine I will turn on Spotify and try to "learn" along with some of those songs.

    Right now I let the song play and literally start at the top string, pluck, fret one, pluck, fret two, pluck...and so on observing when a note fits the song. Once I've gone all the way down to the seventh fret on every string I end up with a "map" that tells me what key the song is in. From there I just try to imitate riffs or chord strums as best I can. It's slow going!

    Any suggestions on how to do this better? Or is this just the way most people do it?
    I believe that's the way that most people do it to find the key: Trial and error. I never started on the first fret and then moved up frets methodically like that, though. But to find the key, I'll often start by trying notes to guess the key and then I'll try the chords. The more you do this, the better you'll get at it.

    In my opinion, it does help to know a bit about music theory; in particular, how chords are built, what chords go with a given key, circle of fifths, common chord progressions ... The only cure for not knowing that stuff is to learn and play thousands of songs so the information is native to you whether you can articulate it or not.
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    Registered User chasray's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    And on what note does the song end - whether verse or chorus? That could be your key.

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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    There are a lot of ways to try to determine key a song is played in by listening... The key of the last "phrase" of the song is the traditional way, but it's not always reliable... And even if it is reliable for a song, there is no guarantee that key is going to be ideal for the singing voices that a person will be playing for.

    For those reasons, I'd encourage a "by ear" player to remain key independent. Just worry about getting the melody worked out in your mind first, singing, humming, whistling or breathing it... Then pick it out as simply as possible. Since the mandolin is usually tuned in fifths, try the melody on each string first unless/until the note/chord intervals are well known.

    Keep it simple. Worry about key later after the melody is repeatable in a couple of different ways, adding appropriate harmony notes on the way.

    When that is accomplished, closed chord inversions are the best way to key to a voice. If the inversions aren't known well yet, while I don't encourage capo use for regular playing, for learning the key of a song by ear and then keying it to voice they can be handy for some people. But get off the capo and back to closed chord as soon as possible.
    Last edited by dhergert; Mar-11-2020 at 9:33am.
    -- Don

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    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Interesting discussion

    Don, I think you need to explain what you mean by "key independent". Western Civilization music is tonic music. It's not "key independent." Maybe you mean, "don't worry about the key," as in, don't worry about about naming the key, just find chords and melody notes that fit? That's all fine and good, but who cares whether the musician can name the key or not? Their playing just needs to sound good, i.e. to be right and to fit the song they're playing. That encompasses the key, the melody, the harmony, the rhythm, the groove, etc. A person can spend a lifetime learning and improving and playing and enjoying and never learn it all.

    IMO the OP is on the right track. He's working on learning tunes he hears by trial and error: melody, harmony (chords), and tonal center (key). The fact that he is doing this by trial and error puts him way ahead of everybody in the universe who is not even trying. That's a good thing.

    OP is doing this the way most people have to do it: By hearing and then trying to find it on his/her instrument. Good teachers and good musicians can give him tips that might help him, and the more he knows about music and his own instrument the more clues he can process, but there is no better way to learn to play by ear than to listen and to play along as best you can, and do a lot of it!
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    By key independent I'm thinking about the stage of getting a song that is currently set in the mind transferred to an instrument. That transition is the most difficult and worrying about matching keys only makes it more difficult, especially for someone new to playing by ear.

    It's better to start with simply picking out the song in the easiest way possible at first, get it semi-polished, then work out what key or keys to play it in. That also encourages working out arrangements in many keys, which is both handy and educational.
    -- Don

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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Really good thread going on here. I enjoy playing by ear but, in order to do so, I need to know the melody well; then transfer what I hear to playing the mandolin. Knowing the melody as it's written/played by someone and, then, "hearing" the melody in order to play is important. Playing in different keys, and up the fretboard, helps solidify the learning process and commonly leads into variations and licks that sound good - at least to me.
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  23. #19
    Distressed Model John Ritchhart's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Sing a song you know well. Be precise with the melody and attack of the note. (don't slide). Play the same note on the mandolin as you sing it. Go as slow as you need to. You will learn where those notes are on the neck fairly soon. You want to get out of the "hunt and peck" method as soon as you can. Eventually you'll be able to Scat sing and play what you're singing at the same time. This will open the door to improvisation later on.
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  25. #20

    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    One thing that helps is to learn one phrase at a time rather than note by note. A phrase is like a sentence in the English language. In a square fiddle tune it will be two bars or eight beats.

    If you learn only a note at a time you lose the flow of the tune. Each note should follow leading into one another like ripples on a pond. Learning songs one note at a time is like memorizing a speech one word at a time instead of by sentences.

    As others have said it helps to learn to sing the song or hum the tune. It also helps to hear it over and over so you have the melody in your head. To learn a tune well takes hundreds or more of repetitions.

