Lora Staples - beginning violin and fiddle expert

Playing by Ear - Part 1

Learn how easy it is to play your violin by ear.

In this first video of a three-part series, Lora approaches the practice of "playing by ear" on the violin.

Released on July 2, 2014

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, I'm Lora Staples with RedDesertViolin.com and I'm here today for VirtualSheetMusic.com. In this video I would like to discuss how to play by ear. Now this might be broken into several videos because playing by ear could imply several things. It could imply picking a tune out of your head and playing it by ear on your instrument or it could imply using a reference recording and trying to copy that recording. Those are two very different processes. There's some similarities but I'll describe how they are different in a second.

Regardless whether you're playing out of your head or from a reference recording, you need certain skills that will make it a lot easier and a lot faster. The two general skills are ear training, of course, and knowing your finger board. What I mean by ear training is learning to compare two pitches. If you hear this pitch [plays note] and this pitch [plays note], are they the same or different? Obviously they're different. Some people have to work on that though. When pitches get really close together like [plays two notes], like a half step apart, they start to doubt their ears. So some people have to actually develop just the basics of pitch comparison. From there we start to decide, okay, if they're different, if they are not the same pitch, how are they different? Is the first note lower or higher than the second note? You start to get more and more specific. How far apart are they? Are they a half step apart? Are they a whole step apart? Are they a skip? How big is that skip? So you quickly get into working with intervals and I'll describe those in a second.

After you learn to compare the basic pitches, are they the same or different, higher or lower, you can start working on matching that pitch on your violin. So if you can hear these are two different notes, [plays two notes] can you find those two note on your violin? And you start to learn, oh, that's definitely on the "D" string. No, that sounds like an "E" string kind of timbre. You start knowing where its being played based on the timbre of the note, especially if you are listening to a recording of another violin playing it. Then it's a lot easier. If you are listening to a vocalist or a piano or some other instrument, it's a little harder because you don't have the reference of the timber. We all recognize what the "E" string sounds like [plays note] and we all kinda know the range of our "G" string. That kind of eliminates the possibilities a little bit, limits them.

Once you get pretty good at pitch comparison and pitch matching or finding the pitch on your instrument, you begin to work on interval identification. I referred to this earlier. That's basically just the measurement between two notes. There's certain names given to intervals that are music names. You can think of them as just a half step, a whole step, a little skip, a big skip or you can get really specific and get the book "Music Theory for Dummies" or look at all the awesome music theory sites that are online or download an app for your phone. There's ear training apps for your phone and it will help you to learn what these intervals are. You might have heard the interval of a minor third or a major third or a tritone. It goes minor second, major second, minor third, major third, perfect fourth, tritone, perfect fifth. We're getting bigger and bigger by a half step. After perfect fifth is the minor sixth, then major sixth and the minor seventh and the major seventh and then the perfect octave. That will take you from one pitch all the way up to the same pitch an octave higher.

This is all a bunch of music theory terminology I am using but it's not that complicated and I think it will be worth your time to look into with your training with intervals. Then, of course, try to find those intervals on your fingerboard. That's part of what I meant by learning the fingerboard but I'm digressing. We'll get to learning the fingerboard in just a second.

There's two more items under ear training after pitch comparison, then pitch matching on your violin then interval identification, exactly how far apart are two notes, then snippet memory. That's working on hearing three or five or even ten notes in a row and kind of memorizing them and finding them just like you found those two notes. You get better at finding clusters of notes and along with the snippet memory. It's not just about the notes or the pitches, it's also usually involving a rhythm. Most tunes have a very recognizable rhythm. It is important that you be able to copy the rhythm as well as the pitches. Okay, so that's the basic ear training that you're going to want to work on. It sounds like a lot, but it's not. You can do it in five minutes a day and you really get a lot better at it very rapidly. It's nice to get fast results with some things and ear training is one of those things.

Okay, now the other major component of playing by ear besides ear training is learning your fingerboard. So when you're studying intervals and you know the sound of a major third [hums note], but do you know how to find a major third on your instrument? How many fingers do you skip to get a major third? And that's a complicated discussion because an interval can be played on one string. What did I sing [hums note][plays same note on violin]. Of course, I picked a weird key. "B", "D sharp." And incidentally, that's a very awkward placement on my violin. It's a high two, "B" natural and a low one on the "D" string. So it's on the "G" string, "D" string or I can play it "two, four", and that's the thing, when you're playing thirds, it's always one finger apart. If the third begins on a first finger, you're gonna skip second finger and it's gonna be the next finger up. That's a third. A minor third will be slightly closer, a major third will be slightly further apart.

Each interval has little rules like that like the sixth. The sixth on the violin is on two strings because it's so large. In rare cases you can do it on one string or with shift. But a major sixth is a whole step between the two fingers. It's neighboring fingers with a whole step between them. A minor sixth is neighboring fingers with a half step between them. So figure out what those little rules are on your instrument. Of course, my online courses cover this in great detail, but it's not something you can't figure out on your own with a little bit of research.

So that's what I mean by knowing your fingerboard, know what the range is of each string, know what the range is of each position, know where each position is on your string. Of course, position work isn't going to apply to you if you're a fiddler or a beginning player. Don't worry about all that complicated stuff. Take it with a grain of salt and scales. Know where the scales are and where the basic finger positions are. There are certain finger patterns that we fall into over and over again. This is one of the most common, that's a common one and that's a common one. What I'm talking about is where the half steps lay within a scale. Okay, so that's the basics of the skills you need to be able to play by ear.

Now let's talk about picking out a tune from your head.
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