How does one learn to play by ear?

Posted In: How To Play

  • Participant
    clinton-blackmore on #190157

    Hi.

    I’m an adult beginner with a shallow musical background. I was fortunate enough to learn the basics of harp playing with a teacher, but am not taking lessons at present.

    In recent months (and having a hand injury didn’t hurt in this regard), I decided to try to come to grips with reading standard western musical notation*. Oh, how fabulous it is to go from reading note abysmally to just reading them poorly! I can now sit down with simple sheet music and play three or four notes at a time (without having first memorized them), whereas before, it was probably 45 seconds a note.

    Now, in reading some threads on the forum here, I see that there are two major ways of learning music: sight-reading, and by ear, and that both are complementary and valuable. Knowing how hamstrung I was with no ability to sight read, I’d like to work on playing by ear.

    So, what steps can I take to learn to play by ear?

    Yes, I’m one of those people who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Dabbling in interval training (http://tonedear.com/) shows me that, at present, I can only tell apart thirds, fifths, and octaves if I start with the same root note.

    In doing some searching and watching today, I came across http://www.themusicalear.com. The video sold me on the idea, but the price asked me to reconsider.

    I see that John Kovac has a DVD called “How to Play the Harp by Ear in 7 Easy Lessons”, and Star Edwards has a book + CD called “Play Celtic Harp by Ear”. I don’t see any reviews for either work, and the latter doesn’t appear to help learn to play by ear, but to just enjoy playing if you can’t read the music yet.

    Are there any books/CDs/DVDs/courses/articles on playing by ear (either for the harp or in an instrument agnostic way) that anyone here can vouch for?

    Cheers, and thank you,
    Clinton

    * Rant: good grief, our musical notation system is so complicated. Why can’t every C look the same? Why do we use two entirely unrelated staves? How many features can be added to a system in a compatible way before it collapses under the sheer weight of it all? [I’d probably say the same on English spelling if I’d not learned it as a child]. It solves a problem admirably, effectively, and not-at-all elegantly, IMHO. Here is hoping that in the future we can wear goggles that’ll read and ‘transnotate’ on the fly into something more like Clairnote (http://clairnote.org/).

    Participant
    Biagio on #190186

    Hi Clinton,

    I’m not the best person to respond but since no one else has and I’m working on the same, I’ll take a shot. First – there are no how-to books; that’s the bad news.

    Here’s the half-full: people have been playing the harp (and everything else) by ear for thousands of years before notation came about, and for a few thousand years after that too.

    Now for a quickie:
    Let’s stick with the diatonic scale (there are others of course). The “trick”, if you will, is to learn tunes by interval i.e. 1 is the tonic note, 4 is the subdominant, 5 is the dominant for the major notes in the scale. So if you are tuned to C that’s 1, F is 4, G is 5 (and of course the next C is an 8 or a 1 take your pick). Sound like babble? Well, yeah, but bear with me.

    Now choose a well known tune, hum the opening phrase – let’s take Amazing Grace. It opens 5 1 3 1 3(G C E C E if tuned to C). What if you’re tuned in D (C# and F#). Same intervals but different notes: A D F# D F#. If you learn that interval 5 1 3 1 3 sequence you can also (almost) play Minstrel Boy in any key – I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what comes after 5 and 1 in that tune.

    So that’s the main idea – train your ear to recognize what intervals sound like. Eventually you will also begin to recognize the actual note name, especially if you tune your harp every time you sit down to play.

    There IS one book I can suggest, and it’s great (but also a lot of work) – Ray Pool’s “1 2 3 Play”.

    Have fun and good luck!

    Biagio

    Participant
    balfour-knight on #190187

    Hi Clinton and Biagio,

    I had not yet responded to this thread, because I do not know the answer to “how does one LEARN to play by ear?” You can either do it, or you can’t. I played by ear before I was five years old, started formal music lessons at five, worked very hard at music all my life, earning Bachelors and Masters degrees, proficient on three instruments, piano, harp, and organ, but it is my passion! You must have music in your soul, be able to sing tunes with perfect pitch, and transfer them by memory to an instrument. It always just “made sense” to me, and I have always been able to do it. However, I have to work very hard to memorize a classical piece note-perfect, like the Tournier I am currently learning. I can hear a tune on the radio or TV and play it instantly, and make up chords and variations to go along with it, but playing a beautiful piece by one of the masters note-perfect is much more challenging!

