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For a while I've wondered if the "ear learning" we are discussing is just another path to memorizing. But ganon's and Kathy's and Derek's posts kept me open to the possibility that it is an all together different form of brain funtion....

Meanwhile, I'm following my own path based on FPE Volume 2 and my own intuition and I'm starting to think that ear learning could also be considered improvisation learning. We are learning to articulate on our instruments, the music we can "hear" in our heads. I hope that later I can use my imagination, but in the beginning, I am relying on my memory for the source of music. Every time I play a tune that I've learned by ear, I am, in a sense, improvising. That is because I've memorized the way it sounds instead of the way to play it as specified by written notation.

For ganon, Kathy, Derek, and anybody interested in scientific study of brain function of musicians, this video may be interesting:


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Here's another video germane to the discussion, albeit less scientific. Watch this one all the way through, the big payoff comes from the volunteer and a smaller one follows.





Hi Jim,


Thanks for the links - both awesome videos. I love TED. It's always full of inspiration - it'll be interesting to watch how Charles Limb's experiments progress over the years and what the outcomes are. The Halper video was even better (in fact i watched a couple) and in the first there was an interesting throwaway comment that matched exactly one of Limb's findings - which was that you have to turn off your thinking when improvising and rely on intuition (simply because intuition can work at the required pace, whilst conscious thinking can't). In the second video of his I watched he came up with another interesting point, that's it more beneficial to learn 20 licks, understand them fully, and understand how to use them in 10 different ways, than to learn 200 licks. Same amount of 'end result' but a far deeper understanding muscially.


This whole Ear Learning journey remains an enigma for me. There are so many routes and paths, so many ideas, so many 'end -games'. I feel like I'm struggling no matter what I try, but I suspect I'm not throwing enough hours at it. I've read many times that before transcribing a solo one should be able to sing it accurately, including all the little inflections, but I'm still struggling to do this. I'm sure it's possible because I can do it to a certain level on simple melodic solos (no more than 16 bars) - so it must be just a question of moving this ability forward one step at a time. But progress is so slow that the limiting factor becomes time.


Playing what you hear is another route - when someone (or a recording) throws a lick at you and you play it straight back. Again, simple stuff I can do, but as soon as it gets fast, long, complex, then I get lost (especially without clues - albeit most of the time the chords sequence we're playing over is the clue).


Then there's learning to 'hear' tunes, when the end game is not a solo or a lick or even someone else's version of a tune, but your own interpretation made up of listening to lots of different versions. I've not really explored this yet, and I suspect this may turn out to be the easiest route because it's not about a specific sound, but an interpretation of a sound based on one's own preferences. Maybe this is where I should start (again)? I can certainly find popular tunes (by that I mean tunes that I already 'know') on the guitar without too much difficulty and then consciously add in slides and bends and hammer-ons and all the rest of the stuff we guitar players do to create our own versions of a song. 


In the end we all have the same sound waves hitting our ear drums, so the difference between folks that can do the above and those that can't must lie within the head (which is Halper's point) and if we can figure out how to think/react differently (or rather in line with the people who already do this stuff really well) then we ought to be on the money.


On the plus side, the main difference I've found (so far) is that when I listen to something really intently with the idea of then being able to transcribe from my head (which more and more is feeling like an impossible dream with anything but the simplest and slowest of melodies/licks) I'm usually able to get a rough shape of the music from that process, albeit with a few bad notes and a few blanks, but then when I sit down with the music source and try and transcribe, the process is about 20 times quicker than on those occasions when I've gone straight to the direct transcription from music approach.


So there is huge benefit from active listening, but I'm yet to unlock the thing I need to do differently with my brain to make any decent progress.


It remains a great challenge an an interesting subject!



Hi Derek:


I'm in the "Play My Own Interpretation" camp. I'm tryin to develop the ability to play a version of a tune that is different than the way I would sing it. (This is typical of Bluegrass.)


One of the things I'm learning is the value of having a vocabulary of licks, as Halper speaks of.  In Deep Bluegrass Guitar, Ed Dodson teaches to play the melody and insert licks in the natural spaces within the melody. I've been working on inserting some variation of the Flatt G-run in every song I play. It's been a valuable exercise and I'm getting the hang of it. Now I'm working on owning a few more licks. Deep Bluegrass Guitar is full of them and Bluegrass Flatpickin' Guitar Method  by Neil and Steve Griffin has a bunch of simple licks. This technique is making a major improvement in my playing, which is otherwise just the straight melody played Carter-style.


SinceI learned the G-run, I  hear it everywhere in Bluegrass. When I do, I recognize it instantly and I don't have to work out the notes one-by-one. It's fun to listen to all the ways that different players use it. Now that I'm leaning different licks, I'm starting to "hear" them in the spaces of the melodies I'm playing.

Nail on the head here:

Since I learned the G-run, I hear it everywhere in Bluegrass. When I do, I recognize it instantly and I don't have to work out the notes one-by-one.

We need to hear something once (or several times the older we get!) in order that we recognize it again when we next hear it. If, in the meantime, we learn to play this something, then when we do hear it again we can both recognize and replicate it. Which is pretty much what we’re shooting for.

