~ listening to Americana musics / play by ear ... and into the diatonic realm and bluesville ... :)

~ a process ~

"Listen, or thy tongue will keep you deaf."

Nutshell. To play by ear is the old as the hills method for learning songs and about music. There's just a few steps really, to get the basics of learning, then knowing how one song goes by ear. We then move onto a next song, using what we learned from the first song. And just build up our knowledge and aural strengths form there. We can train our ears to here pitches, in major or minor, where they sit in a key center, the form of a song and style / rhythm influences; bluesy, country, rockin' and jazz it up. There's always songs to learn so always new challenges for our auditory apparati.

Our process ? We each find our own best way. For learning music by ear is of course the age old way, we moderns have adapted it into formal curriculums all along, including now an e-book format.

Ways to start learning music by ear. Dial up a song of music you enjoy, then ...

Count along with the measures out loud of the song. Try to find its downbeat and 'top' and count out its form.

Determine if its mostly major or minor, and the tonic pitch and key center of the song.

Find the bass line and sing along. Each pitch has got to be one of twelve. These become the roots of the chords.

Determine chords by major or minor and sound out the chord progression.

And sing the melody pitches and work the lines out on your instrument. Any note in any melody has got to be one of twelve. And just so you know, figuring the blues notes often ramps up the challenge, at least till you've done this a time or two. For in theory, there's only four, five maybe six blue notes.

Find 2 and 4. Once we're sure of which way the pitches are going, up or down, we want to know how they get set into motion in time. And specifically with our Americana, finding the accented beats on the 2 and 4 of basic 4/4 time. Count to four and find 2 and 4 :) Please count aloud 1 2 3 4 and clap your hands on 2 and 4, giving the claps on 2 and 4 beats a bit more. Ex. 1a.

Feel a groove happening? Try again. It's there. Once Ya got this grooving, every other measure or so, try to hold back or delay a wee bit your claps. In a sense, you're trying to slow down the music by holding back on a beat. Do this enough and you'll begin to feel a physical 'pull' of time as it moves along with the pulse or beat of the music. This sense of 'pull' is the raw energy of swing.

For in theory, accenting 2 and 4 makes those beats a bit bigger and stronger too. Two different sizes of ongoing beats creates this 'pull.' How big's the difference? How deep's the swing? Feeling swing's 'pull? Not too tough. Getting it to come out of our horns ? Tough. And learning to swing is our own unique and individual challenge. No one can do it for us. Once you swing, in whatever styles you dig, you'll have this time magic forever and will always be able to 'bring the swing' :)

The joy of 2 and 4 / swing rhythm is somewhere in all our styles. From a gentle pulse in folk, a thump in the blues, the backbeat snare of rock, a clave in bossa and the ping and sock cymbals in jazz, finding 2 and 4 in Americana musics, and discovering where and how the swing is created, is kind of fascinating. Especially today, now that we've a 100 years or so of recordings to enjoy and behold the evolutions of Americana time and the boundless joy of swing it brings.

100 years of recorded music history @ ...


Follow the link of suggested listening for finding 2 and 4, and other theory / compositional coolness, in popular Americana styled musics. or cue up your own Americana faves and find the pulse, clap and sing along. Count the beats, clap on 2 and 4. Hold back your clap and find the swing. If there's an accent on 2 and 4, the swing potential is always there :)

Sing a chromatic scale. Ever sing all 12 of our pitches in a scale? No ? Right on another first ! Click and sing along with the music. Example 2.

And what goes up must come down eh ? Try the same pitches but in a descending fashion. Take a deep breath ... :) Example 2a.

How'd that go? Try it again. And did U chuckle at your results? The degree of your success in this exercise is one measure of how 'good' your ear and voice are synching up, at this moment in time, and of this way of checking etc.

Remember here, we've only these 12 pitches to work all of our music magics, in theory 12 is all we get. So we can sing them all in one line, doing so fine tunes our own inner musical mechanism, of our voice to our ear with a little help form a tuned instrument up such as a piano or guitar if available. And if not, just use the lick above. No surprises here, getting this ability together can take some months, doing it everyday for sure.

Ultimate goal. Is to one day sing the chromatic scale, confidently, a capella. Once U arrive at this level of strength, it will startle your intellect, the degree to which mastering this one skill opens colossal sized doors, leading to that vast and fun musical realm Americana.

