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Up till now I've been playing music from the sheet, and eventually I've grown frustrated how after 3 years of playing I can't even play Jingle Bells if I'm asked to without figuring it out from a sheet first. I know some theory but I guess not enough because I've no idea how to even start getting myself 'unchained' from the sheet and just making music freely. I'd greatly appreciate any suggestions because music was always very important to me and now I'm beggining to hate it because I can't progress any further.


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6 Answers 6

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I started by learning to recognize intervals with some ear-training software. This sort of practice is quite frustrating at first and you'll make lots of mistakes. The error rate goes down quite gradually, but you do get better over time. It's best to do it a few minutes a day, and don't ramp up the difficulty too quickly. Singing or humming each interval before trying to recognize it really helps, so I recommend it even if you're not all that interested in being a good singer.

After some of that, you should be able to figure out the intervals for simple tunes like "Jingle Bells" that you already know how to sing. (Again, expect to make lots of mistakes and improve slowly. In a song, you will want to figure out where each note is compared to the tonic.)

The next step is to learn melodies that you don't know well from recordings of music you're interested in. It's useful to have software that lets you repeat a few bars of the song so you can work on it until you get it. Again, you want to learn to sing or hum each section before playing it, because your voice is an essential part of recognizing it.

I'm still learning this and that's as far as I got. There are some other good answers in the "Related" list on the side. For example: What are the most effective ear training methods ?

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Sheet music is fine for those first few years, but there's nothing worse than an 'experienced' musician with 10 years experience who can't improvise.

The quickest and most fun way to learn how to improvise is this:

1) Learn the pentatonic scale. Play it up and down and all around, all day long.

2) Learn some licks that use the pentatonic scale. There are billions and they are easy to pick up by ear. Ask if you need some help finding some.

3) Once you know about three licks in the same key, find a song that doesn't have too many chord changes and is in a key you can play. Start trying to play the pentatonic scale licks on top of the song. Try to string them together in a way that's fluid and musical. It doesn't have to be complicated.

Once you play these licks in a variety of sequences and rhythmic locations, with occasional ventures into variations you haven't specifically practiced, then you are improvising. Come back and ask us for the next step!

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People have different ways of thinking about music, so don't beat yourself up too much. I suspect there are many wonderful musicians who can't play by ear or improvise.

However, here's how I would start with the jingle bells problem. I'm assuming a piano here.

  1. Try to play Jingle Bells monophonically, in C major using only the white keys. Do it by trial and error. If you find you need a black key, then you've started on the wrong note. Start on a different note. Think about when you're playing a C. That's the tonic. Think about how the tonic sounds; the third; the fifth -- important intervals

  2. You can accompany yourself with the chords C, F and G. "The three chord trick". At first just play them as block chords, e.g. for the C chord, plonk down on C, E, G. Trial and error again. Hopefully you can hear when there should be a chord change. Try one of the three chords, until it sounds right. If you get bored of block chords, arpeggiate, or whatever. You can go by what sounds right, but once you've found it, reason about the chord you've chosen. Which notes in the melody match the notes in the chord? Which notes do not? Are those notes on the beat? Long or short? Are they a deliberate discord? etc.

  3. Now try transposing it to different keys. If you've not practised any scales yet, now would be a good time to start. Learn scales in the order they're introduced in a beginner's piano book, and try to play Jingle Bells by ear in those scales in the same order.

  4. By now, you're probably not really playing Jingle Bells by ear any more -- you're playing it by memory. Try playing folk/blues/rock/pop standards. "Go Tell Aunt Dinah". "Louie Louie" and so on. Anything that fits those three chords. One snag: you might not yet know how to tell something's going to fit the three chords. If there's someone to ask, go ahead. Otherwise, just try, and if there's a spot in the song where none of the three chords fit, ditch that song for now. Concentrate on the low hanging fruit, until you can play a three-chord song by ear, with block chords, reasonably easily.

  5. Add in chords. Those songs ditched because they had a fourth chord -- bring them back into the mix, and try and find the right one. Stick with the simple folk/blues/rock/pop standards, you're hoping to find ones with just one new chord. In the key of C, you're most likely to next encounter an Am but it could be anything. At this simple level, there are really only 24 chords to try (all the majors, all the minors), and you can narrow that down to the seven that can be played on the white keys. It's OK to cheat and look in a book/web page, but try to learn from that for next time.

And really, it's up to you where you go from there, and it depends on the way your mind works.

You might find that you're most comfortable stringing chords together, and noodling on top using the intervals you've put into muscle memory -- not quite knowing how it will sound, but knowing it will sound OK.

You might find that you can hear something in your head, and be able to play it the way you hear it.

You might not be the type of person who naturally falls into either of these, but you'll be able to contextualise the sheet music you play ("I see, Chopin has me playing a Bb over a Gm chord because that's the third in Gm")

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"I see, Chopin has me playing a B over a Gm chord because that's the third in Gm" You mean Bb? :) –  rshallit Sep 23 '11 at 16:37

The two main things you need to practice are theory and ear training.

For theory I suggest you start with learning scales, intervals, chords and chord progressions.

For ear training you should practice transcribing intervals and simple rhythms first, and eventually chord progressions and complete songs.

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An important way to improvise is to improvise on the melody by singing it. Loop the melody over and over on your music player and sing with it. Harmonize with it, figure out cute figures that fit the spaces in the music, stuff like that.

Once you can improvise when you sing, then play just the chords of the music and sing along with that, improvising as you go.

When you're comfortable with playing chords and improvising by singing, then record yourself singing with the chords. Then loop your recording and with just your right hand, play along with yourself singing.

When that's comfortable, bring your chords back in and play the melody that you're singing.

Jazz piano players use this all the time. In jazz recordings, you can hear Thelonious Monk and Keith Jarrett singing along with themselves. They don't sing well, but that's not the point. The point is to really get inside the melody and play with it.

Good luck!

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It always boggled my mind how out of tune master musicians can sing when they really get into it... Jarrett goes crazy if someone in the audience sneezes, but he can very well almost ruin the recordings with his noises. Anyhow, good answer, it's important to not get too stuck with theory when it comes to improvising. –  Meaningful Username Jan 8 at 22:25

For learning melodies by ear, you've just gotta find a starting pitch, believe in yourself, and practice, practice practice, but it helps to try to match it to the audio file.

For improvising, for the longest time I thought, "How do people do that?" It's actually very simple. You learn a scale, play notes from it (using the first note a lot, and using a meter (4/4, 3/4, etc)), and it sounds good usually. Improvising a good melody is even easier using the major or minor pentatonic scale, which you can use over any standard (respectively) major or minor chord progression. There are ways to make it sound better than that, but it sounds pretty good at that point. If you want it to sound fuller, play a chord progression that uses the same scale with your left hand, and play a melody with your right hand. Someone asked about chord theory a few days ago and you can read about how to make chords and chord progressions here, but people very often improvise over already existing chord progressions. What is a good resource to learn how to build chords from scales?

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