Lora Staples - beginning violin and fiddle expert

Playing by Ear - Part 3

Another tip from Lora Staples on playing by ear on the violin.

In this third and last video about playing by ear, Lora addresses another typical scenario where you listen to a recording, and you want to "reproduce" the same music with your violin. How to do that?

Released on September 3, 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

So, now let's talk about some of the things that come into play when you're learning from a recording, and you want to get it as exact as possible. So here's the question: are you going to be writing it down, are you transcribing it, or are you just learning it and memorizing it in your head? The reason that it's important to know that is because if you're just learning it in your head, you really don't need to know what key you're in. It will help, especially if you're improvising. But if you're just copying what you hear, you don't really need to know what key you're in, just play the right notes.

Second of all, you don't really need to know what meter you're in. Just play the right rhythms and make sure that you're keeping the beat that the songs keeps. If you're writing these things down, you really, really kind of need to know the meter and the key as well, because otherwise, you're going to be writing tons of sharps and flats all over the place. It's better if you know what to put in the key signature. Okay, what I would do is I would just listen to the song from beginning to end several times. You probably have, because you love the song enough to want to learn it by ear.

So, tap your foot to the beat and listen to the notes that are happening in between the beat, and you'll quickly realize there is either an even number of notes to each beat or an odd number of notes to each beat. There is...two and a four is very common. Two notes or four notes, these are what I call subdivisions. It's not just me that calls it that, that's what they're called. When a beat is subdivided into smaller pieces, they're called subdivisions. And certain meters subdivide using twos and fours, and some meters subdivide using threes or sixes, sometimes nines, twelves. Okay, so that will be a big hint.

Keep the numbers low. Just decide if it's groups of three or groups of two that you're hearing, two or four. So your choices are two, three, or four. And try to narrow down the possibilities. If you're hearing groups of three, then you're probably in a jig meter, or six eight time of some sort, or it's using triplets, which triplets can be written in six, eight time. I mean you can write them as triplets, or you can represent them using six eight meter. So I'm probably confusing you by saying that. Just, the important thing is to find the subdivision and then choose the way that you want to represent that on the page.

Do you want to write a triplet bracket over every group of three notes, or do you want to put it in six eight time, or do you simply want to write eight notes and say this is a swing field? Sometimes swing is confused with triplets, and it's not really triplets, it's just swinging eight notes. Okay, I know that's a lot of information for a lot of you who have not even delved into that yet, so just put it aside. Don't worry about it right now. All right. If you're writing this down, here is another hint for you is listen to the whole piece and write out your blank bars.

Figure out how many bars there are, so you'll know how far you have to go, and then listen for repeated phrases. You're going to notice that a lot of the same material comes back again and again. Label that. Say, okay, the first eight bars, I'm going to call that A, and then the next eight bars, it's A again, but with a little bit of a different ending on the last bar. So, notate that somehow. Watch out for that, because that's going to be different there, and etc. I think you get the point of figuring out the form and outline it on your blank bars. The next step, this is my process of what I like to do, is if it's a really complicated fiddle that I'm trying to transcribe.

I'll make sure that I get the first pitch of every bar, and I write that down. And that's going to be kind of like the crossword puzzle. You know, if you got one word really right, and the word that you want to do that intersect that word doesn't fit with the word that you know is right, then you know that you need to change your option for the other word. Does that make sense? Okay, so it just gives you a kind of cross reference and a double check to have beat one, the pitch, written down. Then you work on filling it in, and that's where all of the old skills that I just talked about in Video One: pitch comparison, matching the pitch on your instrument, identifying the intervals can help speed things up, snippet memory, and nailing those rhythms.

And you may not know the key or the meter right off of the bat, but I think after you've written out the first eight bars, if you look closely at it, figure out where the big beats are, you're going to figure out a meter to use that will make sense. Sometimes, in fact, most of the time, a written piece could be written different ways using different meters and sound exactly the same. So don't get stuck on thinking "Oh, I have to find the right time signature for this." You don't. You just have to find one that works and that represents it accurately. Okay, as you get more experienced, you'll start figuring out which one is the best choice, but you don't have to worry about having only one choice. There's always more than one option.

Okay, and then as far as what key you're in, well, if you noticed the same two sharps happening every time, you're probably in the key of D major or B minor. If you notice the same flats happening every time, then figure out the key from there. And once again, if you don't know your keys and your time signatures very well, there's...the great book, Music Theory for Dummies, is a really good reference, because of the way it's laid out. You don't have to read it from cover to cover, you can just refer to it and find...Also the Basics of Violin playing by Fabrizio Ferrari, it's an eBook available on this site, and it has a great section on the fundamentals of music theory.

Then there is also music theory websites online as well, that can help you educate yourself on these basic facts. Okay, so, that's my process, that's generally what I do, and sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's really hard. When it's really hard, I like to use a slowing down software. There are a couple of free ones you can download. One is by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, ABRSM, that's their website. There software's called Speed Shifter, and it's free, and it's simple, and I really like it. There is a deluxe program that you can pay for called The Amazing Slow Downer, that has a lot more features like looping, and transposition and stuff like that, that people also love, and they're willing to pay for.

So, keep those in mind. Oh, also Windows Media Player has a built in slowing down feature. Most people don't realize that, but you can slow down a file in Window's Media Player without changing the pitch. So, that's kind of handy when you're trying to figure stuff out by ear. All right, most of all, it takes practice. I know that in the last year, my speed has probably quadrupled in figuring things out by ear. It's really something that you catch on to quickly if you have a system and if you're practicing it regularly.

All right, I hope you found this helpful. Feel free to post your comments and questions below, and I will answer them personally. Thanks for watching, and I'll see you next time.
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