Play It by Ear

Have you ever gone to a jam session with a new dulcimer club or at a festival, and the tunes they play are different from the ones you play with your group back home? I have, but that didn’t stop me from playing along because I can play by ear. Oh, I don’t play by ear as well as a professional musician does for sure, but well enough to strum along or hammer the chords, and even pick out the melody if they keep on playing enough verses.

Playing by ear is a highly-prized musical skill, and has saved my bacon more than once. You might believe that this is an innate skill that you are born with and you either have it or you don’t. That is true for some. But it is also a learnable musical skill for the rest of us.

Let’s check out what you need to do to build this skill.

  • Learn to play chords by ear. If you haven’t already, watch every lesson we offer on chords.

    • Learn about common chord progressions.
    • Learn to play these common chord progressions.
    • Learn to recognize major and minor chords, and how to play them.
    • Learn to play the basic chords in different tunings and/or different keys. For example, on the hammered dulcimer, I practice my chords (and every inversion) in both the keys of G and D.

  • Learn to play the melody by ear.

    • Learn to recognize different intervals. Did you hear 2 notes in a row or was there a jump between them?
    • Did the melody go up a major 3rd, a perfect 5th, an entire octave?
    • Play the intervals on your own instrument until you are familiar with the sound of each.
    • Now listen to a tune and connect the intervals you heard with your instrument. 

This is a skill set that will follow you from instrument to instrument. I can listen to the chords and intervals and continue to play along without looking totally lost (I think) - whether I’m playing the keyboard, my guitar, or my hammered dulcimer.

I bet you thought this was going to be tooooo hard for you. But that’s it! Just learn to recognize chord progressions, learn to hear the intervals in the melody, and you’re on your way to never being left behind when the others start playing a tune you’ve never heard before.



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