The Importance of “Playing by Ear”

Yesterday I was rehearsing some before a planned practice with friends. I was playing guitar and listening to a rhythm track. For the first time ever on these songs I started noticing that it was “feeling easier” – essentially, I was starting to “feel confident” as I played and sang.

I’ve been thinking about that, and I have a theory:

In order to play confidently, some level of “playing by ear” must be going on.

  • Even when playing a song on piano with sheet music, if I have not played it a few times before, there is lack of confidence. The necessity of having sheet music does not negate that some level of “playing by ear” may be going on.
  • Musicians who sight-read well are essentially bringing their experience with music to the sight-reading process – they are “playing by ear” (using ear-training) even when they don’t know exactly what to expect from the written notes. (I am reminded of a classical duet I san with a friend several years ago – my friend wanted the song brought down by a step or so. The accompanist did so, using the same sheet music. However, the accompanist constantly substituted a different chord from what was written during a specific chord progression which came up over and over in the music. This substitution was excruciatingly annoying for me – I wanted to hear it the way I knew it was supposed to go! – but I said nothing because I recognized that the accompanist was half-reading/half-guessing and transposing to boot – and the transposition was important for my duet partner.)

One of the realizations that I am making is that in order to perform a song well singing and playing I have to have a much deeper understanding of the music and chord structure of the music than what is required to only sing the music.

For this reason, a song like More (the Stephen Sondheim song I sang in the practice yesterday) is not going to be a song that I am ever going to really accompany myself on – not with any accompaniment that really resembles the accompaniment written by Sondheim. The amount of attention it takes to perform that song is rather great – and the accompaniment is also very complex, moving from different keys, etc. It isn’t that I couldn’t master it – but rather, the amount of time it would take for me to do so would be a huge investment. It pays, rather, to focus singing/playing on songs that are more accessible…and leave something like More to a capella or with other musicians providing accompaniment. (I would have better luck creating an accompaniment on piano by removing the melodic line from the sheet music that I have and simplifying it somewhat – I could then play/sing – but that would be beside the point because I’d be stuck sitting behind a piano! One of the benefits of playing a guitar over piano is that one is still front and center to the audience, which still leaves much of the body and the face available for non-verbal expression.)

Leave a Reply