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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.

Thanks!

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up vote 20 down vote accepted

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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could you recommend some software tools? – Rishi Feb 2 at 0:05

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 '15 at 22:25

I have the SAME EXACT problem: I play music by sight, not by ear.

What I usually do when I'm told to play a melody or a song, I play the note in my head. I ask myself "is this a high note, or a low note, or somewhere in-between?" Then, I would make an educated guess of which note it could possibly be, and play it. From there, I would determine if it's the right pitch or not, and keep playing each note that it could possibly be until I get the note. For the next note, I ask myself "is this note lower, higher, or a repeated note?" I try each pitch, one by one, making educated guesses, until I get the note.

I know that this process can be VERY time-consuming, but it does help. After doing this many times, and I know this from experience, the process gets faster. Always remember to take your time, and don't listen to other people. It's not about how fast you can do it, it's all about getting the right pitches and the final product. The more you do it, the easier and FASTER you can do it.

Hope this helped!

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1  
I'd say you've nailed it -this is the very basic stuff people need to know when learning to play by ear. I have the exact opposite problem: I can only play by ear (but quite good at it)- and this is how I started :-) – user2808054 Mar 7 at 14:56

I have the exact opposite problem: I can only play by ear. Actually for me it's not a problem because the kind of thing I play (rock / pop guitar) is generally played by ear anyway.

One axiom which helped me enormously when starting on this journey (given I was new to music generally):

  • The notes are all on the instrument somewhere!

Your'e already aware of that, of course, but for one given note there are only 12 others to choose from before the pattern repeats (per octave) so choosing the next note for a melody is kind of a limited choice.

When I started learning guitar, I found a song or two where the chords are picked on the strings individually. Using a bit of logic like "They played it on a guitar, ands it's a simple song, so the notes are on here somewhere and they're easy to find", I managed to find what was being played, and picked out the basics of a chord. To play other chords, I applied the same thing just at a different starting point. On guitar, moving a chord about is easy: Just move your starting point up/down the fret until it's changed the right amount. (That assumes no open strings). To play other chord shapes, find the same sequence of notes but starting on another string.

Then there's the melody: I think the answer from thatweirdpandanextdoor covers that very well so I shan't add to it.

For gluing it all together, I found a few other tunes which have 'known obvious intervals' (having sussed them on guitar) which if I hum the tune to myself, I know this part is a 5th or that part is a minor 3rd, or whatever. It's then possible to compare that to a song I'm trying to learn to see any similarities.

I've managed to learn popular tunes, some quite intricate, and improvise quite successfully without paying much attention to music theory. It's more that I've established for myself a system of how things seem to fit together, then I look at places like the magnificent StackExchange and find that others have already sussed it all out and have got names for it. I guess that won't be the same for you as you can already read music (which, from my point of view, seems like an amazing skill).

Finally: I can understand your frustraton. Learning to play (by ear) such that I can fumble a tune out without much/any practice was probably the best thing I've ever done- I hope it works out well for you !

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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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An easy way of learning to improvise is this:

  1. Learn a scale such as the C major scale or A minor pentatonic scale (can be used to play the blues)

  2. Find a backing track in this key (try YouTube) such a C major or blues in A

  3. Play the scale over the backing track and pay attention to what sounds good

If you do this, congratulations you have done your first solo!!!

If you do this after time you will be able to pick out melodies such as twinkle twinkle or happy birthday with relative ease.

So lets go through a couple of examples using a blues scale, and a major scale over a blues backing track, a pop backing track and a jazz backing track (don't let the word jazz scare you for this one, it's worth trying).

Blues solo:

  • Use the A minor pentatonic scale (minor or major will both work, just use your ears and try both)
  • Find a blues backing track in A (minor or major will both work, just use your ears and try both)
  • Play the scale over the backing track

Jazz solo:

  • Use the C major scale
  • Find a jazz backing track in C (major)
  • Play the scale over the backing track

Pop solo:

  • Use the C major scale
  • Find a backing track in C (major)
  • Play the scale over the backing track

Try all these and maybe mix them up!!!

Once you have done this, you can start advancing your music theory by reading or just trying out different scales over different backing tracks and using your ears to see what you like!

Good luck.

Additional notes:

  • I like to record myself so I can listen back to it and find the bits I liked best and write them down or something
  • For pentatonic scales, it doesn't matter if you use the minor or major pentatonic scale over a major or minor progression
  • Try the different scales over the different backing tracks and see if you like the sound of any of them. A minor pentatonic, C major pentatonic and C major scales will be able to be used over the examples.
  • If you play the piano or something and can accompany yourself then you can learn the chord progressions that the backing tracks use to accompany yourself
  • And the key to ALL of this is: What matters is if it sounds good or bad to yours ears!!!
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Minor pentatonic is NOT aka blues. – Tim Mar 7 at 14:18
    
The blues scale (minor blues) is minor pent with a b5 added. – Tim Mar 7 at 16:05
    
Okay, thanks for clearing up my defintions :) – Cephlin Mar 7 at 16:09

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