    Biagio, thanks for all your tips. I think ear-training can be learned and improve over time, but I never had to work at that so I do not know about other people and their abilities–how long it would take. To each his own, I always say. My sister became a great mathematician and teacher, but math never appealed to me and was very difficult. The same goes for my sister and music. We each had very separate and different talents, and that is what makes the world go around, I guess!

    Hope you all have a great day,
    Balfour

    Participant
    duckspeaks on #190188

    Dear Clinton, I am adult as well, old in fact, when I started. I realise mostly to play what u like one has to rearrange it for lever harp anyway and I am too lazy to write music down and so I play by ear and heart ad well. I learnt harmony from the guitar and via poverty of not being able to buy printed when young and so I had to steal music my ear.

    I would suggest trying to get hold of “folk songs” of the 60s, just a few, to experience the basic harmony. Today and Monday morning and Try to remember are good. Study the cord structure. then hop to a web site on harmony to understand I, II, III ,IV, V, VI & VII and you will be induct
    ed.

    then go to the library or web and inyensively study a short section of the score of your classical music. this may he a longer project.

    The physical demands of harping is mich to handle already. not having to read music is one way to help the initial stretch of the journey

    Participant
    hearpe on #190189

    Not much of harper here, but I can crudely pluck out stuff that sounds like a tune.

    But I can usually pick up a guitar or sit at the piano, and be playing along by the end of most songs by knowing a few basics about song structure-

    so “playing by ear” is most easily done with SOME knowledge, consisting of two main components:

    1. The knowledge of “Keys” and their scales-
    2. the knowledge of the Three Chord Theory

    The first -knowledge of the keys- is most important and best learned on piano I think, by playing the Major Scale (Do-re-mi-so-fa-la=ti=do) off of every key- you get to know the key scales- ie “C” has NO sharps or flats,
    G has one sharp “F”, “D” has two sharps- F and C, “A” has three sharps C,F and G, and so on-

    On a piano or keyboard, the tones and their relationships are all there in front of you to see. But you have to know how the Major Scale sounds so that you can play it- find it if you will- from any note you start on.
    You can get a cheap keyboard these days for $50 or less, and it would probably be of value.

    as the keys get more sharps and flats they are generally used less often. C, G and D are used frequently on harps and some only have those levers t accommodate those three. Violins have four strings GDAE- all the note scales have a progressing ordered number of sharps as you move to the higher strings, and much of their music resolves to those open string notes, or uses those key signatures GDAE. D has one more sharp than G, A has one more sharp still than D and E has even one more than A.

    A viola is CDGA and so keeps the same progressive key signature progression- it just starts with C- and NO sharps- at the bottom lowest note, yet the strings have the same relationship as the violin, and so you can “play by ear” or using the same hand position the same music, it will just be a fifth lower.

    The second important component of “playing by ear” – The three chord theory- is that most modern music is often built around the I, IV, V progressions and mixtures- The use of the Roman numerals is a relative identification, to describe the relationship based upon the note or major chord one starts with. When C is the I, the IV is F and the V is G. When D is I the IV is G and the V is A. And so on.

    There are many places to find better explanations of the I iV , V theory, so you have to have a grasp of that, and then also realize that not all music “moves” that way, but most music uses AT LEAST two chords of the I IV V relationship- Some music only ever even use ONE chord throughout.

    So anyway, once you have a grasp of those two things, you can generally find the key by listening to what note a piece RESOLVES to at the end of the main phrases. Pluck the guitar or harp string, play the piano key, and when you get the one that matches the resolving tone-

    that is generally the key signature and I chord tone, for most music. The piece changes to another chord center as it goes along- quite often the chords then built on the IV or V of the main resolving tone. If it’s in a minor key, or strays from I IV OR V it gets more complicated.

    but using those two pieces of musical knowledge can get you started playing along with most recordings.

    Participant
    Andelin on #190193

    I don’t know if there is an easy answer.

    I suppose you learn to play by ear the same way you learn anything musically–just try it. I would start by trying to pick out a melody of a familiar song. Start with the easy stuff and go from there. Learn music theory along the way. Practice it as much as you can, and your skills will improve.

