The Art of By-Ear-Learning: Classical vs. Popular Styles

During our classical music degrees we were challenged with sight-singing, ear training, and transcription projects that were seemingly unrelated to the rest of our degree. “Ear Training” was a separate course and usually only done in that class—in complete isolation from everything else. Yes, our “ears” did improve with that course because it helped us to listen to music differently and hear the patterns in music more clearly but for me, the most significant ear training happened after my classical degree when I began to learn guitar on my own.

Have you ever met a really fantastic rock guitarist with little to no training whose “ear” is way better than your 10-years-of-classical-training ear? Me too.

During our classical music degrees we were challenged with sight-singing, ear training, and transcription projects that were seemingly unrelated to the rest of our degree. "Ear Training" was a separate course and usually only done in that class--in complete isolation from everything else. Yes, our "ears" did improve with that course because it helped us to listen to music differently and hear the patterns in music more clearly but for me, the most significant ear training happened after my classical degree when I began to learn guitar on my own.
The Art of By-Ear-Learning: Classical vs. Popular Styles

You can develop a very good “ear” as a classical musician with classical training but your ear will develop just as well (or better) but much quicker if you learn a popular instrument in the way that a popular musician learns their craft. Or, learn your primary classical instrument in the way popular musicians learn—by listening and copying what they hear. I have copied enough music on the guitar that I can recognize specific open chords by sound and specific chord extensions from hearing them once. One particular chord extension that comes to mind right away is the iconic D to Dsus4 extension used in songs like: “American Pie,” “Dead or Alive,” and many others. This happens because, traditionally, instruments such as guitar, drums, and vocals are learned through listening. Thus, ear training is practiced at the same time as learning the instrument. The “ear” is developed in a much more natural and intuitive way.

What we need to do as educators is find a way to get the best of both worlds. Learning songs from the radio on a regular basis—as a warm-up—would be a place to start. You can even choose the key for them. Learn traditional songs by ear such as “Happy Birthday” or another song that everyone will know how to sing is also beneficial and easy. If they can sing it, that means they can play it. Playing by ear is messy but it’s okay because learning is messy. This is partly why classical musicians stay away from learning by ear. Classical players like clean and efficient. Think of it this way:

Your knowledge of the English language is pretty good to the point where if you hear something once, you can likely say it back without having to hear it again. If you hear a language you don’t know very well, chances are you will not be able to say it back. Now relate this same exact concept to music. Your knowledge of music should be good enough to be able to hear something once and be able to play it back. But can you? I only know a very small handful of musicians who can and if they are able to do this they are likely either classical players with perfect pitch or are musicians with a ton of experience playing and performing in popular styles or learn by ear on a consistent basis. It all has to start with listening and copying, like a baby learns it’s mother-tongue. Once they can already converse, understand, and speak the language, then they learn how to read and write it in school. When they are adults, they don’t even have to think about it–they automatically understand, speak, converse, read, write, improvise, copy, and compose within that language. Music should be learned in the exact same way, which is why I don’t even touch notation until the second half of Grade 1 and even then it is all copying, improvising, and creating with them. We don’t even write them down until they can aurally understand what is going on.

My groups have learned entire songs by ear and then rearranged them to fit the instrumentation of the class. You can see a video of their performance on my YouTube channel. It doesn’t have to be this involved but you can take baby steps by pledging to learn a new melody or riff once a week as a warm-up. It can be as easy as that! Then, move onto more challenging projects by assigning a take home transcription project where they have to learn everything by ear. After their transcription is done, they would have to either write it out in some form or layer the parts together using a split screen video or a multi-track recording app like Audacity.

Do you have any ways that you incorporate more of this kind of learning into your day with your learners? I would love to know about them!

Until next time, Happy Musicking!

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