View Full Version : Read music? Play by ear?

Uncle Rod Higuchi
04-21-2010, 11:10 AM
OK, as a 'play-by-ear' guy, I wonder how many of you have learned the notes of the fingerboard and can read/play music from standard musical notation.

I can't.

If there's a song I want to learn, I try to find a rendition I like and learn it as best I can, by listening to it over and over again.

Then I work out the chord progression/sequence based on what I remember of the rendition. Sometimes I work it out in C (easier chords) then transpose to a more comfortable key.

That's how I do it.

For those of you who read music, or can read music, how do you go about learning a new song? Do you rely only on the printed music sheet?:confused:

I'm interested in how you folks figure out the chording to the songs you like to play.

Thanks for your input.

Keep uke-in',

04-21-2010, 11:21 AM
I play by chord sheets and tab.

04-21-2010, 11:22 AM
I play by ear, I read tabs, and I also read regular notes (Although I suck at it and have never been able to read it without saying the notes in order in my head)

And for me tabs and ear go hand in hand. If I have the tabs, great! But I never stick to the tab completely. Whatever I don't like, I change, and try to put what I hear in my head onto the fretboard.

But For a lot of local music, there aren't tabs, or music sheets, so I go by ear, or I find a video that shows the person's hands. I like playing by ear. I listen closesly to each chord and spell out the chord out loud with my voice.

Back to subject haha
There was a time when I stuck completely to the sheet. No questions asked. Play what's there. It felt much to limited. It was impossible for me to figure out songs. I had had had to start using my ear. even if just a little

AC Baltimore
04-21-2010, 11:25 AM
I read tabs and nashville numbers, but unless I am doing a session... by ear.

04-21-2010, 11:27 AM
I play by ear. Always have and always will. Until Chordie came along I figured out all my own chord progressions......and if the tune didn't fit the chords I liked, then I would change the tune!!!!! I love music!!!

04-21-2010, 11:29 AM
I do it by tabs and by ear. Sometimes I'll figure out a song by ear and then look up the tabs to see how other people play it, and sometimes I'll flip it and get the tabs and just change whatever I feel needs a little tweaking.

04-21-2010, 11:57 AM
I can read sheet music. Most sheet music shows the chords above the staff, and some even have the guitar chart for the chords above the staff, as well. But sheet music is expensive.

My preferred way to learn is to find the chords on-line and figure out the melody by ear. Plus I will usually try a song in 2 or 3 keys to find out what works best for me.

My least favorite method is tabs. It's a pain to transpose tabs, and if I really need to use them I end up writing the music out in standard notation, which I can transpose on-the-fly, if needed.

04-21-2010, 12:03 PM
unless the strumming pattern is written on the page, i think most people have to learn partially by ear. i read tabs and music and i have learned quite a bit by ear. for me, the easiest thing is to listen to someone else play while looking at the tabs. i do add things of my own, too.

04-21-2010, 12:08 PM
Since I use a number of open tunings, I use tabs because they boggle my mind least when I want to jot something down.

I use my ear otherwise. I prefer the sort of tabs that have rhythm information in them. There may be a name for this kind of layout, but I'll be damned if I know what it is. The example below is a free sample score extract from Rob MacKillop's excellent "20-Pieces from Briggs' Banjo Instructor, Arranged or Ukulele". If you really want to get your fingers working, I highly recommend his FingerstyleUke.com (http://www.fingerstyleuke.com/) publications.


04-21-2010, 03:25 PM
I use my ear, tab and notation. A lot of my playing is done where there's no sheet music in sight and I have to improvise leads by ear. From years of playing Irish sessions I can figure chords on the fly pretty well, but that's harder with jazz chords. Reading notation is great for learning a melody you don't already have in your ear and on the uke it's not hard to learn.

Ukulele JJ
04-21-2010, 03:37 PM
For uke, I mostly figure out songs by ear.

I can read standard notation (in multiple clefs), and chord charts, and I live and breathe Nashville Numbers (of course). But a lot of the stuff on Chordie and the like is wrong anyway, so I usually wind up figuring it out myself.

I think it's very important to read music. But where the rubber meets the road, the ear's the thing.


04-21-2010, 03:42 PM
New to the uke, but use standard notation, lead sheets, tab, and play by ear for guitar. I'm doing the same thing for the uke, but am having to learn the fretboard/new chords for standard notation as the notes don't fall in the same places that I'm use to. I like having multiple resources to draw from and don't favor any one of them over the other.

