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Just like when we're singing ,we just sing it out without thinking what the next note, whereas I have to translate my melody in mind to corresponding "do re mi ..." and play the instrument, which is so slow and may play a wrong note as I make mistakes in translating the melody.
How can we acquire the ability to play a guitar or piano like singing (without thinking)? What kind of practice can help me achieve this goal ?

  • I remember my first piece. It was Jon Lord's intro solo from Child in time. There were tabs and sheet music but i tried playing it by ear. And you know what, i managed to get the whole solo in just 30-40 minutes. I played a lot before that and improvised by scales so it really wasn't that difficult. The first thing I did was find tge key and the bass notes. From there I found the chords or better say the interval being played in the bass. Then I started finding the melody on top of those notes. Try it with some simple song or solo and you'll see how interesting and challenging it is. – SovereignSun Jan 19 '17 at 14:04
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    Not sure why you trivialize the difficulty involved in "simply singing a melody." When you consider it probably took you nearly 12 months of constant work to learn to speak and even longer to sing "in tune," and then the years of use and practice between then and now, you might understand the magnitude of the effort you will need to apply this same process to "instant melodies." One tip I can think of it to bind the two together by singing your melodies and playing them. This will get your fingers, your ears, and your singing working together. – Yorik Jan 19 '17 at 15:23
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Seeing as no one has said this (at least not explicitly) - EAR TRAINING is the thing you want to do!

This has absolutely nothing to do with your instrument, and all to do with you in your head (=Brain Training), teaching yourself to think a certain way.

In order to play what you hear in your mind, you need to translate that into notes (by that I mean understanding which notes you've just heard - in relation to the tonic, or in relation to the previous note - no need to actually name the note). So when improvising, you're actually performing a melodic dictation - however, it is being given to you from inside, instead of from an outside source.

Thus, the better you are at melodic dictations, the easier improvisation is going to be.

So now that you see that ear training is the key, how do you develop it? First of all, there are three things that you need to develop in order to hear coherently - Tonality (The distance between a note to the tonic), intervals (The distance between a note to the previous note) and what I call harmonic disassembly (Hearing two notes or more harmonically and seperating them in your mind). The two most important for an improviser are tonality and intervals. Tonality tells you what the note is in relation to the tonic, and is very easy and quick to develop, however it doesn't work in places where the tonal center is ambiguous, or if there isn't one. Intervals work in every situation, but they give you limited information - you don't know how the notes relate to eachother. So for a beginner, I suggest working only on tonality - and if you want to start playing weirder stuff, work on intervals.

The best way to work on tonality is with solfege exercises(=singing the degrees of the notes) and with an app called "Functional Ear Trainer".

Good luck!

  • I hope I'm not mis-representing you, but you don't need to know your instrument well to play sounds in your head? While I agree that ear training/solfege helps a lot, I didn't receive any formal ear training. Also, it's interesting that I can improvise on my violin (which I've played for longer) and not the piano. – General Nuisance Feb 1 '17 at 6:14
  • Absolutely not - Music is like a language, and audiating (playing sounds in your head) is equivalent to thinking. How do you hear what you think? You just do! I practiced ear training on my own (not in class - somewhere between formal and informal), and when I come to approach improvising, it's simply a matter of imagining sound and repeating it on the instrument. A lot if people improvise based on visual shapes (most guitarists), not based on their ear, which leads to them improvising very differently on different instruments. – dudwhuknowstheory Feb 2 '17 at 5:29
  • The ear training you get just by playing an instrument is negotiable - on fretted instruments, you'll probably get used to the sounds of 12 ET, and know if something is wrong. On unfretted instruments (such as the violin), you have to focus on intonation. However, no passive ear training will teach you to understand what you hear - just whether it's in tune or not. I'm afraid that if you can improvise on violin and not on piano, it might be a problem with your ear - you might be focusing to much on your instrument, and not enough on yourself and on your ear. – dudwhuknowstheory Feb 2 '17 at 5:33
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I think this question will have different answers for different people. For me, I'm not 100% there yet. But I'm much better than I used to be.

I started mostly by playing existing melodies. First, I'd play them off sheet music. Then, I'd discover that I could play them in a new key, without any sheet music. I could translate the sounds that my brain wanted to hear into the correct finger movements. Eventually, I started moving on from playing existing lines, to playing lines that I can hear in my head. I'm still working on getting that right. Oh, and half the time I play something "wrong", and it turns out to be more interesting than the thing I intended in the first place. Improvisation is a funny beast.

So, based on my experience, I'd suggest playing around with known melodies. Know "Chariots of Fire"? Go and play it in Db Major. It's mostly black keys. You'll need to rely on your ears to tell you whether you've made the right call or not. The aim is to develop this finger-to-ear connection. At the start, you'll probably have to go by trial and error. Eventually, you'll start getting it. Then, play it in A Major. Switch to a different song. If you've seen the sheet music before, play it in a different key.

You could also try and think in intervals. As in, you can hear that the interval you want is a third, and so you play a third. This is often too slow. It's a good place to start, but it's too much thinking for live playing.

Once you can do this, try humming a tune, and then playing it. It'll probably take a few tries to get the right key, but once that's settled, you should be able to start hearing which notes you should play.

Now, you're going to get this wrong a lot. It will take time. When you see someone do it effortlessly, they've probably been practicing for years. Sure, there's some crazy natural talent around the place, but even they have to practice. For us mere mortals, it's even more important. So keep practicing!

