We have a great show today with special guest, Scott Houston; The Piano Guy! A lot of you may know Scott from his many appearances on PBS television. Scott is the perfect person for this series because he has educated countless people all over the world in how to play piano by ear, playing with chords, and dealing with popular styles of music. My background is primarily in classical music. So we’re going to have a real treat for you. There will be tips on both sides for people who play by ear and people who have never tried to play by ear.
The first thing to consider is being able to play popular songs.
Why do you need to play by ear in order to play popular music? Popular songs oftentimes are first conceived by jamming together and later on after the record is produced, somebody goes and transcribes it into sheet music. If you ever try to decipher the sheet music, often times it just doesn’t sound quite right because it’s not the original. Also consider that often, sheet music is just a piano/vocal arrangement where the original was a whole band. So it doesn’t always translate well.
So there is a good place for being able to play by ear or to pick something up and make your own arrangement. People who have traditional classical training may feel a need to see the written score in order to play it. A lead sheet which has the melody line and the chord symbols allow you the freedom to play stylistically correct. It’s not like classical music where the original manuscript is the complete work. In the case of pop songs, Taylor Swift, for instance, may write a tune and by the time it gets out on a piece of sheet music you’re reading, a staff arranger may have produced the sheet music after the record was produced. What Taylor Swift may have done, was to write a melody line and chord changes. That’s the DNA of the song. Arrangers, producers, and musicians may have fleshed out the rest.
There are a few intrinsic piano parts that should be played verbatim if you want them to sound like the recording. The other 95% may just require comping chords that highlight the melody line. By learning to build upon the essential chord structure, it frees you up to sound more authentic than the sheet music in many instances. What makes it even more complicated is that sheet music is usually written with the melody line contained within the piano part. Occasionally you’ll get sheet music that doesn’t have the vocal line in it. It just has the accompaniment which is appropriate when accompanying a singer. In this case, it doesn’t work at all as a piano piece. The opposite is also true. If you’re trying to accompany a singer, you don’t want to double every one of the notes the singer is singing. This is an essential point. It’s 180 degrees opposite when you’re accompanying someone compared to playing a solo on the piano.
The next reason to play by ear is to be able to improvise.
Feeling like you absolutely must read notes to be able to play anything on a piano will keep you from the fun of ever being able to improvise. Using a lead sheet is a terrific way because after all; pop, jazz, rock, and country players use lead sheets most of the time for the melody and basic chord structure rather than have all the notes written out. To give you an extreme example, I’ve seen accomplished classical musicians who can’t even play happy birthday because they have never tried to play by ear! It’s totally alien to them. Playing from a lead sheet and learning chord changes is the crawling and walking before you learn to run in the world of improvisation. Improvisation isn’t a wildly free, play anything, anytime sort of thing for people. What improvisation is most often, is creating a melody line while playing over the chord changes. You’ve got to know the chord changes to a tune or you really can’t improvise. By just doing that, it may provide the foundation you need. Learning chords and learning to play from lead sheets creates the foundation that very naturally leads into improvising. Because it’s not black ink on paper, doesn’t mean it’s not music. Written notation is nothing more than a documentation of music. Music is what we play. It’s the sound we make that’s the music. So, sheet music is nothing more than a recording of music.
It’s a tough thing sometimes to get people who have had nothing but traditional lessons to accept that what you’re playing might not be exactly what is written. Something that is missed in classical circles is that almost all the great composers were improvisers, but we only have the recordings on the paper because there was no audio recording back then. So the score is elevated to the point where people don’t realize that improvisation has always been an essential component of classical music. Many if not most of the great composers were prolific improvisers!
The last of the three benefits of playing by ear is instant gratification.
Most adults who are taking piano lessons don’t plan on doing it for a living or making a career out of it. They’re just wanting to have fun playing the piano. They want to sit down behind this piece of furniture they’ve been dusting for the last 20 years and play something! For that reason, it can be a phenomenally faster route to learn to play three chords which can take about five minutes. By doing that, they’ve got the chord changes to probably 70 or 80,000 songs! This isn’t to suggest that that’s all you ever want to do by any means. But it can be a great way to get someone to experience gratification through playing the piano. It gives an incentive to want to keep going.
There are a whole lot of reasons to play by ear and it is incredibly rewarding and fun. We’re going to explore more in future videos in this series. I hope this has been helpful as well as enjoyable! Thanks again to Scott Houston, The Piano Guy. For more on Scott, go to PianoInaFlash.com. This is Robert Estrin at LivingPianos.com. You may contact us at: info@LivingPianos.com 949-244-3729
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