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Playing the saxophone by air is one of the most exceptional skills any saxophonist can master. It’s the most amazing thing ever, for a saxophone player and their listener alike.
And if you do any sort of improvising, than that’s the one of hallmarks of truly exceptional skill.
Playing the saxophone by ear is something I get asked about all the time, by beginners, listeners, fellow musicians, everybody. The question… how do you do it? How do you play saxophone by ear from memory?
It’s unfortunate that music teachers these days actually frown on playing by ear.
To me, it’s more natural to learn how to play by ear than with your eye reading music. After all, music is listened to, not read. You should, infact, look at the next part of the How to Play Saxophone Notes series, that is, how to read music in 15 minutes. You’ll get a good primer on reading music, and more discussion around that topic.
Did I say playing by ear one of the most important skills you can develop as a saxophone player?
Let’s dive right in.
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How to Play Anything on Saxophone by Ear or from Memory: The Proven Five-Step Ear Training Process
First of all, I won’t to mention that anybody can learn how to play by ear. Just like nobody is born with the gift of reading music, you just have to learn how.
If you had to learn how to read music with your eyes, why would you not learn how to play music by ear?
They are both skills that we need to learn. You can learn to do both and, indeed you should.
Why is Playing By Ear (Ear Training) Important for Saxophonists?
The big important thing here is that, unless you play classical saxophone and spend your life replicating somebody elses’s writing, you will end up in situations where you need to write your own music, or play music by ear.
You will inevitably find yourself in situations where you don’t have a sheet of music in front of you. And so, playing by ear is really quite important.
And it’s a skill that you can (and should) learn.
So how to do it?
Now, I will go through a simple five-step process that will get you playing music. If you go through these three steps and master them, I can guarantee that, at a minimum, you’re going to be able to say “I play by ear.”
Remember, this is a journey, you’ll still need to develop as a musician even after these three steps.
Step #1 — Work Out the Melody by Ear
Okay, so the first step is to try and work out the melody by ear.
The way I recommend you do this is to listen to the track several times until you can sing the melody in your head, at least, and then to take you saxophone and try to find out what the notes are.
A sub-par way of working out the melody would be to have the track playing and try out notes until you find the ones that you can hear. Well, it’s better than nothing—to be sure—but playing from memory works better in helping you pick up the melody faster.
Immediately you work out the melody, it’s a good idea to “doodle” the melody.
Doodle here merely implies that there is a variety of approaches of noting down your melody.
If you get in the habit of picking out a melody everyday, doodle it as it comes to you, naturally, you’re going to get very very good at it.
You’ll get to the point where you can doodle out the melody very very quickly.
Step #2 — Work Out the Intervals by Ear
One approach of approaching intervals in music is very technical, that’s not what we are doing here.
What you need to do here is try and doodle the melody with intervals estimated by ear—the approach I subscribe to, which is far removed from getting the technical intervals exactly right using music theory.
What you’ll find as you work out songs by ear is that you start to build up a memory bank of different intervals, which you can refer to when you’re working out new songs.
Every once in a while, you might even hear an interval in one song, and recognize it another song.
The core idea here is to doodle around and find out how to get better and better at playing the notes of the melody with the right timing purely by listening to it, not by any fancy system or method.
We don’t have to get very very deep at this step, just work out the melody and try to get it right by ear.
From here on out, you can get every bit as technical as you want with your melody. I use the example of a pop songs because it is the most accessible idea to beginners to ear training.
Step #3 — Work Out the Melody on the Scale by Ear
The next thing you need to do is learn by heart the series of intervals which are found in the minor scale and the major scale.
In the C minor scale, for instance, all the intervals are whole steps apart from two intervals which are half steps.The second to the third scale degree are half steps and the fifth to the sixth scale degrees are also half steps.
So in C minor, D to E-flat and G to A-flat are half steps.
In the C major scale, on the other hand, it’s the same notes but they are actually scale degree three and four and seven and one.
You can use these half step intervals to locate the melody within the scale.
It will allow you to understand what scale degrees you’re actually playing rather than just playing the correct melody notes without actually understanding where they fit within the scale.
It is important that you learn this by heart because you need to know what scale you’re in if you’re going to put the right chords to it.
Step #4 — Understand the Four Most Common Chords in Pop Music
First of all, I’ll give you my big axiom, I say this all the time because it’s true:
90% of 90% of songs can be played with just 3 chords—the 90 percent rule. The three chords are I, IV and V.
Another way of saying this is that if you know I, IV and V chords, you can play most of most songs.
If we stick within our scale of E-flat major/C minor, then the four chords are E-flat major, A-flat major, B-flat major and C minor.
