Playing by Ear. What? You’re tone deaf?

Singing in Tune: Awakening Your Sense of Pitch

For all the folks that dismiss any vocal ability, saying they are “tone deaf”, here are a few  thoughts.

Some people grew up with that little bit of tissue and those nerves in the brain quite stimulated by a great deal of music of all kinds. These folks may have an easier time of it as they learn to refine their sense of intonation. Sometimes this is natural, sometimes people need to learn it. However, I believe that anyone can do this. And the rewards are worth the effort.

We do this with people 4 years old to 84 and beyond. It is the instrument you were given and it is great fun to discover it!

Let’s begin by finding some songs that you may have already internalized. We will sing and play them.

If you are not hitting the notes and the intervals in between them, it is more than likely that no one has ever shown you how to find the address of the note in your voice. Every note has an address-on a keyboard, on any instrument, on the musical staff and in your voice.

You probably know

  • Happy Birthday

  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

  • Frere Jacques (Two Tigers)

  • Row Row Row your Boat

We will pick them out on the keyboard, by ear, all in C for now. Then sing as we play.

Steps to Focus on the Pitch of a Note

A refined sense of intonation is a critical part of the path to learning to play by ear.

  1. First, we play the Cue note

  2. At first, you just hear it.

  3. The next step is active listening. If you don’t instinctively know how, don’t worry. We’ll show you.

  4. Next, the job is to increase the length of your focus on actively listening to the pitch.

  5. Once it is internalized, you feel like you are humming it in your head

  6. Now you can vocalize it.

***Recording and playing back your efforts is an invaluable tool. A smartphone can be a tremendous tool to see where you are and make instant course corrections.

The end use of all this is to feel how the sound vibrates in your throat so that you can reproduce it again, once you have it already there at your disposal. It takes repetition. Once you get it, you will likely always have it.

Focus in Listening

Focus follows hearing and begins at the onset of active listening, through the application of the listening process until focus is lost by distraction or mental fatigue. At first you may only be able to focus for a tiny moment. With practice, you can focus longer. Repetition cements it into your brain and then you can “just do it” without thinking about it.

Mental practice:  Conceptualizing the process and vocalizing the sound in your mind.

One student’s observation that helped him

  • Hum the starting note of any interval

  • Then soften it till you are only hearing it in your head

  • The reproduce it

This needs repetition. Like basketball, mental practice works only after you sink quite a few baskets; at least enough to get the feel.

Caveat: Timbre and Pitch

Do not confuse timbre or the sound of a note with the pitch of a note. For some people, the thin sound of a tuner playing from your phone makes you think you need to sing in the higher part of your range. Focus instead just on the pitch of the note.

This process is similar to a baby learning which muscles are needed to pick up a spoon. They have to be concentrating on the spoon and the muscles needed to ensure that their fingers are in the right place.

Here is a summary I heard from a diligent student. It is a good analogy of the process of learning to sing in tune.

Development of “flow”

  1. unconsciously incompetent  – baby does not care about spoon

  2. consciously incompetent – baby tries to pick it up but has not put it together-and fails

  3. consciously competent – with concentration, the baby can pick up the spoon and sometimes even get food near face, mouth (and not so much on the wall)

  4. unconsciously competent –  eats using the spoon, but without thinking about the spoon.

Playing by ear.   Singing by ear.  Fun stuff!

Learning Music Should Be FUN!

Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.

~ James M. Barrie


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