    I am somewhat like Balfour (although perhaps not as naturally talented) in that music has come more easily to me than it does to some. I have always liked to sing, which I think was the beginning. My mom put me in piano lessons at a young age, but it wasn’t until much later that I became a better sight reader, maybe when I was 12 or 13. And my sight reading still needs improvement. I have room for improvement in every area, come to think of it. 🙂 That’s the beauty of music–you can never be “done” learning.

    So does that mean someone who is not naturally good at music can never be good at it? Definitely not! Anyone can be good at music, if they put in the right amount of effort. You may not win contests, but that is not often the goal.

    Another suggestion is to find a friend to play music with, no matter their instrument. Playing together will help you keep up with your music, and can help if you can’t do formal music lessons. Plus you get to enjoy the company of friends and make beautiful music together. 🙂

    And most of all, be patient with yourself! Music takes years to learn, decades to master. It isn’t done in a matter of weeks. It isn’t about the destination, it’s the journey.

    THis may not answer your question, but hopefully gives you something to think about.

    Participant
    Biagio on #190194

    Thanks Hearpe, great suggestions! Here’s another – as opposed to a keyboard, get your hands on a mountain dulcimer. That instrument’s fret board is laid out as a major scale (7 tones) rather than chromatic like a guitar or piano. So whatever note your keytone is tuned to, that’s the key you are in.

    You can of course “mix things up” but typical open tuning is with the tonic, or keytone, on two strings an octave apart, with the remaining string a fifth away. Playing a fourth, third, etc. is thus straight forward and intuitive.

    A decent one does not cost too much and it’s a very nice accompaniment to the harp. Of course so is a hammered dulcimer but those cost a lot more:-)
    Biagio

    Participant
    Sylvia on #190195

    If you understand chords, you don’t need to worry about the left hand. Just play the melody and put the chord in the left hand with it.

    Participant
    balfour-knight on #190196

    Thanks everyone! This has become a fascinating forum. Andelin, you are too kind to me!

    I do want to add that KNOWLEDGE about what you are doing “by ear” does indeed make it easier. When I was very young, I just played songs by ear without knowing what key I was in or how the chords were related to each other. My mother said that I played everything in C at first. Her favorite key, however, was F sharp, with most everything being on the Black Keys of our piano!

    My mother’s family came from generations of musicians who played all the stringed instruments here in our NC mountains, mostly “by ear.” My great-grandfather taught shaped-note singing, Hearpe, with Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Si-Do. His singing school called themselves the “fa-so-la singers.”

    When mother’s family got together to “jam,” they realized that mom was right–I had inherited the family talent, and I then had to know what KEY they were playing in so I could play along! Out of this developed my formal musical education. They wanted me to be “musically literate” so I could read and write music. And it was not easy, playing simple tunes by the music instead of the complicated ones I could play by ear!

    I once had an adult piano student who played magnificently by ear but wanted to learn to read music. It took years, but she finally became good at it, so I know it is possible. Be patient, like Andelin said, work hard, and it should improve.

    Hope we have been of some help, Clinton!

    Best regards to all of you,
    Balfour

    Participant
    Tacye on #190204

    My playing from music is, and always has been, far ahead of my playing by ear, but I have learnt do a bit by ear and know I could do more if I worked at it.

    Of course playing by ear can be learnt – but easiest from sound rather than reading, obviously, so books will either need someone else to play, or a CD. There is a listing here of some of the books available if any of the descriptions look good to you:
    http://www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk/practical-musicianship-resources

    Playing by ear needs two things – first is knowing what sounds you want to make, and second is being able to find them on your instrument. If you can start out picking out the tune of twinkle twinkle, notice if you play a wrong note and hunt around for the right one you have the base skills.

    Member
    cc-chiu on #190220

    On one hand, knowing the theory is quite useful, on the other hand, ‘just doing it’, getting practise, also helps a lot. Someone already mentioned trying to play songs you already know (pop songs etc), it forces you to replicate on the harp what you are ‘hearing in your head’.

    I learned to play by ear from a folk perspective, so my advice would be: attend workshops where they focus on learning by ear or take lessons with a teacher who can play by ear… In such workshops/lessons, they teach you new music by playing one phrase, having everyone repeat it several times, then playing the next phrase, connecting them, etc… The first time I was completely confused after just a few notes, now I can pick up most tunes with ease. These skills also transfer to non-folk music, you learn to make an immediate connection between what you hear and how to produce it at the harp. Knowing about intervals, modes and keys can make it easier, but it’s not necessarily required to be able to play by ear. Perhaps a ‘mix’ is best, allow yourself to get plenty of practical experience (trying to play along with CDs is also a good way to practice this) and read up on some theory as well.

