“Playing by Ear!”

November 6th, 2012 by

LAD (Listen, Analyse & Develop)

Arguably, the most important skill a musician can acquire is the ability to “play by ear!” Am I dismissing the art of reading notation? Absolutely not. In many aspects of my life as a musician, reading music is essential to me. What I really mean is that, whether a musician is reading music or not, his or her ability to carefully listen to the sound they are producing whilst playing is essential to creating a musical result. I like to call it the “LAD” technique (no offense LADies)! Listen, Analyse and Develop. You have to Listen carefully to the sound you are producing, Analyse the musical elements and then adjust to Develop it yet further. A person might be the best “sight reader” in the world but unless they focus on progressing their “playing by ear”/listening skills, the impact and message of the music will be lost on their audience. “Playing by ear” surely is at the very core of what we do!

So how do we as musicians and teachers develop these essential skills both in ourselves and in our students?

Ear Training Methods

One effective way is to record ourselves and hear our music back. Suddenly we are listening as a third party to the sound and can hear what’s good, bad and ugly! Carefully listening whilst simplifying the music by practicing it slower (and hands separate if possible) can help us focus on detail not previously heard. Other musicians use the

“silent” technique, whereby they play the notes silently and imagine the sound in their head! Whichever way we prefer to develop our listening skills, we must remember that the most important time to exercise these skills is obviously when we perform for an audience. What techniques help you?

There are lots of products on the market offering to help us develop our aural (listening) skills. These range from practice CDs for listening exams to a profusion of apps and websites dedicated to ear training. When the opportunity to review some software called “MusicalEar” came up, I was curious to see whether this could be of benefit to me and/or my students.

What is MusicalEar?

MusicalEar

MusicalEar is a downloadable ear training and music theory software package for PC or Mac. It’s based on more than 200 original compositions in the genres of classical music, jazz, song, pop, rock, Latin and folk. There’s something for everyone here. A chance to focus on your personal style of musicianship or indeed to branch out into learning something new.

MusicalEar contains 200+ exercises, with support of 250+ sound files and uses 600+ pages of sheet music!  You have the option to print out these worksheets as they are supplied as  PDF files or, if you own Sibelius or Finale notation programs, you can open the respective native files instead, giving you the option to fine-tune the difficulty of the exercises or to create your own exercise sheets based on the original activities.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed using the 300+ internet references, which are a mixture of Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos pertaining to the subject been developed which can be viewed inside the software or you have the option to open in an external web browser.

If that isn’t enough, there are 67 bite-size chapters of music theory, giving very simple and logical explanations that start from the absolute beginning, assuming nothing. There is also a very comprehensive glossary/dictionary containing some 550+ words and terms. I was very pleased to see the inclusion of both US and UK musical terms (ie bar and measure) making it an international product. One small grumble. I thought it was a shame I couldn’t use the scroll wheel of the mouse to quickly move up and down through so much material. At the moment you have to drag the side-slider with the mouse. This is only a small complaint and I’m sure can be addressed in a future update.

Installation & look

MusicalEar is simple enough to download and install with a simple six step introduction into how to use the software. I found the interface a little frustrating at first but after splitting the screen into two windows, I found I quite happily was able to navigate through the materials. A nice feature of MusicalEar is that it keeps a history of the activities that you have done so that you can quickly return on re-opening the program.

Example 1: Neapolitan Siciliano I

After selecting this particular activity, up pops a “Presentation” window where you see the first three bars of the said piece followed by a brief explanation of the composition and its features. I was fascinated to learn that a “siciliano” is an ancient folk dance from Sicily usually in 6/8 time, popular in the baroque period. You can then click on the Worksheet 1 or 2 icons to bring up the original music in your chosen format (PDF, Sibelius or Finale). Then follows an explanation of how to use the two associated worksheets with ear training exercises and even a composition idea to write something based on the principles outlined. In the top left hand corner is a “Reference” tab which links you to two other compositions in the MusicalEar package that relate. Very useful are the “Online refences,” which gives you direct access to the Wikipedia page regarding the “Neapolitan chord” as well as two YouTube videos of Siciliano’s to listen to.

Example 2: Olivier’s Bossa

This composition is based on Modus 5, a mode developed by the French composer Olivier Messiaen. What a great piece! I’ve printed it out to learn myself! As well as a number of dictation exercises to be completed with the aid of the two supplied audio tracks, the reference section contains the Olivier Messiaen Wikipedia article and two very interesting YouTube videos of him and his music.

Who would benefit?

This product would be very useful for professional musicians and composers as well as music students.  A very handy resource for music teachers and music departments.

How much does it cost?

Single user = 125 USD, 114 EURO or 94 GBP (inc. VAT)

Student = 87 USD, 80 EURO or 66 GBP (inc. VAT)

Multi user = discount available

Demo = try the full version free for 15 days

How will I use it?

Personally I am going to dip into MusicalEar whenever I need some composition inspiration. I’ll continue to enjoy letting it give me little music lessons about genres that I’m less familiar with and to give me some aural training from time to time. It’s going to be a very useful resource with my private music students to give support to our aural and composition lessons.

The makers of MusicalEar have really come up with an excellent product that will be very useful to teachers, musicians and composers the world over, from beginners to professionals. The overall quality of the resources is excellent and the sheer volume of material is quite frankly overwhelming; it will take a very long time to exhaust this product!

If you want to try the full product for free for 15 days, visit www.musicalear.com

See other posts by Reuben Vincent

Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Music Theory, Performing, Practicing

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!

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