Tips to Help You Play by Ear Better With Moveable do Solfège part 2 of 3

In the previous article, we talked about the power of prehearing and the importance of finding do when you are playing a song by ear. Now, let’s continue this play-by-ear recipe with removing the rest of the lyrics from the song “Happy Birthday to You”.

Sing The Song on A Neutral Syllable

This part is easy to do and will provide you with some important insight. We want to get a sense for where our do lies within the contour of the melody of the song we are learning. Is do the highest note? Is it the lowest? Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle. Removing the rest of the lyrics will clear out the phonetic sounds of the song, making it easier to hear pitch. So sing it slow and savor each note. Give a little accent and hold on each do, as you did before:

dee dee dee dee *do* dee
dee dee dee dee dee *do*
dee dee dee dee *do* dee dee
dee dee dee *do* dee *do*.

Where did you feel do sitting within the contour of the song? It’s basically in the middle and the melody rises up to it from below in the first phrase and falls down to it in the last. It’s a pretty cool tune!

Imagine The Music in Your Mind

Now you are getting more clarity on how this melody goes. Now, imagine the music in your mind. Many call this process “audiation” or even “auralizing”. I just like saying “imagine”, even though doing so nods to the prominence of seeing over listening in our culture.

Imagine the music played on an instrument. Try it once with the violin. Then with a flute. How about a distorted electric guitar? The point is to refine the sound impression you mind is holding, stabilizing your memory of the song. You’ve got the most important note in your mind and that’s crucial for the next step: finding do on an instrument.

Find do on your instrument

Remembering that this is a process that will start slowly and pick up speed as you master it, approach your instrument. Let’s pretend the instrument is the piano.

This do finding process I’m offering you here is pretty strict, and you will find flexibility in it as you go along, but for now follow it exactly so that you develop a correlate skill: maintaining a steady note vocally while playing other notes on an instrument.

Before making any sounds on the instrument, sing do as you have imagined it. I have found that if I start noodling around on the instrument, the mental image I had cultivated becomes hazy. We want to work with a crystal clear sound image.

So, you are singing and holding do. Hold it and don’t let it waver. What I’m going to ask you to do next is going to make you want to change the note. Don’t. Keep it steady and notice the force the piano notes apply to your sung note.

While steadily singing your do, play any note on the instrument. Pause and listen. Are they the same? If they are, you are done! You have found do!

If they are not the same note, pick a direction, up or down. Let’s say you played an A, it was not the same note, and let’s say you decided to go up. Play the note a half-step above A. That’s the closest note to the RIGHT of A, and that note happens to be B-flat. (Remember you’re still singing your do.) It doesn’t match.

Continue singing the same note and move the piano note up another half-step. Does that match? Yes? You’re done. No? Keep going. Remember to listen to the way the piano note sounds against your voice. With each successive note, you will get closer until the piano note and your voice are a half-step apart. This half-step has a very strong pull and you might find your voice drifting towards it. That’s ok, because it won’t take you all that far off course.

Remember, you are doing this guess work process only one time, and that’s to find do. Not the first note, not the high not, you are only guessing to find do. What’s more, your guess only happened when you played that first note. The approaching by half-step was methodical.

In this scenario, let’s say you found the note D to be do. You are singing and playing “Happy Birthday” in D major.

Next Up: Putting It All Together

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