Why By Ear?

Ah, yes. One of my favorite topics. Why learn bluegrass by ear? While this subject is surely old hat to long-time Murphy Method students (True Believers) and those of you who have read my book of collected Banjo Newsletter columns (where I ranted about the subject ad nauseum, some thought), those of you who are just discovering the Murphy Method might be curious about the whole “by ear” concept. Our web friends over at Banjo Hangout frequently bat this topic around and, in fact, have been doing so lately with gusto. (Thanks, folks!) (Here's one example.)

There are many good reasons for learning by ear but I will confine my remarks here to the main three:

It’s easier.

It will enable you to play with other people.

It leads to improvising.

Okay. Now to expostulate. (I’m gonna skip over about how much easier it is to learn this way. That’s a bit self evident.)

I assume that everyone who is interested in learning to play bluegrass wants to eventually play with somebody else, perhaps just in a small group of friends. Or maybe you’d like to jam with other people in the parking lot. You see, Bluegrass is a friendly music. It wants to be played with other people.

Okay. Now, think about the nature of Bluegrass Music. Bluegrass musicians do not perform looking at music. You do not see music stands on a bluegrass stage. (Okay, Ralph Stanley sometimes has to have the words in front of him now. But he’s Ralph. He can do whatever he likes!) Bluegrass music is, by its very nature, a “by ear” music. If you were wanting to play in a symphony you’d have to read music. If you were wanting to play church piano or organ, you’d have to read music. Many types of musics call for note reading. But not bluegrass. It calls for playing by ear.

But I can’t learn by ear, I hear you saying. (Whining?) I’m not that talented. I don’t have a music background. I’m too old. I’m a visual learner, I learn better from paper. Phooey to all that. Almost anyone can learn by ear if you just take it slow, a few notes at a time. Which is exactly what we do on all our DVDs. We teach it S-L-O-W.

So, right from the beginning, learning by ear enables you to play with other people. Why? Because as you learn each song (one piece at a time, just like Johnny Cash sings about that car) you are actually able to HEAR what you are playing. It makes musical sense from the git-go. Your songs sound like songs. Your spouse or partner can actually recognize what you are playing. They might even compliment you. And it’s almost impossible to play out of time. (Although I have seen some Murphy Method students do even that, bless their hearts. They were trying to go too fast through the lessons.)

But if you are learning from tab, you don’t know WHAT it sounds like. So how do you know if you’re doing it right?

If you are a tab reader (a tab eater as my friend Bill Evans says), you probably have had the experience of learning to play lots of songs. At home. But when you try to play them with someone else, it’s a total disaster. Why? Nine out of ten times, you’ve probably learned it wrong. You’re probably making some small timing error that means it’s impossible for someone to play along with you. Yet you don’t even realize it. You don’t “hear” what you are playing. And if you can’t stay in time (not to mention recover from your mistakes) no one can play along with you.

Now, some of you might be saying that you don’t have these problems. You can read tab just fine, thank you very much, you don’t make timing errors, you can, in fact, play YOUR SONGS with other people. And maybe you can. But, I ask you, can you play anybody else’s songs? Can you improvise a break on the spot to a simple three-chord song that you’ve never played before, that you’ve never even heard before. Probably not. (But my hat’s off to you if you can!)

And if you can’t improvise, then you’ve come to the right place. Because the greatest thing about learning by ear is that it leads to improvising. Tablature will not get you there.

Well, on that note I have to quit for now. Stay tuned for the next installment when I’ll talk about IMPROVISING. (In the mean time, in between time, you can get my book And There You Have It! and read all about learning by ear there! Featuring stories about real students! And pictures!)

2 thoughts on “Why By Ear?

  1. Steve (in Japan)

    I’m glad that I went back in your archive of blog entries to read this. Murphy says, “Bluegrass music, by its very nature, is ‘a by ear’ music.” I’m convinced of that and will quote it often. Thanks.

  2. Reuben Dunn

    I would greatly appreciate it if you might be able to tell me what the differences are between the ” Murphy” method and the material that Warnick has. These two seem to be at the top of the food chain.

    Any insight would be appreciated

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