Here are a few things to note about the sheet music over here:
1) I am by no means a professional maker of sheet music. Hence, it is very likely that there will be wrong notes somewhere in the sheet music. I apologize in advance for these.
2) The sheet music are of songs as interpreted by me. Therefore some notes or even the style may sound different from the original. Again, I apologize if the style doesn't suit your taste, and there are probably other versions of the same song available for you to choose from.
3) The sheet music may sound different from the version I played. This could be due to various reasons, one of which is the limitations of my sheet generating software. If, say, the "right hand" and "left hand" parts overlap too much, the software is unable to differentiate which notes are on the top stave and which should be on the bottom. I tend to resolve this by shifting the melody up by one octave or by simplifying the left hand part.
4) Regretfully, I am unable to transcribe sheet music for ALL the videos I play, simply because of lack of time (I'm a fourth year engineering student at this time of writing), and that making sheet is not my primary interest. Usually I don't agree to requests for the same reason. It's nothing personal though!
That's all for the "disclaimer". Enjoy the sheets!
And now for the main point of this post. I decided to write an article on playing by ear so hopefully you guys can play the songs you like, even though there are no sheet music available.
OK just to clarify things here... This article is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to teach you how to play by ear, rather it is meant to pique your interest so you can find out more on how to do so. There are teachers available that provide ear training. Or, you can try and learn yourself, with practice.
A) What I suck at, what I am decent at?
To start off, I admit that I am not a good piano player. There are many other much better players out there, even in youtube. People like Kyle Landry, David Sides, Martin Leung etc. are miles ahead of me in terms of playing skills. In fact almost all the videos on my channel are not my "first attempt". I make so many mistakes when playing and usually have to record again. It can be really frustrating at times, especially when everything goes well until the last part where you strike a wrong chord that ruins everything. Not using sheet music makes things worse cuz the moment I get distracted, I may forget where I am in the song I'm playing, therein comes the confusion and a series of wrong notes ensue.
I am also terrible at composing. Not sure if you guys experience this, but when I try to compose an original song, with some influence from, say, John Williams, the result is way too similar to John Williams to be considered as original. When I go about without any external influence, the result sounds like crap. Any experts in composition out there, feel free to throw in any constructive advice, thanks! Lol..
One thing I'm at least of above average standard (I hope lol), is that I can play by ear. I have little difficulty figuring out the notes and chords of a song right after hearing them. Which is why this is hardly an issue for me whenever I play a song; I'm more bogged down by all the wrong notes I hit, which occurs pretty frequently.
B) Play by ear? Is perfect pitch required?
Firstly, let's clarify the differences between perfect (absolute) pitch and relative pitch now.
People with perfect pitch can straight away identify a note, say, when you play a note G, they will be able to tell that it is a G immediately. This is a rather rare skill indeed, limited only to geniuses, which I definitely am not. Fortunately, you need not have perfect pitch to play by ear.
People with relative pitch may not be able to tell that the note played is a G. But once you tell them that the note is a G, and you play any other notes, they will be able to identify those notes, using the G as a reference note. In other words, they are able to identify the intervals between notes (i.e. minor 3rd or perfect 5th), though not necessarily the exact notes. To be able to play by ear, you need to have some level of relative pitch.
The main advantage of people who can play by ear, I guess, is that they do not require sheet music. The good news is, playing by ear can be trained! In fact most (if not all) musicians have this skill. Here's another piece of encouraging fact, most (if not all) non-keyboard players (i.e. guitar, violin) have the ability to figure out notes by hearing them too. We keyboardists have it easy, in this sense, because the keyboard does not need to be tuned by us, hence the issue of ear is not essential for our performance. But what this also means is that, like riding a bicycle, with proper practice / guidance, anyone of us can learn to play by ear. It is not some skill that is limited to some people.
C) What is the certification required to play by ear?
Actually there are many people who play by ear without going through any lessons. So even if one is an idiot to playing the keyboard he is still very much eligible to learn ear playing. That said, taking the conventional music exams does give one an advantage because you learn all the theoretical stuff like chords, cadences etc. which helps in ear playing. Such stuff are mostly taught in the lower grade theory, fortunately.
D) Is there any general ear training methods taught by schools that I may be interested in?
The principle behind ear training is the ability to identify intervals between notes, as mentioned previously.
As far as I know, many schools use "sight singing" method to teach ear playing. In fact I believe "sight singing" is a component of the ABRSM Practical Exam from grade 5 onwards. Sight singing, in a nutshell, involves you reading a series of notes on a stave. The first note is played for you on the piano and you are to sing all the subsequent notes on your own. I think this method works pretty well to train one's ear.
For more details, please search for Solfège in wikipedia.
Another method which I read about is the method of "interval recognition". You have to figure out the first note of the song, then the second. Train yourself in identifying the intervals between these two notes until they are kind of ingrained in your brain.
As a first exercise, try and figure out the interval of the first two notes for the song "Happy Birthday" (i.e. the word "happy").
For more details, please search for Ear Training in wikipedia.
Another exercise on interval recognition which I think might be helpful, is that you play a note, and then you play another note randomly, on the keyboard, without looking at the keyboard. Then try and make a guess what is the interval between the two notes. You need not even know the first note that you play, because the important thing to figure out is not the notes themselves but rather, I repeat, the intervals between them. At the start you may make really huge mistakes, then slowly you will realize the mistakes get smaller, such as you mistook an Augmented 6th for a Major 6th, which is but a semitone difference only. Keep trying until you get better.
That concludes the methodology for general ear training. The next section deals with playing a particular song by ear, which you can attempt after you have enough interval-guessing exercises.
E) What are the steps of playing a particular song by ear?
First, let's break down the steps of learning how to play a song.