    Participant
    clinton-blackmore on #190223

    Wow, so many replies! Thank you, everyone.

    First, in the interim, I actually called up Mr. Kovac and asked if he felt I needed to, say, be able to sing on key before his 7 easy lessons on playing the harp by ear would be useful to me, and he thought they’d be useful to me even at my skill level. (It was really nice just being able to talk to someone and ask questions on the phone.) So, I’ve ordered a couple of his videos, and, well, here’s hoping it’ll work for me.

    I’d like to reply to some of the comments here (and, if I don’t get finished, I’ll have to continue at another time). (Well, I finished with the comments so far — this will be a long post. I’ll have to post more frequently in the future.)

    Biagio,

    Here’s the half-full: people have been playing the harp (and everything else) by ear for thousands of years before notation came about, and for a few thousand years after that too.

    It is amazing that we are using a method that *isn’t* the one that’s been used for thousands of years. In one article I read, a person called it “Call and Response” when one person would play some notes and a student would try to play the same notes back. I wish I could find some software that’d play a song a bit at a time so I could try to replay it in the same way (but it seems like “Call and Response” has a second meaning — someone plays/says something, and another person plays/says something else that replies to it — so my ‘google fu’ is failing.)

    The “trick”, if you will, is to learn tunes by interval i.e. 1 is the tonic note, 4 is the subdominant, 5 is the dominant for the major notes in the scale. So if you are tuned to C that’s 1, F is 4, G is 5 (and of course the next C is an 8 or a 1 take your pick).

    I know what you mean (although the programmer in me wants to count the dominant as an offset of 0). I was trying that the other day — I took a simple tune I knew, changed my levers, found the diatonic scale, and was able to play the tune offset in a different position. That’s really cool!

    There IS one book I can suggest, and it’s great (but also a lot of work) – Ray Pool’s “1 2 3 Play”.

    Excellent. I’ve added it to my wish list.

    Balfour-knight,

    I had not yet responded to this thread, because I do not know the answer to “how does one LEARN to play by ear?” You can either do it, or you can’t.

    I can appreciate where you are coming from [really, I can — that comment on your sister knowing math rings true for me!], and am glad that you later said that you think it can be learned. Let me take an aside and say that fortunately, I have a growth mindset. There’s no way I would’ve started playing the harp at age 32 without a musical background were that not so.

    I’m reminded of meeting a fellow from Russia who was living in Vancouver, Canada. He was over fifty, and didn’t speak any English. I think I asked him once why he didn’t learn it, and that he said that he was too old. My answer to that is: in ten years, you’ll be sixty, whether you learn English or not. Following one choice, you are as bad off as you are now, but acting on a different choice will mean that you’ll at least know some English at the end of that time. [Hmm, and, as tangents from that tangent, I’m reminded of the article, “Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years” (http://norvig.com/21-days.html), and would point out that I sympathize with him; learning Russian was the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted.

    Duckspeaks,

    Dear Clinton, I am adult as well, old in fact, when I started.

    🙂

    I realise mostly to play what u like one has to rearrange it for lever harp anyway and I am too lazy to write music down and so I play by ear and heart ad well.

    Wow, would that I could be so lazy!

    (Dear me, I’ve spent a lot of time tediously entering the melody line from written music that I couldn’t read into my computer to have it play it back, print out the notes with names or in different shapes or colours, and to have something that appeared more tractable [and I’ve also avoided doing it on other songs ’cause it was too much work!] Playing by ear to avoid that sounds awesome.)

    I would suggest trying to get hold of “folk songs” of the 60s, just a few, to experience the basic harmony.

    Interesting that you mention that. I recently went to a family reunion where I was asked to find and prepare music, karaoke-style, that my great uncle used to lead family members in. A lot of it was WWII-era, and some went back to the 1890s. The picture of the family just sitting down around the piano or with a guitar and singing songs really appeals to me, and I’ve sure got a list of songs I could start with.

    The physical demands of harping is mich to handle already. not having to read music is one way to help the initial stretch of the journey

    Well said! I can see that on the piano, with peripheral vision, playing written music must be easier, but boy, I lose my place all the time (or try not to look at my strings at all) when playing on the harp.

