Playing by Ear
Hum a Few Bars - Now Play It!

Many a person has often marveled at the musician who can "Play anything! Never even has to look at the music! Just hum it to 'em, sing it, give 'em a tape and they can play it right off! They pick up a tune faster than a kid picks up a $10 bill off the sidewalk!"
Ah! To be able to do that! Think of the possibilities...
I will have to say here that in this case there are some who seem to have a natural born talent for it. Put a fiddle in their hands and somehow the feeling for where the pitches to a tune are seem to be right at their fingertips. They have a sense as to where higher or lower or in between is when it comes to matching pitches. Natural born talent aside, can it be learned? Yes.
Playing the fiddle is in a sense like whistling or humming. I love the instrument because it is some much like the voice - no frets to get in the way. When you hum a tune you don't need to "think" about how to reach the different notes. Somehow we just know. Same goes for whistling. We all have learned to do this from early childhood, actually the first time we ever repeated Da Da or Ma Ma back to Da Da or Ma Ma. They said something to us - we listened and listened then one day we mimicked what they had said. Language is very musical. All of our intonations in asking questions, expressing happiness, sadness, irritation, excitement - came from imitating the sounds we heard other humans use. Talent? No. Being human. Yes. So you see? You don't have to be especially talented - you just have to be human.
When it comes to picking out a tune on the fiddle the same technique is used. We know our own voices and what will happen if we do thus and such when it comes to vocalizing. With the fiddle the technique is the same. We'll start with the Key of G, which is an easy key for fiddlers. Play a simple G major scale from the open G string to the high G - second finger on E string.
Play the G major scale many, many times, up and down. Play it till you know it inside out and backwards. Mix it all up, start from the middle and work your way out. Jump around with it. Play it about a hundred times. Get used to it. Know where your fingers will fall in that scale and that key. Hum it - note for note matching up the notes on the scale with the notes in your voice. If you can't hum - whistle. If you can't do either - think the notes. Get to know the sounds of the scale for the key of G. Get to know what will happen when you put your fingers in a certain place on your fingerboard. Close your eyes or blindfold yourself and do it again. The same technique can be used for all the scales and keys. It helps to pick one for a week or so and concentrate on it before going on to another one. This way you'll get to truly know the "sound" of that key and scale.
Now play the open G string and hum the note. Sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” or “Happy Birthday,” or any simple tune that you know very well. Sing it loudly, like you mean it, and with feeling! Using the notes that you have learned in the G scale - try to find the song on your fiddle. If you have trouble, try closing your eyes. Success! You're on your way.
Next step is to find a tune to listen to that is in the key of G major. How will you know? Go through your recordings and play a G scale along with different tunes. You should be able to tell by listening if your notes clash with the tune. I actually get a physical feeling when notes clash - they make me feel anxious, irritated, hurt my ears - notes that "work" just sound good - they evoke a feeling of "calm" and "all is right." [Any readers out there who wish to offer feedback on this are welcome to do so.] The reason that a simple scale when played along with a tune in the same key will sound good even if they are not the exact notes of the tune is because they all fit somewhere into the group of notes you're working with.
Listen to the tune that you have picked out many times - five, ten - listen to it until you can turn the music off and "hear" it in your mind. Did you ever get a tune stuck in your head? Get this tune stuck in your head to the point where it is playing away like the radio and is just short of driving you nuts.
Now pick up your fiddle. Hum the tune as best as you can. See if you can match up the first note or couple of notes. Since at this point you know how to play the G scale and know that the tune you are trying to play is in the key of G major, in most cases the notes for the tune you are learning by ear will be among those notes of the G major scale. Put the record back on - try to play along. Don't worry about matching up all the notes first time out. Just match them up here and there as you continue playing and listening and playing along. You may surprise yourself!
This all gets easier the more times you do it, very much like when we first learned to talk. The more practice, the easier it gets. Same as a baby who starts out with a simple Da Da and Ma Ma, before long, breakthroughs occur, words become phrases, phrases become sentences and sentences become whole gab sessions with anyone who will lend you an ear.
An added note here about learning from recordings:
Although technology has brought us to a point of having this option, sitting down with a real live fiddler from your area and learning a tune is always best if you have that opportunity. Regional styles are preserved this way even though you may at some point inject your own colorings and personal style. Best advice: as soon as you have the tune down, play it and play it until it has become you.
This article was previously published in the newspaper of The National Oldtime Fiddler's Association
Copyright Beverley Conrad 2001 All Rights Reserved
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