1) The "melody" part. Usually comprises the vocal part of the song (duh), and/or those awesome guitar riffs in those parts where no one sings. Usually (not always) played on the right hand.
For starters maybe one can try playing simple songs (i.e. Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) on the right hand without looking at sheets. Then slowly you can progress to longer songs.
As for pop songs, if possible, you can try playing the actual music on your winamp / ipod / whatever, and then using your right hand to play the melody alongside the singing, and then compare and experiment the similarities and difference between the pitch of the notes you played and that of the actual song.
At the beginning you may need to compare every single note that you play with the actual song. When you start to improve, you will inch slowly towards the level where you only need to know the key of the song and that is all; there is no need for more comparison.
Now this may sound quite daunting to begin, but it should get easier with practice.
2) The "chords" part. Every song is played in a certain key. (i.e. A major, C major, F# minor). If you want to play the song that sounds similar to the actual song, pitchwise, you have to identify this key before you can proceed.
Now that the key of the song is settled, every song has different "bass chords" that changes as the song progresses. For example, a song played in a C major key may have a sequence of something like (C maj, G maj, A min, E min, F maj, C maj, D maj, G maj, C maj etc.)
The chord progression for some songs can even be a loop of, say, four chord sequences. A very popular sequence used is the VI-IV-I-V sequence (or A min, F maj, C maj, G maj, when played in a C major key). I don't know why but somehow there is something magical about this sequence in that songs utilizing this sequence can be transformed into either very epic sounding, or very catchy sounding or dance-y sounding. Hence composers have made use of this sequence to death, but still churn out really nice sounding songs so no one is complaining! Here are but a few examples of recent songs that use this (just to prove how common it is).
Choruses of 3oh!3's Don't Trust Me, Lady Gaga's Poker Face, Boys Like Girls' The Great Escape, The Fray's You Found Me, Fall Out Boy's This Ain't A Scene, P!nk's u + ur Hand, Rascal Flatt's What Hurts the Most.
most parts of Secondhand Serenade's Fall for You.
Beyonce's If I Were a Boy
T.I.'s Whatever You Like and Maino's All the Above
Akon's Beautiful / Be With You
Linkin Park's Numb / Crawling
parts of Metal Gear Solid / Chronicles of Narnia / Lord of the Rings / Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack
50% of all Eurodance songs (particularly 80% of all Groove Coverage and Cascada songs)
So with the knowledge of the chord sequence, ideally, you really just need to figure out the right hand notes and you'll be able to play the songs. As a challenge, try listening to the chorus of the songs that I mentioned to have the VI-IV-I-V sequence, and see if you can observe the similarities between the bass.
But, ultimately, the real challenge is of course to figure out the chords yourself. It may be even more difficult if the song changes keys frequently throughout (common in orchestral soundtracks), but as starters let's not go there.
One thing is to listen for the bass note. This is a little harder than figuring out right hand notes, but really it's not that difficult, it's essentially the same skill as identifying the melody, just that this time round it's the bass. With that, it is not always wrong if you play a chord that is different from the original. As long as it sounds ok to you, that's fine. In fact in some cases playing a different chord may even make the song sound better, or at least different in a refreshing way. Again, this requires practice, and will get easier with time. Some basic guidelines may help, such as songs usually end with a I chord etc. And this is where some theoretical knowledge helps.
So after knowing the chord sequence, how do you translate that to your left hand? (Assuming the song follows the convention of right hand playing melody and left hand playing accompaniment). It is easier than you think. For example, if the bass chord now is C major, one common yet effective way of playing the accompaniment is running note arpeggios (i.e. C, E, G, E etc.) Other permutations of such chords are great too (i.e. C G E C G E ) or something like that. Then, one can also add in "passing notes" in the left, such as (i.e C D E G C). Note that D is not part of the C major but playing C D E in sequence does not make D sound dissonant at all.
Another way of playing the left hand is simply to hit the bass chords in octave. For a C maj chord, just hit the two C notes an octave apart, using your left hand. When done properly and with expression it can serve as a good accompaniment too.
After a while, you will realise that it gets easier and easier to play the accompaniment with the styles that you have been using, thanks to muscle memory. So there may come a time where you simply need to be aware of what notes to play for the melody (right hand) part and what chords to follow, and all the accompaniment notes come naturally without you being conscious of what keys to press.
Oh yes, one important thing is to know the time signature of the song. At least know whether it's 3 beats or 4 beats per measure etc. Many pianists / keyboardists playing pop songs by ear sometimes don't sound too nice because they got the beats wrong. It sucks when you get immersed into the music they're playing and suddenly realise they play one extra beat every measure and it adversely affects the enjoyment of listening.
Such is the basic techniques of improvisation, and that's about all I know too LOL. There are several more advanced ways, such as improvising in jazz style etc. which may even involve change in chords (such as changing of original C major to a C 7th major instead) Ultimately, it is up to your interpretation and imagination.
F) In Conclusion...
Playing by ear is possible for everyone. What you need is just time to practise, and determination, and for some, possibly external guidance. I had the advantage of learning the piano at an extremely young age, i.e. loads of time to practise. I remembered being able to play by ear back in elementary school. However, I understand that for many people time is a huge luxury now, what with the studies / work etc. So if you don't have enough time, or if you simply choose not to learn, that's where the sheet music comes in. A good pianist can churn out a brilliant performance, with or without sheet music. So yea, that concludes my rather slipshodly written article on introduction to ear playing. Although the main purpose of writing this blog post is to add more words onto my blog so as to make more relevant google ads appearing (haha), I hope that for those truly interested you will know a bit more on ear playing after reading this. If you think anything useful can be added in this article feel free to point that out to me. Otherwise, happy learning.