    Hearpe,

    But I can usually pick up a guitar or sit at the piano, and be playing along by the end of most songs by knowing a few basics about song structure

    Wow!

    The first -knowledge of the keys- is most important and best learned on piano I think, by playing the Major Scale (Do-re-mi-so-fa-la=ti=do) off of every key- you get to know the key scales- ie “C” has NO sharps or flats,

    I rather like playing different scales on my (fully-levered) harp — and transposition seems straightforward, too. I finally learned that when there is a sharp in a signature, it is always the same sharp (same for ‘n’ sharps or ‘n’ flats) — wow, that simplifies things a bit. And it is nice not to have to try to throw in black keys.

    Perhaps I should try to learn the piano, too. I learned the C (major) scale years ago, but that was about it. I do think having to hold the note would be good for better understanding rhythm — I don’t keep a beat very well (yet).

    Do you have any further thoughts on why the piano is best for learning the key signatures? I’d tend to think that, say, a chromatic lyre or a special keyboard that doesn’t use the 7-5 white/black split (can’t find the right picture!) might make it more obvious; nonetheless, I haven’t got access to such a device.

    The second important component of “playing by ear” – The three chord theory- is that most modern music is often built around the I, IV, V progressions and mixtures

    Wow. I’d come across chords being notated in that way, but didn’t realize the progression was an important thing. [Yes, I saw the video about everyone copying a similar progression for Pachelbel’s Canon.] That’s good to know.

    So anyway, once you have a grasp of those two things, you can generally find the key by listening to what note a piece RESOLVES to at the end of the main phrases.

    Nice! Now that I understand what a tonic note is, that makes sense.

    Do I have to worry much about songs being written in different modes or in anything other than a major scale? (Or do I just say, “this is the truth, until I am able to discern otherwise”?)

    Andelin,

    I suppose you learn to play by ear the same way you learn anything musically–just try it. I would start by trying to pick out a melody of a familiar song. Start with the easy stuff and go from there. Learn music theory along the way. Practice it as much as you can, and your skills will improve.

    Awesome.

    That’s the beauty of music–you can never be “done” learning.

    Amen. If this life can be thought of as a “choose-your-own adventure” life, then I like the idea of choosing something that keeps me turning the page.

    Another suggestion is to find a friend to play music with, no matter their instrument. Playing together will help you keep up with your music, and can help if you can’t do formal music lessons. Plus you get to enjoy the company of friends and make beautiful music together. 🙂

    Aha! Now I know why I have kids! 🙂 I will look for more opportunities to do just that. I recognize that when there is a deadline, practice becomes more earnest and progress improves faster.

    Biago,

    Thanks Hearpe, great suggestions! Here’s another – as opposed to a keyboard, get your hands on a mountain dulcimer. That instrument’s fret board is laid out as a major scale (7 tones) rather than chromatic like a guitar or piano. So whatever note your keytone is tuned to, that’s the key you are in.

    Wow. That’s a different suggestion. [keyboard clacks as I ask google about this.] Hmm… They might just be affordable. I hope there is no “rosewood harp”-equivalent that I’d have to watch out for.

    Sylvia,

    If you understand chords, you don’t need to worry about the left hand. Just play the melody and put the chord in the left hand with it.

    There’s a lot more for me to understand. I did pick up “Music Theory and Arranging Techniques for Folk Harps” by Sylvia Woods, but, right now I have to try to memorize a melody and then memorize the chords and then try to put them back together — I can’t read them both simultaneously (even with the simplified notation). I do look forward to being able to play from a lead sheet/fake book.

    Do you have any additional thoughts on how/where to learn to understand chords?

    Balfour-knight,

    Thanks everyone! This has become a fascinating forum.

    I agree!

    I do want to add that KNOWLEDGE about what you are doing “by ear” does indeed make it easier.

    Great.

    Out of this developed my formal musical education. … And it was not easy, playing simple tunes by the music instead of the complicated ones I could play by ear!

    Wow — it must’ve been hard to persist.

    I once had an adult piano student who played magnificently by ear but wanted to learn to read music. It took years, but she finally became good at it, so I know it is possible. Be patient, like Andelin said, work hard, and it should improve.

    Amen.

    And yes, these replies have been helpful.

