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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Use your noggin

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Hi everyone

Hope you are having fantastic week. Today I want to talk about using your ear and how you can apply a bit of common sense to get you out of sticky situations.

Last Sunday I played with a fantastic country rock singer, Sarah Warren. Yes, I play more than just Jazz.

At the beginning of the year she wanted to relaunch her career with a 10 year anniversary mini tour. We did a few rehearsals, some shows and I learnt the tunes. Last Sunday we did another one off show in Stafford and I haven’t played the music in about 8 months. Was it still in my head? No. Could I remember the chords? No. Did I get a rehearsal? No.

For some, this may seem like a nightmare but I like to use is as a test. A test of my ability to use my musical radar, my ear and work it out as I go.

Now, before you think this is all about me bragging how I can do a show with no rehearsal, let me tell you this… I am average at best. It is also hugely common in the professional world so in no way do I consider myself superhuman or special or extra talented. The point of this blog is to show you how to do it.

So here goes:

1. Ditch the sheet music

Like playing Blind Man’s Bluff as a kid, if you remove one sense then the other senses work harder and become heightened. Your ears will work in ways you never thought possible. Its scary but immensely satisfying when it works…and it does work!

2. Hone in on the key

You must have the ability to recognise the home key. This is the note that everything returns to. Its usually played at the beginning and end of phrases or 8 bar sequences. Listen to records and find the note that sounds the most resolved. Get a trusted friend or teacher to check and give you some confirmation that your choice is correct. NB. People often mistake the 5th with the root so don’t fall for that trap.

3. Major or Minor?

You must also be able to instantly recognise major and minor harmony. It should be like breathing. Happy for major, sad for minor. If you play the major third over a minor chord you’ll soon know its wrong!

4. Use your noggin

Use some of the theory you’ve picked up along the way. If you know about key signatures then once you’ve found the key, assume its going to follow the notes of the key. You’ve got more chance of success picking from 7 different scale notes rather than 12 chromatic notes. The mathematicians out there might even be able to give a percentage…bonus points on offer. Leave your answer in the comments section below.

5. Listen to the bass player

A lot of people assume that you should listen to the piano player or the guitarist for the harmony, after all they’re the ones playing chords. Wrong. They will do everything to put you off! Listen to the bass player and notice which note is played on beat 1 of the bar. It is almost certainly going to be the root note of the chord. Work from the ground up. Train your ear to listen to the lowest frequency first (this is completely contradictory to how popular music wants you to hear the song by the way, vocals are usually the most prominent/loudest and the highest frequency – this is probably why most people know the words to songs and not the chords. I am terrible at listening to lyrics. Its the last thing I listen to and very rarely interests me)

6. Predict the form

Luckily, songs are repetitive and often predictable. Once you’ve nailed the chords to the verse, it will happen again and the chorus will probably repeat over and over at the end. Expect a bridge about 2 and half minutes into the track – this is the bit that really spooks people, but don’t worry, its usually over in 8 bars (hence the term ‘Middle 8′)!

7. Watch the drummer for stops and endings

If you want to sound like you’re really part of the band, make sure you stop at the right time. As well as playing the right notes and chords, you have to be aware that clever stuff can happen. Make eye contact with the rest of the band and watch for body language and subtle raising of the eyebrows – this means that something is about to happen, or you are looking particularly fine that evening, or you didn’t wipe the foam moustache off your lip after taking a huge swig of beer.

8. Use the force

Stay on your toes. One of the biggest joys I find with playing music, is the level of focus that is needed. Time seems to melt away and I find myself in the zone. Its hugely cathartic and I love that life’s woes just disappear. Its tiring and takes effort but it is incredibly rewarding. It also means you don’t make as many mistakes or miss some vital cues making you look like a complete lemon!

I hope you try some of these out and if you need help with ear training, leave a comment; I’ll do my best to help you out.

Good luck!


2 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Martin Ellen
    November 3, 2016

    >Listen to the bass player and notice which note is played on beat 1 of the bar. It is almost certainly going to be the root note of the chord. Work from the ground up. Train your ear to listen to the lowest frequency first.

    Jay, as a keyboard player I really enjoy playing along with a bass. It adds warmth and continuity to the overall sound and gives me confidence to leave more gaps. However, I find it very difficult identify which note is being played on the bass. The same is true on higher notes, but not quite to the same extent.

    Can you recommend any exercise/technique to help.

    Many thanks

    • Jay
      November 8, 2016

      Hi Martin. Thanks for the feedback. I will come up with something and get it up on the site. I feel a video may explain it better.

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