Play any Song You’ve Ever Heard

mental-musical-rolodexOne of my favorite tricks when I play at a wedding is to play stump the fiddler with the guests. They get to request any tune they can think of and it’s my job to play it. Sure, I get stumped sometimes, but I have a pretty awesome record – much better than most major league batters.

People are shocked that I can play just about any tune that I have heard. They think I have some sort of magical talent that allows me to play these tunes. Sorry, there’s no magic, but I can let you in on my secret. I practice playing by ear.

That’s it, but that isn’t clear if you have never played by ear, and memorization is a challenge for you.

I have is a system that I use when I’m learning a new tune, and it helps me learn new tunes extraordinarily quickly. This system is most of the magic. And, I’m going to let you in on how I do it.

First, it’s important to understand what it really means to memorize a tune. There are 2 basic parts to being able to play a song from memory.

Step 1 – Internalize the Melody

The first step is to internalize the melody. You can do this by listening to a song over and over again, or by playing a song over and over again. I always recommend listening to a tune a few times before attempting to play it.

If possible listen to a really great musician perform the tune. And, if you can, listen to multiple different recordings of the tune. If you can, listen to people who you would like to sound like. This gives you context for understanding the tune and beginning to internalize it. And, if you want, try playing along with your favorite one of these recordings.

When you play the tune, you get an added bonus of hearing yourself play it. If you are really listening as you play, you create a feedback loop between what you are playing and what you are hearing.

I often have new students who think that memorizing song is really hard. They have tried to memorize music before using various methods, and it was tricky. Some of them tried to memorize what the sheet music looks like – what notes are on the page, and how they look, others tried to remember their fingerings that play the song.

These techniques really miss the point. Memorizing a melody is  primarily an auditory experience. Listen to the song or play it until you can sing the melody out loud (or in your head). At this point, you have done the hard part – you have memorized the melody. 

Step 2 – Play the Melody by Ear

Once you have internalized the melody, you have NO reason to use sheet music any more on the song. If you keep using sheet music at this point, you are creating a false dependence on having the notation in front of you. In essence, your leg has healed but you are still using crutches.

Now it’s time to play the song. Start at the beginning and play it until you get to a point where you get uncomfortable. This could be because you feel like you aren’t sure what note to play next, or just that you played a wrong note.

This is a very important moment. Stop and play that phrase again slowly. When you get to the note where you are uncomfortable take a stab at it and play the note you think is the right one. If it doesn’t sound right, try a different note, until it sounds like you hear it in your head. Slow it down as much as you need to. Then go back and play that phrase again with the corrected note.

Once you can play that phrase comfortably, incorporate it back into the tune as a whole.

Work your way through the song one phrase at a time until you can make it through the song. Then play it until you can comfortably play it up to speed without thinking about it. Never play it faster than you can play the most difficult part of the song.

IMPORTANT: Only reference your sheet music when you are ABSOLUTELY stuck.

Where does this leave me?

When you have taken the time to really internalize the melody, and have worked your way through it slowly and patiently, you now know the song.

And, when you practice transferring what you hear in your head out through your instrument, you are making your instrument an extension of your body. Your violin, or piano, or guitar becomes just another way to sing.

This is why playing by ear is so important to becoming a great musician, regardless of what instrument you are playing, or what style of music you are playing.  If you use this method to learn new songs, and you really stick to it, you will develop a new muscle in your brain.

And that connection will grow stronger and stronger as you train it and reinforce it. But, like any skill, you have to practice it if you want to get good at it.

Over time I have become very good at being able to play what I think. And if you are willing to develop this muscle, you can to.

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  1. Deborah White says

    This is exactly how I learn a tune. Hearing the melody, for me, is no effort. It comes immediately, in most cases. Transferring it to the fiddle is a whole new ballgame. Why? Because of the bowing. I wish more videos would instruct on bowing patterns and give examples of common tunes they can be used in. Also, because of not reading music, I don't understand how to play a tune that is written out, if I have never heard it before. I do wish I could read music. Then I would have the best of both worlds. But, you are right. Hearing and playing by ear, once you know how to play the fiddle, or other instrument, opens up a vast world of opportunity. I do not like that I can't read music, but I am very happy to be able to hear music, even if I can't always translate it to the fiddle because of my poor fiddle playing and bowing skills. I do enjoy your videos. Thanks for all you do.

  2. says

    Parts of this post are very similar to what I try to teach my students. I still have a few that memorize the notes — and in recital, you can tell. I have one very talented student who plays very well, but I can almost hear her thinking about every note. As a teacher, I consider it my responsibility to lead her past that limitation. I'm succeeding (I think), but very slowly.
    As you mentioned, memory is a bit like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.

    Other parts of the post present me with things I know, but I am not particularly good at. Maybe I have put too much emphasis on reading music. Playing by ear is a separate skill, and I think I have not put enough emphasis on that, primarily because I am not as good at playing by ear as I am at sight-reading myself.

    So there is another challenge to me as a teacher, namely, how NOT to project my own limitations on my students.

