Playing by ear and improvising

Helping children to learn and perform music aurally and to be creative in the moment

What playing by ear entails

  • ‘Playing by ear’ refers to the ability to perform music by hearing and remembering it, as opposed to using notation. It is, and always has been, the most common form of musical transmission in many cultures. In the West, the concept tends to be used in the context of melody and harmony instruments, such as the piano, violin and recorder, although it is more broadly applicable than this – to drums, shakers and other untuned percussion, for example. There is a view among some Western classical musicians that playing by ear is the gift of a lucky few, beyond the reach of the majority. In reality, though, it is a skill that can be learnt like any other; indeed, the motivation to practise is a highly significant factor in its development.
  • A prerequisite of the ability to play by ear is the capacity for building internal musical models – aural images of pieces that are held in the mind. All children in the early years construct these through countless hours of listening and responding to music, particularly through singing. Gradually, young children’s vocal efforts approximate more and more closely to the patterns of sounds they perceive.
  • The next stage is for pupils to discover how the sounds they can hear in their head correspond to the technicalities of playing an instrument. In melodic terms, for children who do not have perfect pitch, this is a matter of relating the series of intervals that make up a tune to the physical manoeuvres needed to move from one note to the next, using the given rhythmic framework. This is largely a process of trial and error, and a determined effort over an extended period of time. Children with perfect pitch, for whom each note leaves a distinct impression, inevitably find playing by ear easier than those who process pitch primarily in terms of the differences between one note and another.

In Joseph’s story, Indian musician Baluji plays his instruments so Joseph can hear what they sound like. Because Joseph has perfect pitch (which means he can tell which notes are being played without needing to be told) Joseph can often work out for himself how to reproduce the sounds that Baluji makes. Joseph's Story @ 04:14

Ashleigh, like 40% of children who have been blind from birth or from shortly afterwards, has ‘perfect pitch’, which psychologists usually term ‘absolute pitch’. This means that when Ashleigh hears a musical sound, she knows instantly and precisely what note it is. In helping pupils with absolute pitch learn to play by ear, the teacher’s role is not one of instructing the child which notes to play, but helping them to translate the sounds they can hear in their head onto their instrument, as Adam demonstrates. The issue becomes one of which finger to use, not of which note to play (which teachers sometimes find hard to grasp at first!) Ashleigh's Story @ 07:18

The teachers’ role

  • Whatever your pupil’s aural abilities, you can assist their learning in a number for ways: through demonstration, explanation or physical guidance, and by providing, among other repertoire, a series of pieces that are carefully graded according to the number and range of pitches they use. Start with three notes melodies (such as ‘It’s me, O Lord)’, then tunes with four notes (such as the chorus to ‘Super Trouper’), five notes (such as ‘O When the Saints’), six notes (‘Oh! Susanna’), seven notes (‘Every Day’) and then eight notes (‘All my Loving’).
  • These need to be pitched in a key best suited to the instrument in question. For example, blind beginners on the piano or keyboard may find E major the easiest to start with. Observe that the assumption that C major makes the simplest starting point is construct driven by music theory, and may in any case be inappropriate for blind children, since an uninterrupted sequence of white notes offers no clues at all to those using touch to ascertain which key is which. For beginners on the violin, D major would be the obvious choice. G major will be best for the recorder.
  • The number of different pitches that make up a tune is one aspect of the challenge that playing by ear presents to performers. You also need to give due regard to the intervals used in pieces: leaps are generally harder to gauge than movements by step, while repeated notes are particularly easy to process aurally. Rhythmic complexity is a crucial factor in the equation too, and the rate at which notes occur.

Developing a sense of tonality

  • As your pupil’s repertoire of pieces they have learnt by ear increases, the hope is that they will develop a growing sense of the different function that each note fulfils in relation to others – an awareness of ‘tonality’. Having established, by listening, which scale a tune uses (major, minor, blues, pentatonic, etc.), this will enable them to gauge within it the place of each of its constituent notes – whether it begins on the tonic (the first degree of the scale) or the dominant (the fifth degree), for example.
  • It is important to appreciate that a sense of tonality can be understood on a purely intuitive level by the child. They don’t need to have a knowledge of music theory to sense what is one of the main underlying grammars of virtually all music.

In Aizah’s story, we can see her emerging sense of tonality as she gravitates towards the note C Aizah's Story @ 01:59, and so her teachers, Adam and Lydia, play pieces that begin on that note (which are often in C major). In starting to teach Aizah, the most important thing is to guide her in playing a tune that she already knows in her head. This central principle of playing by ear will be the strategy that Aizah will be encouraged to adopt, now and in the future, although that doesn’t preclude the possibility of using notation further down the line.

