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“How do you play by ear?”

I’m halfway through recording a course that answers this question in depth, but for the time being I can tell you that to play by ear, you need to stop thinking about music in terms of notes, and start thinking about music in terms of numbers (that’s also how you compose and improvise). What does that mean? And how do I do that?

Let’s take the C major scale:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B

And then it repeats. 7 notes. And C is the first note of the scale. So let’s call C “1”. Then we have:

C = 1, D = 2, E = 3, F = 4, G = 5, A = 6, B = 7

Now let’s take a simple tune. Let’s go with “Happy Birthday”. If you play “Happy Birthday” in C, it starts:

G, G, A, G, C, B

(Make sure you go up to C and not down.) Now let’s translate that into numbers, using the above system. Then we have:

5, 5, 6, 5, 1, 7

(Check that for yourself: G = 5, A = 6, etc.)

What’s the point of this? It means that you can now play the tune in a different key, which is called “transposing”. Suppose you want to transpose it to Eb major. The Eb major scale is:

Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D

Translating that into numbers, we have:

Eb = 1, F = 2, G = 3, Ab = 4, Bb = 5, C = 6, D = 7

So now let’s transpose the opening phrase of “Happy Birthday” into Eb. The opening phrase is:

5, 5, 6, 5, 1, 7

Using the above code, we get:

Bb, Bb, C, Bb, Eb, D

(Again, check it: 5 = Bb, 6 = C, etc. And remember to go up for 1, which is now Eb.)

It still sounds like “Happy Birthday”, right? Just a bit higher. That’s because what makes a tune sound like itself isn’t the notes it’s made of but how they relate to each other, in other words, the numbers.

Essentially, the way to master playing by ear is to play lots of tunes in different keys so that you start thinking about music in terms of numbers rather than instead of notes, because the numbers tell you why the music sounds the way it does, which is what allows you to play it by ear. After a while you’ll be listening to a piece of music and think, “Ah, that sounds like a 3, and we’re in Eb major, so that must be a G”.

That’s a very, very, brief overview that’s not going to be enough for you to learn how to play by ear, but hopefully it’s better than nothing while you wait for the course to come out!

“Is Read Music Fast useful if I play an instrument other than piano?”

Read Music Fast is definitely a keyboard-based course – it has interactive tests that get you to click / play notes on a keyboard. However, the reference note method it teaches can be applied to any instrument, so if you want to take advantage of it you could do the course and “translate” it to your instrument. You’ll also then get the bonus of knowing your way round a piano keyboard! If you’re not sure if the course is for you, you can always try it and get a refund if you don’t like it. (And don’t forget that you can get 25% off all my courses on this site.)

“Can you write an arrangement of X?”

It’s really useful knowing what people want to play, so please keep telling me what you want! However, please bear in mind that I’m trying to serve lots of people rather than individuals, so I’ll only write an arrangement of a piece if several people request it. At the moment I’m publishing scores based on what was popular with my one-on-one students.

“What other courses / books / apps do you recommend?”

I’m out of touch with latest developments in music education. I also wouldn’t recommend a course, book, or app unless I’d worked through the whole thing, which means that I can’t assess one if you send me a link to it. At some point I’ll publish a list of books I’ve found useful, but the truth is I very rarely agree with how other people teach music (just because someone’s a good musician doesn’t mean that they know how to teach), so can mostly only recommend my own material!

“Do you do one-on-one lessons?”

I retired from that a couple of years ago, to focus on serving lots of people rather than just a small handful.

“Can you recommend another teacher?”

Unfortunately not, but I do have a 5,000-word article on how to find a good one.

“Which piano / keyboard should I buy?”

Glad you asked! I have a 3,000-word article on that.