Sunday, February 02, 2014

Why some singers find it hard to learn by ear (and what you can do to make it easier)

Some people really struggle when it comes to learning a song by ear. Often it’s singers who are used to using sheet music, but not always.

learning by ear
photo by bokeh burger

I’ll explain why I believe some people find it hard and then I’ll outline some strategies for getting better at it.

why it can be hard to learn by ear

Here are some reasons why you might find it hard to learn by ear:

  • fear and panic – “I just can’t do it!” “Maybe I’m getting old and losing my marbles!” But the more you worry about it, the harder it becomes. If you panic, you can’t possibly be in the moment and be listening with the required attention.
  • control freak – many people don’t like not knowing or being a beginner. They hate that eggy period when they’ve not yet mastered something. They feel out of control, not in charge, and very uncomfortable.
  • listening to the wrong person – it may be that you can’t hear the person teaching for some reason. It might be that they’re the opposite gender to you, or it could be the quality of their voice, or maybe it’s easier for you to pitch from an instrument.
  • impatience – it takes time to learn a song by ear, but it’s worth it as the song will stay with you much longer. We live in times of short attention spans and instant rewards, so it’s common to find yourself feeling impatient with the process.
  • worry and self-belief – “I’m no good at learning by ear” “Everyone else picks it up quicker than me” These notions can easily become self-fulfilling.
  • wrong part – you might simply be trying to sing the wrong part with notes that are too high or too low for you. Or perhaps you find tunes easier than harmonies.
  • visual learner – “I’m a visual learner so I need to see it written down” The idea of learning styles (visual, aural, kinaesthetic) has become increasingly criticised of late. We all learn best by using a variety of means. There isn’t such a person who only learns by seeing so try not to straitjacket yourself by putting yourself in this category. We began using our ears a long time before music or lyrics were ever written down!
  • personality trait – some people talk a lot and tend not to listen or pay much attention to others. It may be due to insecurity, arrogance, social fears, shyness, selfishness – it doesn’t really matter why. If you tend to focus on your self a lot, you might initially find it novel and difficult to pay full attention to what you’re hearing.
  • it’s unfamiliar – you might be used to using sheet music and have come to depend on it and using your eyes to learn. So learning by ear will initially feel strange and difficult.
Most of the reasons outlined above result in you not being in the moment and not paying sufficient attention. You end up focusing on something other than listening (fear, insecurity, yourself, lack of visual aids, other singers, etc.)

things to make learning by ear easier

Here are some ideas for overcoming obstacles to learning by ear:

  • allow time – it takes time to learn a song by ear, and much longer for it to really bed in. Be patient and the end result will be very rewarding: a song for life!
  • give your full attention – put any worries and insecurities aside (temporarily!) by giving 100% of your attention to listening and to the person teaching the song. Even if it’s not your part you can hear the words once more, check that you’ve got the rhythm right, and even sing your part in your head at the same time. If you give your full attention, there will be no space left for fears and other concerns. You can always worry afterwards!
  • choose your part well – make sure that the part you’re learning is comfortably within your range. If you find harmonies hard, stick to the tune.
  • pitch from the right source – if you find it hard to hear or pitch from the voice of the person teaching the song, then listen to others in the same part as you or ask for your part to be played on an instrument.
  • don’t give yourself a hard time – let yourself off the hook. You might pick things up slower than others or struggle with words, but other singers will be feeling the same. If you just pick up a few bits the first time through, that’s a start. You’ll get a bit further the next time. If you find it really difficult, don’t try to learn the whole of your part in one go. Give yourself credit for what you do manage to learn.
  • it’s only a song! – try to get a perspective and find a way of having fun. Make plenty of mistakes, laugh at them and learn from them.
  • it might be the song – some people find some songs hard to learn. It may just be this particular song. If you find it a real struggle and get left behind, then just leave it and get on board when the next song comes along.
  • use all your senses – if you feel restricted by just focusing on your ears, then use your eyes to watch the mouths of others, watch hand signals closely, put your arm round your neighbour to feel when they’re breathing, ‘dance’ the tune, etc.
  • don’t let the lyrics slow you down – if it’s just too much to learn the tune AND the lyrics at the same time, then just ‘la la’ to begin with. (However, musical memory stored the tune WITH the lyrics so this might come back and bite you later when you try to recall the song. See How songs are stored in your brain) If the words are in English, then try to associate a story or feeling with the lyrics (or even images). If the words are foreign, then take them one syllable at a time. Don’t worry if you get something wrong or miss a word out, each time you repeat you will retain a bit more (see How to sing a song in a foreign language).

further reading

You might find these other articles helpful too.

How to cope with learning by ear if you usually read music notation

Learning songs by ear

How long does it take to learn a song?

Singing is all about listening

what is your experience?

I’d love to hear from you! Do you find it hard to learn by ear? What’s the most difficult aspect? Do you have any handy hints to help people learn better by ear? Do drop by and leave a comment, I really appreciate it and learn a lot from your experiences. Thanks.

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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