Author's note :) Mastering of this skill to sing chromatic took many big moons. Ran the lick every day, and super lucky mostly, had a piano to lean on for pitches. Easy 100 tries before solid success. Yet once successful, the 'b9' colortone on V7 just took off And I clearly heard the magic of pull' that the V7b9 can bring. Learned from my mentor Mike Lawshe, paired with Two it looks just like this. Example 2a.

How's about dem' apples ? :) So singing the chromatic loop fine tunes the ear to hear each pitch 'counter' to each other. Known as 'counterpoint' in classical music school curriculums, 'point versus point', like 'point to point' analogue wires, reveals a pitch's ways of tonal gravity, which helps us find the pull in the time, rhythms and Americana swing that brings the smiles, gets the toes tappin, dancers up dancing and ... :)

Major / minor. Just like Yin / Yang, our musics have a perfect balance of colors to personify the expressions of our own karma in life. Remember these 'theatre masks' from the olden days ?


From the sadness, the joyous ascends anew. In music, our general starting point in listening is for 'sad' to be sounded with the minor pitches and chords. And 'joyful music' is created with the major pitches and chords.

By ear, can you distinguish between the two ? Click away and let your ear be the guide. With just two choices, even total guessers have a 50 / 50 chance right off to get it right. And once you can hear this Yin / Yang basis of all things music, You'll own it to share forever. Taking it nice and slow :) Example 3.

Hearing the difference? Cool. No? Click again, you'll get it. For in all our musics there's this Yin / Yang quality. Click over to hear an old time 'minor into major' melody. And if all this major / minor theory is a new for you, consider its full discussion and then ace the quiz :)

Learning music by ear. At college, 'let YOUR ear' be the guide was a phrase that floated through every once in a while. For in legit, degree granting academia, understanding the notation symbols, and reading and writing the language is essential. So while 'by ear' was never discouraged, it was perfectly reserved for 'art' concepts. Such as when choosing the perfect chord color for a crucial spot in a song. That how I heard the chord, while puzzling my art together, me ear got final say in which piece fit best. And in choosing the colors by ear, more swing built right in :) For in theory, the theory just illuminates possibilities ... and the artist decides how it becomes their the art.

"Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist."
wiki ~ Pablo Picasso

Hearing the bass note roots and intervals. Get a good start 'by ear'n Americana musics with the bass notes and their theory. Look to master all of these, there's only a few really, over the longterm in your studies. Sequenced here to follow the cycle of 5th's, sing the notes best you can, and find the pitches on your instrument. When a piano is handy, consider finding them all there too. Thinking in the key of 'C.' Sound and sing ... :)

minor 3rd
major 3rd
by step
1/2 step chromatic
blue 7th
#4 / b5 tritone
motion to Four

Triads ~ 1 3 5 3 1. Once our ability to hear major and minor are cool, understanding, hearing and singing the the triads is the solid next step. For we can filter these three intellectual abilities with the three pitches of a triad, all sorts of magics manifest. Might even be a kaboom moment for some learners reading here.

So in college ear training class 101, the first lick we learned on the first day of class goes just like this. We sang the pitch numbers of the triad with the music, thus the '13531.' Thinking 'C' major. Example 4.

Familiar from somewhere ? Three chords and the truth? Yep, pretty much :) We sang this exercise first thing in every ear training class. It is also a great warmup for choirs, which usually just moves the triad up by half step. Thus, example 4a. Sing along with this one too.

Cool, sound like the organ player at the sporting event ? Yep, that's the lick :) So, ya cool with a chromatic organization of our resources ? How about the cycle of 5th's to plot out the pitches ?

Minor triads. Here's the same '1 3 5' idea as above but with minor triads, outlining the diatonic One, Four and Five triads of a minor key / tonal center. Thinking 'A' minor. Example 4b.

Three chords and the truth in minor? Yep. Transpose the pitches as necessary to suit your own vocal range. Feeling adventurous today ? Run the minor triads chromatically. From 'A' minor ascending. Example 4c.

