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How do church musicians learn to play hymns by ear if music lessons never really focus on playing by ear? I have met many organists who play hymns by ear but I never understood how they learned it. Standard piano lessons don't focus on playing by ear as repeating what is in a score is what most teachers want to teach. Church musicians study the theory of muisc, eg harmony, but this is not the same as playing by ear.

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    What's the difference between playing by ear as a church musician and playing by ear as a non-church musician? Dec 9, 2020 at 18:57
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica I play organ in my church and I also play songs on ukulele during scout trips. I must say, that it is different. At least for me. Playing outside of church is easier for me. In church, the harmony is much more complex, the chords change faster and there is less room for error. It is a different style of music and different techniques I use. I understand why asked such a specific question.
    – Vit Henych
    Dec 9, 2020 at 20:58
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    @ Vit Henych You are correct. Playing an accordion polka (with three or four chords) by ear is sometimes easier than playing a very complex hymn arrangement by ear.
    – user20754
    Dec 10, 2020 at 13:18

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I attended course for church musicians. One thing is, the number of hymns is finite. Another thing is, that in your church probably do not play all of them. Moreover the chord progressions in those hymns are pretty similar. In another words, the more hymns you learn to play, the faster you learn another one. Until it become instant.

There are another tricks that can help you. One of them is a "moving seventh chord". It sounds like jazz. E.g. if you play in C major, you start with major seventh (c+e+g+b) and just play your right hand and move to another seventh (d+f+a+c) than (e+g+b+d) or back to (c+e+g+b). Than you can go back and forth to adjecent tones.

Another trick is "pentatonic fog". Just play melody in bass and random fast notes from pentatonic scale over it. E.g. in C major just play C, D, E, G or A.

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Typical music school program includes many classes besides learning the instrument, like music history, theory and ear training. Ear training focuses on recognizing and singing intervals and chords and writing down music (melodies, rhythms, multi voice compositions) by ear. Of course one doesn't have to attend music school to train their ears, but one needs to work on their ear training to play by ear.

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  • how is ear training different from learning an instrument? isn't playing by ear something you do at the instrument? Isn't "ear training" just the same as learning to sing intervals?
    – user20754
    Dec 9, 2020 at 16:10
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    Ear training is usually taught away from the instrument, and includes skills like sight singing and dictation (transcribing music by ear). In traditional Western music education, this is usually taught separately, away from the instrument.
    – Peter
    Dec 9, 2020 at 16:13
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    I incorporate 'ear training' into just about every lesson. I play phrases, and they get played back as echoes.
    – Tim
    Dec 9, 2020 at 16:26
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    Focus of ear training is to improve the understanding of what you hear, not your instrument technique. Many exercises are done by singing, which is the most directly accessible instrument for most of us. Dec 9, 2020 at 17:08
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    @Hank 1. Your question was about playing by ear, not about harmonizing. For harmonizing knowledge of music theory (e.g. harmony) comes handy. 2. Nevertheless ear training develops your music imagination and is essential for any kind of creative work. Dec 9, 2020 at 17:11
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In a nutshell: trial and error

Even without any lessons at all, if you spend some time with an instrument, you'll probably figure out how to play something with it.

On top of that, if you can watch someone play, and/or learn other musical skills, and/or have some extra talent of your own, then your skills will naturally develop even faster and to a higher degree.

All in all, it's not very different from how we learn your own mother language: listening, imitation, feedback, and practice. You will notice that formal training, while helpful for refining it, is not actually necessary.

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  • so they learn to play by ear outside of music lessons as music lessons never focus on playing by ear? They just play music at home away from the teacher?
    – user20754
    Dec 9, 2020 at 16:59
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    @Hank almost any musical activity, including music lessons, develops the musical ear, directly or indirectly. Formal ear training is more direct, of course. Besides that, some people have a knack for picking things up very quickly. And finally, some practice is always necessary, so in the scenario you describe, yes, it's likely that those good players do some other playing or practicing at home or elsewhere.
    – MMazzon
    Dec 9, 2020 at 18:16
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    @Hank - in my formal piano (and other) lessons, I was discouraged from playing by ear, constantly. All that side of music came from anywhere else but lessons, often just playing by myself, and occasionally, others.
    – Tim
    Dec 10, 2020 at 15:58
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Playing by ear is resulting of solfege and the theory of harmony. Solfege means singing intervals and identifying chords and tunes by ear (sight reading). This belongs to every study of music.

A church musician normally might not always have all this knowledge in his baggage. I starte also with trial and error and improvising songs and choruses. This was a great advantage when studying music theory.

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  • where do I find solfege methods?
    – user20754
    Dec 9, 2020 at 17:18
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    the simplest way is to sing scales and intervals and practice chords. I have learnt most successful when singing a) triads and b) seventh chords with their resolution: a) domiso, refala .... and b) sotirefa -> mido. Dec 9, 2020 at 18:24

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