  • "I'd discover that I could play them in a new key, without any sheet music. I could translate the sounds that my brain wanted to hear into the correct finger movements." Oof, I wish I had it that easy! I find it almost impossible to accurately "hear" transpositions in my head unless I'm already familiar with the song in both keys. – Matthew Read Jan 19 '17 at 21:49
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For me, the simple answer is 'know your scales'. Know them in every key - major, minor(s), pents, blues, for starters. On guitar, it's probably easier than piano, as the shapes are moveable, so you need to learn fewer of them. Om piano, it's a big job.

When you know them, start to jump about, arpeggios, other intervals, so you can eventually play a chord, to get a key in mind, then play one note, sing another, then be able to play it.

All this is a long journey, and will take a long time and a lot of effort, but it's worth it!

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I have achieved this ability on the violin. At Christmas parties, or whatever, people can name a tune and I can play it. I occasionally improvise to myself when I have time. Here are a couple of steps I would take:

Step 1: Know the instrument.

It took about five or six years into playing to be able to know what sound would come off of the instrument when I played which note. Being entirely comfortable with the instrument is also paramount, so that, in the case of the violin or guitar especially, you are able to shift if required. Shifting and lots of glissando are a violinist's friend when improvising!

Step 2: Play songs in your head.

Just heard a song on the radio? Try to plunk out the melody. Now do it again with a different song, and again, and again. Pretty soon you will begin to start cultivating the ability to play the sound in your head, whatever it may be, on your instrument.

Even when I had just started playing violin, I was able to figure out songs that I hadn't reached yet in the book, just by hearing them on the CD. It took me a little bit longer to figure out than it would now, but I could do it.

I remember when I was starting to get the hang of the fingerboard on the violin. When listening to my songs on CD (in classic Suzuki-nun form) I started trying to imagine which notes I would hit to play and tap the table with the finger I would use. I think doing this, combined with going and actually experimenting with the instrument, is what started building connections for me.

Step 3: Play some music!

Once you can play whatever already written song is in your head, you can start playing whatever melody pops into your head. Improvising is one of the many joys of playing an instrument. It's when playing crosses the line into metaphorically singing or speaking from reciting poetry, or a speech. It's when you can let your musical soul go free, and if you know your instrument, you can create the sounds on your mind and express yourself. It's the culmination of all the sweat, blood and tears that it takes to become proficient at an instrument.

But hard work comes first ;-)

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    I perfectly agree with "know the instrument". You may not be a quick player but you need to feel the siunds and effects the instrument can produce. – SovereignSun Jan 19 '17 at 15:22
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I like and agree with a lot of the answers and ideas here. But in my experience, the greatest leaps I've made in this area have come from transcription and sight-singing.

For transcription, get a little moleskine notebook with music staff ruling and every little melody you think of, write it down. It's hard. You have to figure out if it's a major or minor key and what note of the scale the melody starts on: all that just to place the first dot. Knowing the solfage, you can sing steps up from the root to find which pitch you are in the scale. It may take some mental effort, so drink some coffee and eat some cabbage or spinach.

For sight-singing(+ear-training), I'm not sure what to recommend. I learned it in a separate class that was part of college music theory. That had the benefit of computer drilling material accompanying the text, and the feedback of peers doing the same exercises. But solfage is the essential tool here too. To find the pitch of the first note from a given root note, you just step-out the notes of scale up to the desired note. Any diatonic interval can be broken-down or checked by stepping-out the solfage.

Having this mental machinery developed means that with any melody that pops into my head, I can quickly determine the key and the notes and relative intervals and move on to how the rhythm works.

If you have just regular lined paper, I have developed a notation using "interior ledger lines" which can be written on standard paper. You take two lines as the top and bottom of the staff and imagine three lines in the middle. All notes will need one or two ledger lines to indicate their position. Eg.

music on ruled paper

So don't avoid writing music for lack of the right paper. Write it down!

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Practice makes perfect!

What i do is try to compose a lot. You make up a melody and you start playing it, finding the right notes. You can do it by trying to play something you've just heard.

Playing other people's music by ear is a good start. Take a simple song and find its bass, melody, chords. With time building up a harmony and remembering notes will become easier. You start hearing them. Once you take another song and hear the same interval you already know how to play it.

Another good thing is to try to play with your eyes closed. Start by just singing a simple tune and then find the keys with your eyes closed. This way the fingers themselves will start remembering where to press.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes. You might get angry sometimes, because it's not that simple but you keep on doing it. If you love some song and don't know the notes, before you look for a tab or a sheet try finding the notes yourself. You can also try singing different intervals and testing yourself by finding them on either guitar or piano.

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I would say the best thing to do in order to play music by ear (and, in general) is just to put your time in. The more you have your instrument in hand, the more you are going to notice little idiosyncracies about it that will serve as cues to tell you when certain notes are being played, or certain chords...

For example - with a guitar, when you play an open chord (a chord with open strings ringing), you will hear the open strings resonating very brightly, as a long, open string has more harmonics coming from it than a chord played higher up the neck (which has fewer harmonics, and, as a result, sounds duller and fatter)... the same goes for certain notes. In addition, as you progress, you will notice various techniques that will produce patterns that multiple musicians will 'lean on' when they are performing.

Noticing these idiosyncracies (or even simply playing with a recording to grasp which note is being played... although recordings can be tricky as guitars can be tuned lower to accomodate a vocalist's comfortable range, and pitch-shifters can re-tune instruments in some situations) will give you an inkling of where on the instrument you are most likely to begin, and sometimes just identifying the key of the song will be your foothold into learning how the rest of the song works.

Having a grasp of all the different scales/modes will further provide patterns you can follow to unravel the song you are trying to understand. Or provide structure to a melody in your head.

Good luck!

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