    Tayce,

    Of course playing by ear can be learnt – but easiest from sound rather than reading, obviously, so books will either need someone else to play, or a CD. There is a listing here of some of the books available if any of the descriptions look good to you:
    http://www.davidbartonmusic.co.uk/practical-musicianship-resources

    thanks for the link.

    Playing by ear needs two things – first is knowing what sounds you want to make, and second is being able to find them on your instrument. If you can start out picking out the tune of twinkle twinkle, notice if you play a wrong note and hunt around for the right one you have the base skills.

    Sometimes I have to hunt for a long time, and sometimes I can’t tell if the note I want is higher or lower, but I believe I’ll get better with more practice.

    Cc-chiu,

    On one hand, knowing the theory is quite useful, on the other hand, ‘just doing it’, getting practise, also helps a lot. Someone already mentioned trying to play songs you already know (pop songs etc), it forces you to replicate on the harp what you are ‘hearing in your head’.

    I’ll practice some more. Unusually, I don’t listen to a lot of music, so I ought to work on hymns instead of pop songs 🙂 (and maybe some of those Sandra Boynton songs that we listen to with the kids).

    I learned to play by ear from a folk perspective, so my advice would be: attend workshops where they focus on learning by ear or take lessons with a teacher who can play by ear… In such workshops/lessons, they teach you new music by playing one phrase, having everyone repeat it several times, then playing the next phrase, connecting them, etc…

    Oh, I’d love, love, love to go to some workshops! (The nearest ones I know of are in Vancouver and Montreal, and that’s a bit of a stretch to get there. [Lethbridge and Calgary are the cities nearest me; I don’t suppose there are any harp workshops in Montana?])

    Hey, are there any recordings from workshops on the internet? (I know that it isn’t the same as being there, but it might still be useful.)

    You know, I bet my last harp teacher could do teaching by ear, and if not, perhaps I’ll look into Skype teachers. [I’m not taking lessons right now due to a shortage of spare time, and a shortage of discretionary money, but that will change, too, as all times and seasons do.]

    Thank you, thank you, everyone. I am sorry I didn’t reply sooner; I’ve really enjoyed hearing your advice.

    Clinton

    Participant
    Biagio on #190227

    Hi Clinton,

    Great post! Here are a few thoughts/reactions in no particular order.

    Mountain dulcimer: still pretty much a cottage industry, even for concert quality ones (yes, there are such things). A decent one will cost between $200 and $400. If you have glue, clamps, a hammer and patience Music Makers sells kits for $160 or $200. The $200 one costs more because the sides are steam bent; there is no difference in tone so go for the teardrop shape. Getting the frets exact and the action level are the only critical elements to making one from scratch; the kits have pretty much done that for you.

    Chords/Theory: Here are two good books that take most of the mystery out: The Everything Music Theory Book (mainly oriented to guitar but that’s not a problem) and another Ray Pool: “3’s A Chord.”

    Isolation a section for repeated listening: some notation software such as Finale and Sibelius will read in a PDF or MIDI file which you can then edit and “loop play.” You can also regulate the tempo – I learned Carolan’s Dream and a few other tunes that way and it is actually kind of fun.

    The Score: I used to get intimidated by the accompaniment (all those notes!) until my teacher pointed out that they were mostly chords broken up into individual notes. The most basic however is a triad in root position: root, up a third and up another third i.e. C-E-G, F-A-C etc. “So”, she said, “Just play the melody and a simple triad”. Some Scottish tunes are just a drone: same chord all through the tune. “Inisheer” is one like that, it’s also a simple tune and very pretty.

    Improvising: Try this, it’s quite amazing. Choose a chord sequence, I IV V for instance, and just keep going around and around. For example C F G, C F G, C F G…..keep going andwithout looking at your other (“melody”) hand just start fooling around with that “melody” hand – you will soon discover what is working and what doesn’t. Intuitive, which is how I learn best.

    Exploring: Any major scale is composed of two whole steps, a half step, then four more whole steps and another half – then the octave. So let’s say you are in C – those half steps are E and B. A mode is just a different arrangement of whole and half steps, that’s all. Now let’s have some fun and try a different sequence! Sharp those two half steps – now you are playing in a pentatonic scale and anything you do will sound good. Lots of tunes are actually pentatonic: most shape note songs like Beach Spring, some Scottish like Farewell to Tarwaithe (which you might recognize as Dylan’s Farewell Angelina). Anyhow, just play around in pentatonic and start adding any old chord. Some will sound good some not so good but none of them will sound awful. Intuitive again but by paying attention to what you like you will develop your own approach to arranging.