Sustaining your pupil’s interest

  • One of the main challenges that you are likely to face is sustaining your pupil’s enthusiasm for what is likely to be a modest repertoire of musical fragments when they start practising to play by ear, which will be subject, furthermore, to a good deal of repetition. By making music with others, however, and with the judicious use of recorded material, even the most basic snatch of rhythm or melody can potentially form part of a satisfying, even sophisticated, musical texture. Pieces that use ‘ostinati’ (short passages that are repeated a number of times) are most suitable, and, indeed, many children enjoy African drumming or playing pieces on the gamelan, as well as providing the bass lines for songs ranging from the 13th century ‘Summer is A-Coming in’ to ‘Feelin’ Groovy’. Melodic ostinato often have a limited pitch range, which is a further advantage.
  • Performing in textures comprising two parts or more can promote aural awareness, including children’s sense of harmony, and their feeling for harmony and melody working together. Indeed, group performance can provide a useful introduction to learning to play harmonies by ear. Here, a systematic approach can be adopted comparable to that proposed for melodies, with its incremental increase in the range of notes used. It is even possible to start with one chord (almost invariably the tonic) which can be used, for example, throughout a number of rounds, such as ‘London’s Burning’. Common two chord combinations are I and V, and I and IV. However, it is with three chords (I, IV and V) that the most significant threshold is reached – these being sufficient to support a large number of melodies.

Teaching improvisation – first steps

  • A natural development of the capacity for learning to play pieces by ear is the ability to improvise; in fact, the two skills may well evolve alongside each other. Young children are natural vocal improvisers in the ‘pot pourri’ songs of the early years, which comprise snatches of tunes they have heard, re-configured and combined in novel ways, making them their own. Improvisation can be an important facet in a child’s self-expression – something that can be particularly powerful in children who find verbal communication challenging. The ability to improvise with others allows children to practice social skills and can facilitate the development of empathy.
  • The most straightforward form of improvisation involves rhythm alone (taking no account of pitch). This can be undertaken in a group – for example, individuals taking it in turns to make up rhythmic patterns that are subsequently imitated by the other participants. The improvised material may well make use of musical ideas from the piece being extemporised or others that are familiar. A regular beat in the background can ensure an overall coherence (and move what is being created from Sounds of Intent Level 4 to Level 5).

Teaching improvisation – moving on

  • You can approach teaching your pupil melodic improvisation by encouraging them to embellish tunes that they already know – initially using extra notes from the scale that the piece uses. Inevitably this will involve rhythmic ornamentation too. A further stage is to improvise new melodies using a given set of pitches (such as the pentatonic scale) that use the same rhythmic framework as the old. The concept of improvising a melody against a given harmonic sequence can be introduced by isolating the constituent pitches of the chords concerned, and using these as building blocks to create new tunes. Again, this can be set up as a group activity.
  • Incorporating notes that do not derive directly from the underlying harmonies (such as passing notes and neighbour notes) is an aspect of melody that varies widely from one style to another, and is therefore particularly dependent on exposure to the appropriate repertoire, attentive listening and careful emulation of what is heard. Different styles typically have a stock of conventional materials that performers draw on when improvising – they don’t start from a blank page – and your pupil can be taught some of these systematically in the early stages of learning to improvise.

In Hazel’s story, we see her having spontaneous imaginative and playful musical conversations with her teacher, Glenn Hazel's Story @ 00:34. This helps Hazel to feel at ease and express herself, offering her a way to communicate with another person other than by using words. Notice how Glenn moves the creative improvisatory section of the lesson into the more structured part working on the Bach, by asking Hazel to improvise around the main theme in the left hand.

Improvising can be the first step to creating a replicable, composed piece of music. In Ashleigh’s story, we see her improvising a blues using the name Beyoncé as a cipher to determine a pitch sequence. After offering an exposition of her newly minted materials, Ashleigh develops them around a 12-bar structure Ashleigh's Story @ 05:19.

In Francis’s story, you can watch his teacher Louise working on jazz improvisation with him on the saxophone Francis's Story @ 05:05. Louise uses the analogy of a conversation to help Francis to understand the concept of improvising with others.

As students acquire more advanced skills, they will be able to improvise within an agreed musical framework in an ensemble. This demands effective musical communication in the moment, including sophisticated listening skills, and an intuitive understanding of the musical grammar of a given style Nafis's Story @ 04:53.