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Brian Kay


Tunes by Ear and Solfege Project

A discussion of playing and singing by ear and a graded list of tunes to use.

Playing and singing by ear and memory is an area that is often, unfortunately, either completely neglected, or overemphasized at the expense of a student learning to read music. Playing by ear and memory was not really a part of my own musical training, so when I decided to incorporate it into my own teaching, I learned it myself in advance of, and along with my students.

On a trial basis, I included an averages of five minutes of playing by ear into each private lesson. The results were positive. Everyone gained confidence and ability in playing by ear. We also used the process to branch out to learning jazz style and improvisation (see below).

If you already incorporate this kind of music making into your teaching, or are thinking of doing so, you might find this list helpful.

Download the Tune List Teaching Handout

Observations and Results

  • When starting with familiar, easy three-note tunes in easy keys, all were able to make progress in playing by ear and singing with solfege syllables (do, re, mi).
  • Some enjoyed playing by ear more than others, but all increased their enjoyment as they got better at it.
  • Playing by ear also involves a component of memory. The student should not view this as "cheating". Once you have played a tune more than once, it is natural and appropriate to use memory and mental "landmarks" for the "lay of the tune".
  • One comes to grip more with song structure and compositional elements when playing by ear. This presents teaching and learning opportunities for student and teacher.
  • One student displayed his skills for an end-of-year evaluation at New England Conservatory, Prep Division. He handed the evaluator a list of five-note tunes, and the evaluator picked tunes and keys for him to play by ear/memory with jazz embellishment. The student's skills held under the pressure of the examination.
  • Some applied the skill of "playing what you hear" to other instruments, eg, composing original songs on bass guitar for their rock band.
  • Playing by ear naturally involves listening more, so intonation and musicality can improve, especially if these areas are pointed out.
  • Using the tune list for playing by ear and improv brought variety to lessons, and gave us a productive option if a student had a low practice week.
  • One adult student really wanted to start with the five-note tunes, because the three-note tunes seemed too remedial to him. However, he was making lots of mistakes, and I needed to insist that he start with the three-note tunes, assuring him that he would progress quicker that way.

Suggestions for using the list

  • Start with the three-note tunes, one or two tunes per week in three easy keys, to build competence and confidence.
  • Sing the tune together using "do re mi" and moving the hand up and down to show scale degree. You can also point to the solfege syllables on the chart at the end of the list as you sing.
  • Start with playing and singing in three easy keys, later increase the number of keys each tune is played in. When doing all twelve keys (or a set of easy and hard keys), start with the hardest keys, and progress to easier keys so the task gets easier as mental fatigue sets in!
  • You can do this in groups too. Sing through it enough first that everyone is familiar with the tune before playing. You can have the class finger the notes on their instrument as they sing, or use hand motions to show the relative motion of the notes up or down.
  • Try playing the tunes with a target emotion or style, even if its out of character for a tune. For example, play Jingle Bells in three styles to convey three emotions: carefree, thoughtful, and miserable. Demonstrate yourself if the student doesn't believe its possible.
  • To branch out into jazz improvisation, start by jazzing up the rhythms and articulation with a variety of swing and latin styles. I was surprised to find that nearly all the tunes on this list could be jazzed up rhythmically - even the Olympic Fanfare. After adding improvised jazz rhythms, continue by adding diatonic and chromatic lower neighbors, upper neighbors, and passing tones.
  • The book, A Sound Approach to Teaching Instrumentalists, by Stanley Schleuter is a valuable resource and advocate for integrating this kind of approach.
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