    Cheers,
    Biagio

    Participant
    duckspeaks on #190228

    Dear Clinton,

    From your reply, I’m able to pinpoint something. It appears you need 4 steps (yes this is a 4-step procedure to attain what you want):

    1. Develop the ability to realise and call out (sing out) the so-fa names of every note when you hear music (or work it out when it lingers in your mind). Best thing to do is to step through Julie Andrew’s Sound Of Music Theme Song (Doh a deer a female deer). Get printed music (or web equivalent) for this please. E.g. Doh-re-mi-doh-mi-do-mi Re-mi-fa-fa-mi-re-fa Mi-fa-soh-mi-so-mi-so Fa-soh-la-la-so-fa-la……)

    2. Learn basic chords so that if you can work out C and Am you will know what it is notes of C+E+C and A+C+E and also that the so far names (assume Key of C will be Do-Mi-So and La-Doh-Mi). Keep this step VERY SHORT (1 hour at most) and jump to the next step. Accumulate your knowledge of chord during Step3.

    3. Get a guitar song book (or web page), those with nothing but lyrics + cords only. Get any Peter, Paul and Mary songs you already know (because they tend not to have semitones/accidentals nor blues notes and also because they are conservative + predicable + methodical (I will never use the word boring because they are great!) in harmony). Try to work out the melody line and then try to jam in the cords. Never mind rhythm. Just put in the 3 or 4 notes per cord, let them ring and them slow try to play that bit of melody line. Just try it verse by verse. With this you will attain the sense of “direction” that harmony is giving to the melody line. Every change of chord is equivalent a “3 D car” turning left or right or up or down or left sideways or backwards….. (trust me it really turns upwards and downwards and backwards!) …. as long you got the feeling that the “car” is turning, you are getting it!

    4. Finally, get a book (or self realise) how to deduce cords from melody lines. In Harp, diatonic harmony is so easy that you only need to try seven times to get the right one even if you don’t have a clue (let’s do either major or minor keys first but both can be tackled similarily and they are just cousins once your are in the game). Usually it is based on what notes are there, what to emphasise (those notes in the suspected candidate cord) what to ignore (passing notes, non-harmonically significant notes or obstinato notes). Then you are done!

    5. PS: there is no absolutely correct harmony (unless you want to mimic a particular recording or unless you want to play classical music by ear). Alternate arrangement gives a different “direction” to the melody line, sometimes to great effect, sometimes really off-putting, mostly of the time a matter of taste. If you get 5 copies of greensleeves played my amateur players you’ll realise they are all using slightly different harmony. When you have got to step 4, very soon you will realise some common tricks (e.g. swapping I with IV for emphasis at times or the harmony deliberately ahead of the melody or basso obstinato or deliberate clash because the tonic needs to be well established even when the melody has not reached that point (another case of harmony deliberately ahead of melody)…. It helps a lot if you can detect major vs minor keys early in the process. If the song often goes to “La” then it is a minor key. If it’s gravitates towards Doh or Mi or So then it is a major key. The above approach will help you in the farther future when you want to put in more notes than just the melody (e.g. adding intervals and chords to thicken the melody depends on know what chords are at work). The limitation to the above approach is you can’t do complex textured music (e.g. tone painting is out of the question) but there is much fun to be had before we reach there.

    Trust me, fun starts during Step 1! When I was a kid I had nothing and that’s how I got started by myself. Now we have the Internet and so many kind souls here with you.

    Good luck!

    Participant
    balfour-knight on #190232

    Thanks, everyone! These are great posts, and it was good to be updated by Clinton! Yes, YouTube is great for being able to hear something, to see if you are doing it “like it is supposed to be.” In the “Old Days” I would sometimes be given just the melody to something and had to figure out by ear which chords to add to it. There are many possibilities that sound nice! All I had to do was hear the song/piece to know what to do, but finding someone who knew it, or getting a recording of it, was not always possible. Also, the tempo, style, dynamics, etc. are all important when someone has requested a favorite piece for their wedding, party, dinner, concert, etc. It does need to be recognizable, ha, ha! Thanks, YouTube!

    My very best wishes to all of you,
    Balfour

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