    Learning the chord backup gives a better sense of rhythm and timing. Rhythm and timing are at least as important as the melody. Playing the right notes with the wrong timing does not work.

    Learning about song structure can help with learning more quickly. Fiddle tunes have a particular order of phrases and certain ones are always repeated making the learning easier. Blues has its own phrase and chord structure as do some swing tunes, waltzes, polkas, etc. If you learn , for instance, that the third two bar phrase of a fiddle tune is always a repeat of the first two bars that reduces the time to figure things out. Blues phrases are often repetitive as are a lot of folk tunes. A lot of pop tunes have blues structures or other common chord progressions. These things make it easier to sort out as you go.

    Definitely start learning to play rhythm and backup as soon as you can. I started on guitar so I learned rhythm first. I have friends who started on mandolin and regret that they spent several years learning only melodies and no chord backup. It helps a lot on understanding song structure and flow as well as how to play with others.

    I did not get a teacher till after I had been playing more than 20 years. I wish I had done it much, much earlier. A good teacher can save you a ton of grinding it out grunt work though you still have to work at it.

    Good luck and have fun.

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    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    ... I did not get a teacher till after I had been playing more than 20 years. I wish I had done it much, much earlier. A good teacher can save you a ton of grinding it out grunt work though you still have to work at it ...
    I've heard a lot of people say this type of thing, regretting the time and work they put into getting where they are... I agree that teachers and mentors can pass on knowledge, but they can't instill the progressive growing experience and wisdom that comes from working many of these things out individually. Granted, a person may not reach the intended destination as fast, but the process of learning to get there is just as valuable if not more, because it can then be applied to other things.
    -- Don

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    2002 Gibson F-9
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    (plus a large assortment of banjos, dobros, guitars, basses and other noisemakers)
    [About how I tune my mandolins]
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    Registered User Frankdolin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    I've spent a lifetime playing by ear and because I tend to learn quickly it subverted any attempt to sight read. With all the great advice here I would just add that you spend some time learning music basics and expand this when you can. It will pay dividends when hearing folks using technical terms and such when explaining either music or approach to certain styles or genres. IMHO
    Last edited by Frankdolin; Mar-13-2020 at 7:03am.

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  31. #23

    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Playing by ear can be challenging but I think itís a skill that can be improved regardless of who is trying it! Here are my thoughts, which will probably echo some of the above.

    1) start picking easy easy familiar tunes, like twinkle twinkle little star and similar. Attempting to play a complicated song from the get go is good to try, but donít get discouraged.

    2) play around with the mando, the more you play, the more note relationships youíll find on the neck.

    3) listen listen listen. Iím taking lessons from Emory Lester who is a big believer in learning tunes by ear. Thatís his tip. If you like a song and want to learn it, listen to it A TON! Once it gets stuck in your ears it becomes easier to find on the fretboard.

    4) reading sheet music or tabs can be super helpful to get your through a sticky spot. Maybe youíre trying to fret something that is better played open or maybe youíre too high on the neck or playing too many notes on the same string. There definitely isnít one way to play a song, but sometimes there are patterns that people have found that can be enlightening. At the very worst you just disregard and play your way, but you learned more note relationships! (As the melodies get more complex I have to resort to sheet music, granted I donít have the amazing slow downer though, going to look into that)
    **If you donít want to use sheet music another option is to find the song on YouTube and watch someone play it. That can really jumpstart your learning curve for a tune.

    5) if you want to get fancy and have a nice challenge, once you know the song in one position or key try to play it again in a different one.

    I think your method is good for now, but the more songs you try the better youíll get and you wonít have to play a chromatic scale to figure out melodies (sometimes itís necessary though!)

    Hope that helps!
    Last edited by floyce; Mar-22-2020 at 11:55am. Reason: Another thought!

  32. #24

    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    I think one of the big problems is that if you get a note Ďcorrect Ď then you advance in your studies by one point, if you get it wrong then you go back by maybe up to twenty points. Thatís it.
    Soooo... it really helps to know the key of the song you want to play and at the same time, know all of the notes on the fretboard that you can play (the scale). Once you have that then itís MUCH easier to guess where each note that you hear actually is on the fretboard.

    Another is intervals.
    Youíve just played a correct note, the next note is higher. So again your choices are narrowing down.
    If the next note is a fifth higher -say you have learned what a fifth higher sounds like, then where is the note on the fretboard? Answer, next string towards the ground. Etc.

    Check out ear training apps for telephones.

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    Registered User mmuussiiccaall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning songs by ear

    Learn to play bass first, it's a lot easier to hear and is the foundation of what's being done with the chords and melody.

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