In this discussion I would like to focus on the art of making music by Ear -- meaning without the aid of notes or chord charts.
If asked, "do you play by note, chord or by ear?", musicians will probably pigeonhole themselves into one or more of these three categories -- though in reality, they overlap a good deal. Chords are actually just generalized notes which imply a set fingering and a strum pattern that fits the song, and the ear is used for timing as they hear the chord progressions moving along. Note players are constantly outlining chords, and using their ears keenly to decide when to play the notes they are reading -- how much to obey the score, and how much to improve it or make it blend better with the other musicians. All these types of players actually perform all songs by memory, using notes, a chart, words and other cues as memory aids, with their ear as the final judge of all things.
But there is a great wonder and joy in learning the special skill using just yourself-and-instrument (or voice) to make music. This may consist of imitating or playing along with a song. It may be creating an "obbligatto" -- a free part -- as a riff or solo while others are making melody or doing chord patterns. It may be composing a new song.
To me, learning to play by ear is essential to good musicianship. If you went to college, you would take a year of courses called Music Theory, which pretty much amounts to learning to play and sing by ear and learn to tell chords by how they sound. Then you listen to music of all sorts and try to find patterns of how the chords fit together and flow together in time. This is called Analysis. You pay lots of money to do this; but you can do it at home or with friends in a band for nothing except your time. All players learn by ear to a degree; but making a concerted effort to strengthen the ear will open you to a world of pleasure an understanding of music, enable you to teach and mentor others, and in a variety of ways make you a stronger musician far more quickly than merely strumming along with a chord sheet.
What are your own experiences with playing by ear -- your discovery of tone, or of relying on your ear to get you through a hard situation, or anything good you'd like to put into print?
Definitely. There is some value in not making a song too different each time it is played, although I expect you aren't pushing the idea that far.
However, each musicians individual line through the song should link with the contributions of the rest of the group. If the drummer drops into a different beat, I will almost certainly need to tweak the bassline (and even more so if we have a week without a drummer).
A song is like a patch of forest. Chord charts, music and recorded references outline major paths through the woods and it is as well to roughly follow them most of the time. However, you wouldn't expect to tread in exactly the same footsteps each time and more major adjustments may be required (for example with a different set of instruments or if bringing a less experienced player along on the journey).
Playing by ear is what gives you the ability to skip along on the journey without tripping over, whatever route your group needs to follow that day.
I like the forest metaphor. Without the ear, it all has to be done by mechanics -- and music is so complex (even simple things like playing chord progressions involve scads of decisions and learned behaviors), so complex you can't do it by mechanics alone.
I just got finished reading an email which quoted Ornette Coleman as marveling that the same note sounds differently each night you play it -- and he would be playing the same tune for weeks on end.
Playing bass by ear is great for me. You learn to hear things differently. Applying contra bass etc adds flavour.
Perhaps that's one reason people pick up bass, either as a second instrument or sometimes if they play nothing else. It has such an elemental quality, is not as difficult to finger as the other instruments, you don't have to blow into it, and the hearing is everything.
One thing I've noticed, having a foot in both guitar and bass camps is that bass players *tend* to be technical nazis while guitarists *tend* to be all unrestrained.
Obviously an over-stated picture, but the majority of bass players I discuss music with are all about the theory first and knowing the detail of the music - almost certainly a reflection of the role their instrument is required to play. Guitarists come with a much more liberal outlook of music first, theory maybe later *on the whole* as fits what their instrument does.
TBH I find it very hard to play bass by ear, because I can't really hear how the notes interact with the rest of the music, other than to know if it sounds good or bad.
I think that the bass is indeed the Base of music (unless it is free-flowing melodic music); so whatever the bass does, even if it is complex slap-bass, has to be solid -- it has to create a matrix that the chord instruments can lock into.
The "nazis" comment is interesting. I've helped two new bassists with theory for a few weeks, and quickly they began to brush aside my "help" -- they were driven to establish their own perception of how the music works (in other words, they became their own theory teachers, with a higher standard of perfection than it seemed to me they were capable of).
Thats funny to me because in rehearsal I often blank out when the people are explaining the details. They look at me and ask if I got it. I always say yes because I know the song and if I don't remember everything I will fill in the gaps. Sometimes there is just too much talking and not enough playing :-) In response to the Learned and Memorized post. I often let a song become whatever it need to be at the time we are playing it. Sometimes the original part or lead fits the song so well that I just play that instead of making up my own. With all the songs I have to play if I like something I definitely appreciate the time it saves learning the part on the CD.
I am reminded of two quotes that have had a profound influence on my nearly 30 years of playing.
"You do not get paid to play fast, you get paid to listen fast." - Can' t remember who said it
"Learn everything you can, then forget it and play" - Charlie Parker, Jaco, B.B. King and a few others
Both magnificent quotes! I hadn't heard the first one, but wow is it true. The player who listens lazily starves his music to death.
I'm enjoying the ear-playing skills of a young trumpeter today! I've hesitated to write trumpet parts for songs such as Brooke L's "Hosanna", which is in E (4 sharps, and thus 6 sharps for a trumpeter - F G A C D and E, all sharp). But I wrote some obbligattos and the melody for that, and for two other songs, keeping the words below the melody notes so he would know where he was. Normally you just write notes for an instrument player, but I've found that most of them really like having the words as anchor-points. He found the easier notes right away, and within a few minutes he was even playing the E sharps. He's had a lot of experience just blowing his horn in informal situations where there was no music at all -- a key ingredient to ear-playing. But a person can combine by-ear and by-note successfully if they have a little chutzpah in their makeup. It's kind of like speaking a creole.