Cool? Even a basic mastering of singing the triads will keenly focus in our ability to hear its magics in all styles of music. For its everywhere and been everywhere, all along our musical journey from day one. Really? Maybe so, especially for those that believe in the legends.

wiki ~ legends

Bach basis. Spin this piece, from the "Well Tempered Clavier" collection, once a day for training up the ears to hear chords and cadential motions from Bach. While presented throughout the piece as arpeggios, each of the chords in the song are spelled out with arpeggios. Locate the music and write in the chord changes with letter names and then Roman numerals as show below. In 'C.'

wiki ~ Glenn Herbert Gould

Diatonic / non-diatonic. A true key to understanding the theories of Americana is often termed in this work as the 'blues rub.' In creating these 'rubs' of sound, we're simply choosing to rub selected pitches together that wouldn't 'normally' do so. Some pitch rubs make the blue colors. Theory thought and lingo wants to describe these rubbed notes as diatonic, so a pitch within a chosen key center. Or non diatonic, so a pitch not within a key. Since there's only 12 pitches, and we use mostly use 7 to create a key, we're left with 5 to sort out as non diatonic. Thinking 'C' major, please compare these pitches. Example 5.

Hear the dissonance of the non diatonic notes? Cool ... or just click it again. Some of the notes just sound out of tune? Yea, that's all it is. Like the melody pitches of the last two measures? Jazzers call these pitches as being 'outside' of the diatonic realm. Yet, in another musical context, these become essential pitches to rub up to the diatonic ones to create the blues hue. Can these other five pitches become the blue notes ? And further, the altered colortones of our chords? Well yes to both !

In this next idea we add a 'minor 3rd blue note' to make a true V7 chord, and then add the non-diatonic pitches to create some of the common blues and jazzy chords we love. Example 5a.

Hear the blues hue. The blues hue is that bit of Americana coolness we often hear in songs that sound near purely diatonic and add in a bit of the blue to sweeten the mix. Here's a melody from wayback with a bit of the blues hue at the close of the idea. Example 6.

Hear the bit of blues to close out the oldtime melody? Just tickling the diatonic pitches with a hint of their blue note neighbors. This sort of embellishment is pure pure original Americana. And while it can happen about anywhere in any of our style of musics, it's possible to overwork it. Go to the well. But that's a choice each of us as artists get to make :)

Hearing chord progressions. Since the 1500's or so, we've been joyously stacking up pitches into chords more and more and string chords together to make chord progressions for our songs. By the dawn of the 19th century and forward, melody, supported by chords, the 'homophonic' style, was the way of making our musics. By the 1900''s in Americana, the four bar modal blues form, and its expanded 12 bar form, and there's Tin Pan Alley songs in the 16 and 32 bar forms. And once these song forms are established and solid, we've stuffed them all with various chord colors and progressions to write a million different songs.

Cool? Hearing the changes takes time, just be patient, curious and love the flow of the harmony as it all passes by. Find some classic 'three chords and the truth' songs and learn to hear the basics of diatonic harmonic motions. "There's only a couple of places it'll go ..." is a common quote for near all of our Americana progressions. And then there's ... 'jazzing it up' :)

This last entry for ear training and listening also comes from college schooling, this time from music history class. Our professor, Dr. Guibbory, would talk about all things history about where the development of a particular style of music, historical era, and play musical examples, while illuminating often by gesture, the finer points of what we were listening to.

Art, theory, compositional, textures, orchestrations, instrumentation, great licks and bass lines, cool chord progressions, in general, anything 'Dr. Guibbory found cool in the music we all heard it together and began to better understand what we listened to.

Review / songs. Learning music 'by ear' is historically the way we've always done it. Getting 'schooled' in music, learning to read notation and understand its puzzles is what interested learners will often pursue. In today's modern ways of education, there's plenty to learn, and share, with those who are interested and disciplined to work through what artists and scholars have now provided us.

The skills for learning songs 'by ear.' Just ask the question ... Is this song in;

major or minor ?

what key is the song in ?

how many beats per measure ?

what are the bass notes ?

can I sing the melody notes ?

are there chords atop the bass notes ?

and how many measures in the song's loop ?

... thus the 'lifting' begins ...

References. References for this page's information comes from school, books and the bandstand and made way easier by the folks along the way.

References academia Alaska. And when you need university level answers to your questions and musings, and especially if you are considering a career in music and looking to continue your formal studies, begin to e-reach out to the Alaska University Music Campus communities and begin a dialogue with some of Alaska's own and finest resident maestros !