  3. says

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Howard. I usually work with my students on learning by ear primarily and tablature secondarily for about a year before introducing sheet music. I think that they start out a little slower this way, but there is a firm foundation built in listening to what they are playing.

    I almost always have a breakthrough moment with them 3-6 months in where they create a connection between what they hear and what they are playing. From that point on, they learn more quickly and their intonation gets better almost instantaneously.

    That is a moment that always makes me smile. Those "Aha" moments are so rewarding for me as a teacher.

  4. says

    Reading music is definitely a tool that makes it easier to transfer knowledge precisely. I find that by 1 1/2 – 2 years in, most of my students reach a level where tablature is no longer precise enough to accurately notate the songs that they are learning.

    Bowing is definitely one of the important and unique challenges to fiddle and other stringed instruments. I have done a handful of bowing videos on [my] Talent Forge, but your comment gives me an idea of another video that would be very useful (in addition to the shuffle bowing series that I have on my todo list.)

    The third element that I intentionally left out of this post to keep it straightforward is exactly what you are mentioning here – technical facility and mastery of the instrument. You have to be able to technically handle the song you are trying to play, which also requires practice and repetition.

    We have done a bunch of videos on left hand and right hand technique that are great calisthenics for upping your level of technical mastery.


  5. says

    Is the article on their website? I would love to read it, but I don't get their print publication.

    If I understand correctly, it's the note or phrase that defines the melody. If this is true, I think that it's always important to honor the "hidden note".

    And, I think that it is our job as a fiddler to always add our own spark to every tune we play. This is why I love fiddling so much!

  6. Burley Herrin says

    As one who started learning to play fiddle at age 65 by trial and error and what I could learn from internet sources, I took about a year to get past making sounds like a braying mule. I soon learned that if I watch my left hand while I am playing, I start thinking about where to put the fingers instead of letting reflex direct them. Doing scales helps that, Having years as a church and college choir singer helps me to memorize melodies as well as to improvise harmony in an old time fiddlers jam session. That group taught me most of the fiddling fine points that I know.

    I read music along with listening to recordings to get details right, but I get off of it as soon as I can. I have never played outside my study with sheet music. Having read standard musical scores most of my life, I have not found tablature useful.

  7. says

    I've been trying for the last year to learn to play by ear. At 66, I'll never be great, but 2 things have really helped me:
    1) I subscribed to your "Talent Forge" lessons and vowed not to look at the printed music.
    2) As I learned new tunes, I looked for patterns that occurred in a piece and for patterns I'd already learned in another piece.

  8. says

    Those are great tips, Sharon. Another is to look for repeating patterns within a piece. Very often you can make a piece twice as easy if you just focus on learning the patterns, and how they repeat. (Getting the structure is important.) Thanks for your contribution!

  9. says

    Thanks Burley. Doing scales and exercises will definitely help your technical facility, but nothing will help your intonation more than listening and being acutely aware of what you are playing. And, I totally agree that singing is a fantastic tool to becoming a good fiddler. When I play singing songs on my fiddle, I always try to emulate the inflections a singer would put in the song with my fiddle. If you sing the song using your fiddle as your voice, you will never go wrong.

    I find tablature to be mostly useful for people who don't have a contextual understanding of sheet music. For someone who is just beginning to understand the instrument, I find that the fewer things that they have to concentrate on the better.

    Tablature gives a direct message of play this finger on this string, while sheet music adds a layer of abstraction. i.e. Play a C#, which then has to be interpreted as play a high 2nd finger on the A string. If they already have a basis in sheet music, and understand where the strings fall on the staff, then I agree that sheet music can be a much more precise representation of the tune than tablature.

    That said, the intricacies of fiddling music are difficult to transmit via sheet music as well. The bowing inflections, and rhythmic feeling are most accurately passed on via hearing. I often learn new tunes from sheet music, but whenever possible, I create auditory context by listening to the tune being played by someone who really plays it well.

  10. Paul Harty says

    I agree with Burley, I recommend singing or humming any new melody aloud until you can reproduce it. When you have done that, you have really internalized the melody. Then the only question is one of mechanics, making it come out on the fiddle. Both Bill Monroe and Charles Mingus rehearsed their groups this way at times, without instruments, making sure they really knew their parts.

    • says

      Hey Paul, That’s a great story about Mingus and Monroe. I think that would be a great tactic for many bands. I often sing my tunes in my head throughout the day. While I’m doing that, the improvisation often comes more freely than when I have my fiddle. And, I am free of the fingering patterns that sometimes direct my improvisation to familiar places. I do think that making it come out of the fiddle is a bigger question than the mechanics. The mechanics are important, but you can’t make it come out of the fiddle until you create a connection between what you hear in your head, and what you hear coming out of your instrument. That connection is essential to any playing by ear activity. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  11. Henry Butcher says

    The Blood Red Tear………I would like to read this also, but I can’t find it anywhere.

    Keep up the good Vi, love your website.

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