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Jam School Activities

Play A Song By Ear (no written music)

Starting Point #1 in the Series


What You Need to Know Already:

Things to Help You With This Skill:


IMPORTANT NOTE: You don't have to know your scales in order to play by ear, but it helps if you do. If you have difficulty with this exercise initially, try learning your instrument's C major scale and try again. I think you'll like the results.

Playing by ear is the universal first step to jamming. For thousands of years before written music was invented, everyone played music in this way. Melodies were either made up on the spot or learned from other musicians. Today, many musicians still learn in this way, although it's more common to learn songs from recordings. This takes some effort, but people learn to do it all the time.

Step 1 - Find a song to learn. It needs to be a song that you know well enough to sing, hum or whistle. It's best to start with something simple. Christmas songs and childrens songs are made to order for this task. Below is a list of good starter tunes that use only the notes of the major scale. This means that they use no sharp or flat notes if you play them in the key of C. To keep you on track, I'll give you the first note and the last note. You fill in the rest.

Song First Note Last Note Comments
Mary Had A Little Lamb E (3) C (1)  
This Old Man (Barney) G (5) C (1) "I love you, you love me..."
Jingle Bells E (3) C (1)  
My Country 'Tis of Thee C (1) C (1)  
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star C (1) C (1) by Mozart! Starts with a big jump between 1st & 2nd notes
Silent Night G (5) C (1) Was written in only 20 minutes!
Joy To the World C (8) C (1) First 8 notes are a descending major scale
Three Blind Mice E (3) C (1) Also, The Three Stooges
The First Noel E (3) E (3) One of few that doesn't end on note #1 of the scale

Step 2 - Start playing!  Begin at the starting note, and just start moving your fingers. Many melodies are made of notes that are right next to each other--at least at the beginning. Three Blind Mice, Joy to the World, The First Noel, and Mary Had a Little Lamb are all good tunes just to move your fingers.

Some songs start with repeated notes. You have to separate them with your tongue. Songs like this on the list include Jingle Bells and My Country 'Tis of Thee.

Some songs start with sequences of notes that are not next to each other. This Old Man is a good example. Is the next note above or below the first? How far? You just have to try them until you find it.

Step 3 - Where's the next note?   Sometimes you move right along, and sometimes you stop dead because you can't find the next note. Here are a couple of rules to keep in mind.

  1. The next note is always one of three things: It's either above, below, or the same as the last note.

  2. Notes in a song are most often adjacent to each other. If you just played a C and need a higher note, try D first. If it doesn't work try E and keep working up note by note. If you just played a G and need a lower note, first try F, then E, etc.

  3. The most frequent problem that I see is when the next note is the same as the note you just played. People get used to moving their fingers from note to note, and forget that those fingers don't move when a note repeats itself.

Step 4 - Caught in a logjam? Play what you know already, then sing the next note. Then play up and down your scale until you find the note you just sang. If you don't find it the first time, then play what you know from the beginning again, and sing the needed note again and try to match it again. Keep repeating this step until you find the note you want.

Step 5 - Build your song phrase by phrase--from the beginning - Keep starting from the beginning and adding a few notes at a time. Starting at the beginning keeps you on track and helps you to stay in the right key.

Step 6 (if you chose a song from my list) - Compare the last note of your song with the one listed on the chart. Is it the same? If not, play the song over to see if something sounds funny. You may have changed keys along the way (see step 5). Notice that of the 9 songs in the key of C, only one ended on a note other than C. Most songs end on the root note of the key that they're in--over 99% according to Classical Music for Dummies. This may help with other songs that you try.

Don't just learn a few songs and quit. Learn songs all the time, so that you build your skill and speed. Once you've learned a bunch of simple songs, you might try learning something from a record.

Your next activity will be to Write The Music To a Song.

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