Now the way to think about these chords is I, IV and V, so that I is E-flat major, IV is A-flat major and V is B-flat major. And then the relative minor of E-flat major is C minor which is the vi degree of the E-flat major scale.
About 90 percent of pop songs, especially the ones that are being produced today seem to use just these four chords and not really anything else.
There are exceptions to these, of course, and if you find something that seems to be in chords other than these four, the next chords I suggest you try are F minor and G minor within the scale of E-flat major and C minor.
An F minor chord fulfils the same function as an A-flat major chord, except it has a minor sound.
The same with a G minor, which fulfils the same function as a B-flat major chord.
With that, the chord structures in pop music are very simple.
We basically have three major chords—E-flat major, A-flat major and B-flat major. And then we have three relative minor chords of those three major chords.
So C minor is a relative minor of E-flat major, F minor is the relative minor of A-flat major and G minor is the relative minor of B-flat major.
So really out six chords are I, IV and V of the E-flat major scale and i, iv and v of the relative minor scale.
And it really is that easy.
If you work with the same key consistently on either you tenor or alto sax, you’ll spot that very quickly.
Step #5 — Work Out What Chord You’re Hearing
Once you have identified the important notes in the melody, start scanning the four pop chords for that melody.
You need to work out what chord you’re hearing.
Some notes you’ll be able to find in multiple chords, like C, G and E-flat.
E-flat, for example, can be found in an A-flat major chord, a C minor chord, and the E-flat major chord.
Other notes will only appear in one of the chords making your choice easier. For example notes D and F can only be found on the B-flat major chord, and A-flats can only be found on the A-flat major chord.
Between them, the four pop chords cover all seven notes of the scale, meaning that, every note on the scale has a choice of at least one chord.
While you try to work out what chord you’re hearing you can also listen to the baseline because in pop music, the baseline nearly always plays the root of the chord,
Once you have the melody down, that’s it because we are really not worried about harmony.
How Long Does it Take to Learn How to Play a Song This Way (by Ear)?
Well, probably you can figure out a melody in maybe five or ten minutes and then figure out all the chords that go with the melody in another five or ten minutes, and you should be able to play your melody by ear.
Needless to say, it will also depend on how easy the melody is to pick up, how long you’ve practiced notes on your saxophone such as the chromatic scale and so on and so forth.
How About those Other Chords Besides I, IV and V?
Remember how we said 90 percent, well, how about the other 10 percent?
How about Jazz or Modern Classical Music?
When you get to songs that are a little more complex—those that go outside I, IV and V—we have to look at a lot more other things.
The 10 percent that go out of that exception are secondary dominants. Instead of diving into secondary dominants in this beginner series, I will just mention that when the I, IV and V do not work, you should try secondary dominants—the major II, III, VI and VII chords—next.
You are more likely that not to find that the secondary dominants cover nearly all of the 10 percent that the dominants—I, IV, and V—don’t.
If you’re probably thinking that the II chord is not major, it’s minor, you’re right. However, I am trying to keep things really simple here.
In a nutshell, between the I, IV, V and the II, III, VI and VII, you should be able to play any song that comes up that you need to play by ear.
The 3 Essential Tips You’ll Need to Play the Saxophone By Ear in Under a Year
Sometimes I give you guys tips that you can use really quick but a lot of these things are important and honestly they just don’t come that quick.
It takes some work to figure out what fits where.
Here are some tips which will point you in the right direction and speed up your learning process of how to play any song by ear, on saxophone.
Tip #1 — Get in the Habit of Listening to Music in a Different Way
First of all, you need to get in the habit of listening to music in a different way. Every piece of music you hear, you need to be thinking what are the intervals?
Whether it is a track on the radio, in a club, a bird singing, you want to be thinking what that interval is, and what are those notes?
Tip #2 — Try and Stick to One Key Early On
In practice, all songs don’t use all 12 notes. You can if you want to but it tends to sound chaotic and weird. We need some sort of ornganization and that’s where keys or scales come in.
You might already know that a scale or key is basically a collection of notes. Scales or keys limit our options a bit to help provide a bit of structure. The intervals between these notes give us some sort of framework to build off of.
When you hear a piece of music, try and stick to one key and to work the notes out in that key.
Sticking to one key will make you realize a lot quicker that they are the same notes that are coming up, and the same chords.
This is especially true in pop music which is the same four chords which come up over and over again and the same pentatonic scale.
Tip #3 — Start Practicing with Simple Pop Songs
The best practice you can do is to try and work out pop songs by ear.
Pop songs are great because they are a good level for beginners, and there are only four chords on the same pentatonic scale really most of the time that are uses over and over again.
Pop songs will give you great practice.