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Yesterday, I was reading about how the famous jazz pianists would play music by ear from recordings and I was appalled to find that I had never tried myself. I have a perfect pitch and so so relative pitch. Just to clarify, I’ve been playing for 5 years and can read music fluently. I’m just trying to train my ears similar to jazz musicians by learning songs by ear. Last night, for about 30 minutes or so before bed, I decided to work on Mozart’s Allegro for keyboard k 400. I was able to play the first few bars. Here is what I have so far.

This piece has a relatively simple texture and simple chords. How would I go about learning more difficult textures and more chromatic music?

Are there any tips that will make learning pieces by ear easier or more efficient? Learning the Allegro, I basically listened to the first 10 seconds at least a hundred times and tried to replicate it on the piano after each time listening to it.

Is there a better way to go about it, or should I continue what I am doing?

  • Every start is a good start. Excellent progress in a single day. Just don't stop, whatever you do. – LSM07 Mar 28 at 14:28
  • I don't know whether it counts any more as "learning music by ear", but there's transcribing music by ear, then learning how to play the music from your transcription. Granted, it's kinda pointless for most classical music because you can get the sheet music for free (e.g. from websites like IMSLP), but you get the gist. – Dekkadeci Mar 28 at 16:27
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So how close did you get? Good! Carry on...

Note that in the jazz world, we generally take a melody and its chord sequence then 'never play it the same way once'! In 'classical' we're also interested in reproducing the composer's details of voicing and texture. (And, of course, there IS a place for transcribing a jazz recording literally for an 'authentic' re-construction performance.)

Transcription skills - to paper or just into your head - (but why NOT write it down, for your and others future benefit?) are certainly worth developing. But I don't see any particular virtue in learning a classical piece by ear, when the manuscript IS available.

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I'm not much good with jazz, so I'll defer to Laurence's answer there. But in college as a classical piano student, "ear training" was a part of the music theory curriculum. Every theory exam had an ear-training piece to it. This meant that the teacher would play a short melody (giving us the first note, as we weren't expected to have perfect pitch) and we would have to write it down.

This is an important skill to develop your relative pitch recognition. The first step is to learn all of the intervals inside of an octave. First do them as separate notes, both rising and falling. Then do them when played together. When you have those, the rest is just a matter of applying them to each note of a tune. Over time, you will recognize full chords, and increasingly rapid passages.

A trick that you can use to do this is to put together a set of mnemonics. Find a piece that you know and learn the interval it starts with. One for each interval, both rising and falling. (For example, two of mine were falling minor third: "Dixieland" and rising minor seventh is "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.") If you get those down, you can refer back to them until the recognition is automatic.

  • I took Royal Conservatory of Music exams, and I was never told to write anything down in any of my ear training exam portions. The closest I got was clapping or maybe singing back. I had to recognize interval sizes and chord types (major/minor/augmented/diminished/maybe 7ths), though. – Dekkadeci Mar 29 at 5:58
  • @Dekkadeci What level of the exams did you take? – BobRodes Mar 29 at 6:12
  • Taking a look at the RCM syllabus, it looks really good, and does a great job of preparing a student for college-level work. The level 10 syllabus is roughly equivalent to a freshman-level college syllabus (for example, I had to learn all my scales to 120 in my freshman year, but had to get them up to 144 by the end of my sophomore year), although Bach's WTC is something that you can work on for a lifetime and never get where you feel you have nothing more to learn. As for ear training, the tests they have in there are perfectly good as well, even if they don't require transcription. – BobRodes Mar 29 at 6:32
  • Piano practical-wise, I passed Grade 10 and failed my ARCT. Theory-wise, I took all exams possible and passed them all. – Dekkadeci Mar 29 at 6:53
  • @Dekkadeci Good for you. Sorry about the ARCT, but your piano playing will improve for the rest of your life. :) – BobRodes Mar 29 at 7:22
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It depends on what your end goal is. For one thing, any recording you listen to will be the result of the performer's interpretation of the score. If you really want to learn a piece, you must start with the sheet music (and quite possibly a few different editions, to compare editor/arranger markings). See what the composer has written for phrasing, dynamics, etc. and adjust as you wish.
As an extreme example, if you learned "OneBourbon OneScotch OneBeer" by copying George Thorogood's version, you would be rather shocked to hear the original version.

If you are after ear-training and extending your ability to absorb tune&harmony aurally, then by all means repetition and extension are the way to go.

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