How to begin playing by ear (Part 2)

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This is a special lesson because it is in my opinion the lesson where you start improvising.  There is a fine line between playing by ear and improvisation and we are going to cross that line today.

Let me tell you a bit of my history before we start.  I understand that most pianists don’t believe they can play by ear.  Others don’t think they have the time or energy to learn.  That reminds me of me.

I started playing the piano when I was eight, and I played through high school. I was never a great pianist–I was the guy that always came in second or third in the competitions.  After high school, I went to college and got a degree in computer science and minored in music.  I was at best an average classical
pianist.  Certainly, when people talked about the best musicians in the college, they did not talk about me.

After college, I started a job in computer science and essentially quit piano.  I played occasionally in church but rarely practiced.  I have been out of college thirteen years, and gradually over that time, I started practicing again.  I rarely played classical music and was too lazy to learn published arrangements so I began trying to arrange my own pieces.  During that time, I learned to play by ear and basically everything else I know about playing church music.

So the moral of the story is this.  If an average pianist without a degree in music like me can learn to play by ear and improvise, so can you.  And I don’t care how old you are either.  You will not learn overnight and it will take discipline and hard work but you can learn.

So, let’s get to work. First remember the steps we covered in the last lesson.

  1. Learn to pick out  melody of any simple hymn.
  2. Learn to play the melody in several different keys (preferably all of them).
  3. Pick a key (C is a good choice) and start playing the melody in the right hand.  As you play, experiment with simple triads in the left hand in
    the octave just below middle C.  In almost every case, either the I, IV, or V chord will work.  In the rare cases where none of those chords work, either
    skip the chord or cheat by looking in the hymnal.
  4. Once you know the melody and the supporting chords, you can start improvising a bit.  Play the chord in simple arpeggios in the left hand or move the melody to the left hand and play chords in the right hand. Or try some inversions in the chords.

Your practice assignment was to apply the first three steps to “Jesus Loves Me” in the key of C.  You probably came up with something like this for the first two lines.

Granted, this music does not sound very exciting, but if you have gotten this far (without looking in the hymnal), I am proud of you.

Now, I want to quickly demonstrate some ideas that you can play with as you practice step 4. Don’t worry, I will go into much more detail at a later time, but just want to get you thinking in a certain way.  Note that I am not altering any chords in any way in any of these examples–I am simply playing the notes of the basic triads in different ways.

Big Caveat: I know that none of this sounds very good.  Trust me when I say that I can barely force myself to play unaltered I, IV, and V chords.  But you have to start somewhere, and if you stick with me, we will get to the rich sounds that you are looking for.

The example above demonstrates using different inversions of the I, IV, and V triads. The inversions are labeled as slash chords.  For example, C/E means a C chord in first inversion.  C/G would be a C chord in second inversion. If you need to refresh your memory on inversions, please do so and then revisit this example.

Here, I am playing the notes of the triad, but broken up into a simple arpeggio.  For example, in measure 1, notice I am playing the C chord (C, E, G) in a sequence. Technically, the first three notes form the root position of the C chord and the second three notes form the first inversion of the C chord. Throughout this example, I did not label the inversions (as slash chords) just to keep things simple.

Here, the left hand has the melody and the RH is just playing simple arpeggios containing the notes in the I, IV, and V triads.

For a bit of variety, you can often modify the rhythm.

Here is an example of doubling the melody in the RH and filling in other notes from the chord. In the first chord, the melody note is a G and a C and E are added in between the two Gs being played in the RH. The LH plays triads in various inversions.  Note that in the first line, the hands move in parallel motion and in the second line, the hands move in contrary motion. Regardless of what they teach you in theory class, neither technique is right or wrong.

As you can see from these five examples, there are numerous things you can do just with a simple melody and I, IV, and V chords. As we move into studying improvisation, you will have to learn how to creatively work with the melody and harmony to bring beauty and variety to your music. The choices are infinite, but the only way to add them to your tool chest is through experimentation and practice.

Practice strategy:
Pick a hymn and practice steps 1-4 on it.  When you get to step 4, try find at least four different ways to improvise while sticking with the melody note and major chord.