Zaza The Rebel
04-21-2010, 03:55 PM
I can read sheet music, although I don't like using it for uke/guitar because I never bother to learn a lot of the fretboard notes. I prefer to just play around with it until I figure it out, and as JJ said, most of the tabs are wrong anyway (or are just much too simple). I'll find chords if I really need to, but even then I might change some chords.

04-21-2010, 04:01 PM
I studied theory at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto and have my 3 Harmony with honours in 1975. So I not only read notes and chords but also understand their usage and progression. I can't say that it is better, worse or even similar to playing by ear but I am usually able to follow/predict/deduce most chord progressions as they happen. Someone who plays by ear has usually learned by repetition and trial and error as to what works most often and relies on that info to figure out the next chord. Chords do follow a certain progression and rarely deviate from that pattern unless the song is written by someone who doesn't know the rules then it can get interesting but by and large if it sounds right, even to someone who doesn't play by the rules, the chords are usually easy to predict.

04-21-2010, 10:35 PM
Standard notation with chords is my favourite starting point for working out an arrangement. After fumbling around with a song I want to learn, it's a relief to find proper standard notation for the lead melody, usually at Amazon ("Look Inside") or at my local library.

04-22-2010, 01:21 AM
OK, as a 'play-by-ear' guy, I wonder how many of you have learned the notes of the fingerboard and can read/play music from standard musical notation.

I am also a play-by-ear guy, but I can read musical notation, albeit slowly. It's more like F-A-C-E okay, that's an A, that little doohickey is a sharp marker, so it's A-sharp. That's first fret, first string... plink. F-A-C-E, that's a C, third fret first string... and so on.

Sometimes when I find a vintage music book, with a song I don't know, I pick out the melody this way so I can appreciate how the main line is supposed to sound. That way I can start playing the chords that are noted above it. But it's a slow process.

I'm also an inveterate tinkerer and will alter any tabs or chords for a song if I don't like the result or the sound.

04-22-2010, 01:36 AM
I'm kind of between Ian and JJ. I can read music slowly, but maybe with just a fraction less step-by-step than Ian describes. I certainly don't sight read quickly enough to perform a piece cold from the dots. Nowhere near.

My knowledge of theory is ok, and, like JJ said, Nashville numbering (or a close relative) is invaluable.

I'm mostly a by ear learner and player - especially for melody. My ear for extracting the detail of chords isn't as good as it used to be, but then my hearing in general ain't what it was. Chords in isolation I can often analyse fine, in a busy mix of instruments, though, I struggle these days.

I'm mostly a mandolin player which, outside of bluegrass where it borders on percussion, is mostly a melody instrument in the styles I play. In Irish dance music (jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, slides etc etc) the passing of tunes has traditionally been accomplished aurally. I find it quickest to learn the tunes that way.

04-22-2010, 01:39 AM
Oh yeah, and ditto the chord tinkering thing.

My ears may be a bit duff these days, but they're nowhere near as bad as the ears of most of the transcribers who contribute chords to Chordie and similar. The vast majority of chords on tab/lyric sites are a heap of nonsense.

04-22-2010, 07:06 AM
I'm fairly new to playing uke, so I haven't taken the time to learn the standard notation equivalents for the uke fretboard. For now, I play by ear, chord charts, guitar chord shapes. For all the other instruments I play, I can read pretty much everything (guitar, violin, bass, piano).

Uncle Rod Higuchi
04-22-2010, 07:27 AM
Thanks to all you UU contributors.

It's interesting to read how each one approaches learning songs with the ukulele.

I'm envious of those of you who can sight read and play the notes on the uke.

However, having played the uke by ear for 4 decades, since 6th grade (1960).
Oh, wait, make that 5 decades! Wow, some of you will appreciate the "Wow".
Anyway, having played by ear for so long, and getting by pretty well (to my own
satisfaction anyway), please forgive me if I'm less than enthusiastic about
"starting over" by learning Music Theory and sight reading.

It would be fun to get together and jam, do song circles, anything ukulele, and
just have fun - each in his/her own way.

I'm glad the humble uke can handle plinkers, plunkers, strummers, and very
serious musicians.

Keep uke-in',