About The Method


Learning to Play By Ear

QuestionQuestion
Susan M., Canada

A parent asked me tonight “when will my daughter be able to hear a song, and just know how to play it with all the chords and in the right key?” I was unsure how to answer this, so of course I told the truth, that I haven’t taught any higher than where we are currently (level 6) and that it is to be discovered. He said that he knows someone with traditional lessons that was able to do that. I also said that knowing music requires experience, so the more music played, the more familiar it becomes. I don”t feel like I answered it well. But I wonder how those of you further along than me would answer this question?

Answer
Stephen R., California

Sounds like he was getting more into “playing by ear”. The program doesn’t specifically teach that, but a student’s ear is definitely developed along the way.

It takes a lot of conscious interval (ear) training to be able to recognize different keys. Perfect pitch would certainly help and not many have that from what I’ve seen (1 in 10,000 according to Wikipedia). What this parent is asking is a pretty advanced and/or rare skill.

I would also direct them to the brochure on the student site so they can read and get a better sense of the timeline of things.

Also, reading the Curriculum Scope on the teacher intranet may help to better communicate what is learned and when.

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Jeff O., Massachusetts

Short answer: probably never.

Even in a world where everyone plays, not everyone will ever be able to do this, especially with perfect pitch, which is very rare. For those who can develop the skill, it takes as long as it takes. As a wise man once (or twice) said.

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Gordon Harvey, Australia

It’s hard to tell from what you’ve told us what’s behind his question. Is he saying that that skill is to be expected by a certain stage? Is he saying that it’s the norm for people who’ve had traditional lessons? Or maybe he’s asking the question with no real agenda.

In my experience, this is a fairly specialised skill that would usually be the result of a lot of work on very specific tasks, like training the ear to identify intervals and chords, knowing common chord structures and so on. Otherwise, it might develop over time if a person works a lot in bands. It’s certainly a common skill among professional musicians, especially jazz and pop people, but there are probably plenty of advanced musicians who aren’t very good at it. I’m not aware of many people coming out of amateur-level traditional lessons with it. That one instance he quotes is, I would say, not a typical outcome.

You wouldn’t necessarily finish the whole SM curriculum with this skill, although, with all your hands-on experience of chords and playing generally (and singing!) you’d definitely have a great head start if you then chose to delve into that.

Answer
Mark S. Meritt

I think two things bear some extra mention.

First, the parent asks about his daughter hearing a song and just knowing how to play it. So far nobody here has interpreted that in its strictest sense — which is to know how to play a song upon hearing it without having been however familiar with it before attempting to play it. That is a whole other level beyond being able to play-by-ear a familiar song.

Second, the physical aspect cannot be underestimated. Even with a song that is very familiar, and even with “just” an accompaniment approach, to proceed through all the right chords and apply appropriate performance techniques throughout to make an accompaniment sound authentic to the original song, all in real-time, all on the first try, that requires a level of not only auditory and/or theoretical mastery but a physical mastery that goes *far* beyond merely knowing how to play all the chords. And the parent’s question clearly does not appear to be asking about accompaniment. So add to all I just mentioned the need to incorporate melody at the same time — physically processing all the right intervals, very likely with the right hand not only playing the individual melody notes but simultaneously contributing to the chordal harmonies and non-melodic rhythmic patterns, and making sure that melody is coordinated rhythmically with all the other elements. The task quickly becomes exponentially more challenging. To accomplish what he’s asking requires good pitch (with relative pitch for good hearing of intervals being probably even more important than perfect pitch for identifying individual notes in isolation), good chord knowledge, good chord progression knowledge, good ability to apply all this knowledge along with the physical requirements for bass, harmony and melody, in various musical genres, all at the same time, in real-time.

Everything else everyone has been saying here is true about what the SM method does and doesn’t offer/promise with respect to all this. I just wanted to underscore just what “this” is.

Also, Neil addresses something very much related to this when he asks what would happen if a parent brought their kid to their language arts teacher and said, okay, make my kid a best-selling novelist. That’s just not an appropriate request to make of just any teacher with respect to just any student. And it’s not appropriate to ask a piano teacher of any method to make their kid a rock star or concert virtuoso. And I’d say that effortless playing by ear in real-time falls into the same category of pinnacle musicianship achievements that are equally inappropriate to request or expect any method to make possible for any student. As Neil says, such pinnacle results are far more the result of the combination of natural proclivities and willingness to work a whole lot, and far less about anything else other than those two things.

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Un Mani, Austrlia

Sooo she didn’t obviously get the goals of the SM program when she heard them at the initial FIS and I would revisit them. Playing by ear in real time was NOT mentioned.

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Laurie Richards, Nebraska

This is a perfect example of why it is important to talk about expectations with students and parents. Many just don’t realize what it takes to become proficient and have totally unrealistic expectations that will never materialize. It will help everyone out to just ask every once in a while, “What are your expectations for you/your child?” and “How do you feel things are going with regard to what you were expecting?”. That opens the door to have those important conversations about what is reasonable to expect, and the reality of the commitment needed.

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Susan M., Canada

Wow! I’m empowered now to have an important convo next week. I have been on top of this family for some time ensuring they are clear of the goals because I sensed a drop in their satisfaction awhile back. I prepared a questionnaire for the student recently to get insight on where they are at. It came back more positive than I expected, but now it’s time to allow parents to speak more about how they’re doing. We’ll see how that goes.

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Ian B., California

For me, even with traditional lessons and high level playing, knowledge of scales and music theory, it was SINGING that really created a breakthrough connection for me in being able to “figure out” a song I heard. Theory will provide the structure and students need lots of experience just TRYING to duplicate what they hear at the piano, but a lot of hunt and peck style guessing can be bypassed once a musician figures out how to vocally mimic what they just heard. It immediately internalizes the music and helps with memory. It’s for this reason I love how much SM encourages singing. It’s such a useful tool, even if you don’t consider yourself a “singer.”

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Terah W., Kansas

I have always been pretty much able to hear a song and having gotten the gist of it, been able to sit down and play it. I have had many folks come to me over the years when I was teaching and this aspect of my music was something that drew them and that they requested I “teach” their student. Teaching traditional brought very little success. Simply Music, on the other hand, specifically the Accompaniment program, has produced the most amazing things and sometimes, frankly, they surprise even me because it comes in some way unique to the student and I wasn’t ‘aiming’ and yet… there it will be! My point is, without belaboring other well made points already, that the whole descriptor of the garden seems to aptly apply here. Water it, add the ingredients, “do the work!” (Bill Murray style:) and continue to hone your own skill set and I think the results in this area—as well as everything else!—will begins to show elements that are so relative to this subject that you might have only to encourage the student to ‘try’ and find yourselves both surprised as well as pleased. (If not downright excited!) I wish I could be more specific but hopefully this is pretty clear. My goal is to call forth the unique musician and his proclivities and gifting using the method itself. And then keep feeding those things while listening and watching for more.

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Susan M., Canada

Conclusion to my post: family is staying with me with no expectation of hearing then playing a song directly or ear training. Yay!

Original discussion started November 13, 2018