Of course, we can never hear everything up front – otherwise there’d be no new music, but by gradually building up our internal ‘dictionary’ of phrases we’re able to assemble/copy ‘sentences’ on the fly. Maybe, if we get really good, we’ll be able to hear and reproduce entire paragraphs.

Therefore it follows that one way to improve ear learning is to listen / transcribe (using whatever means – not just the ‘pure’ ear method we’ve spoken about on threads elsewhere in this group; but through any means – even tab) as many songs, licks, solos, phrases, melodies as possible, try and internalise them, and then when we hear them again we find we can (or are in better shape to) hear/play them. I think it’s this internalisation that is improved by learning through ear rather than tab – certainly I retain stuff I’ve worked out myself far better than stuff I’ve taken from existing transcriptions.

Currently, this process is very apparent to me when listening to Django and Charlie Christian (who just happen to be the two guys I’ve been listening to and working out recently) – the more I transcribe of these two the easier the transcription becomes, and on an increasing number of occasions I find that I can play something almost straightaway, not because my hearing-to-finger co-ordination is any good, but simply because I’ve heard it before, worked it out, and memorized it. I’m sure this will work, at varying levels, with Clarence White, Jimi Hendrix, Bryan Sutton, and probably everyone else…

As mentioned above, there will always be new phrases, but when they’re surrounded by familiar ideas they become that much easier to hear / learn / replicate.


Both videos are really thought provoking for me, and I really appreciate them being pointed out to this group.  My brother is a Pat Methany nut and this morning he sent me this link of Pat playing Third Wind:  


Watch him and think about these videos.  It looks to me like he is playing exactly what he is hearing in his head  (I think he is YELLING it too ).


I've been a Pat Metheny nut, too, especially his collaborations with Lyle Mays.

Thanks Jim!

RE learning by ear as another form of memorizing - at some level, there must be some memorization involved, but to me it doesn't feel at all like rote memorization. Rather, it feels a bit more like exploring and finding a path (one of essentially infinite possibilities) from the beginning to the end of the song. Hopefully with experience, you get better at finding and following 'better' paths. I think the 'different form of brain function' is the real key - to me it clearly is a different process, and a different result.

Both videos are great, but I particularly like the second one. Most important take home for me is that ALL playing is playing by ear. Everything else - tab, dots, music theory, song structure, metronomes, etc . . . are all supportive material that helps you internalize the music, but ultimately when it is time to play/perform it all has to come from within.
I also like the idea of 'yelling' the aural 'track' to yourself, even if internally. It clearly has a profound effect on the dynamics of the playing. Wonder if can do the same for the tonal aspects?

As for the bonus payoff - do you 'see'  notes or intervals as 'colors'? I can't, but seems that it could be developed at least as easily as attaching different emotions or 'feels' to different intervals. I had always thought that synesthesia was something that you  were blessed (or cursed) with, but if it can be developed . . . ?


My guess is that when he referred to colors he was speaking metaphorically.

For me, the bonus payoff was when Hal said, "your hearing always improves."


To answer ganon's question: No I don't hear in colors; I suspect Kathy is right. I don't know if it's good or bad, but I try to hear the distance between notes in two dimensions: time and pitch (interval). The predominant difficulty I have is with the guitar's layout. I hardly ever play piano, but when I do, I'm much more successful at playing by ear than I am with the guitar, which I play daily. That's because the keys on the piano are laid out in one line and intervals are easy to play. Also, every note on the piano is easy to instantly name and it is very easy to see which piano keys are part of the scale key I'm playing in.


OTH, the guitar's frets are arrangement forces me to go both horizontally and vertically, and the different frets are not presented as unique notes like a keys on a piano are. For me, this means that I have to have scales memorized at a level that I have not yet attained. But, like Hal said, I keep improving.

There's something to be said for this:

I hardly ever play piano, but when I do, I'm much more successful at playing by ear than I am with the guitar, which I play daily.

I find it much easier to figure things out on the clarinet / saxophone (speed issues aside). I've never thought about why before but it may well be something physical about the instruments. I'm pretty rubish at both, but at least you don't have to worry about playing more than one note at a time on them ;-)



So, why not work out the melody (or section thereof) on a single string, and then 'fold it up' after you have the notes figured out?

Jim, I totally get what you're saying re: how the fretboard looks (compared to, say, a piano). I'll share my experience with this. Are you familiar with the CAGED system of looking at the guitar neck? For me, visualizing the neck as a pattern of interlocking chord shapes (each with an embedded scale, though I don't think about that part very much, though I use the notes) gives everything context and meaning. So instead of needing to visualize the scales out of context, I can see them as part of the chord. In bluegrass & folk, that's pretty useful, because in a song, the main melody notes are in the triad. So I know the triad, and which one is the root.... the rest kind of falls into place in relationship to that information. (if you want an example, look up my Oh Susannah FGM column)

Piano was my first instrument.... I could never improvise on the piano. Partly that was because I learned classical, which is not improvisational. Partly it's because I never could visualize chords as I do on the guitar (well I can visualize the simple I-IV-V on a keyboard). Without notation, to me those 88 keys are a confusing sameness.


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