Monday, March 04, 2019

Learning songs by ear: what should you do while other parts are being taught?

When a harmony song is being taught by ear, you can find yourself not singing whilst other parts are being taught.

Rather then zoning out or getting bored, there are plenty of things you can do which can help your learning. Here are some of them.

It’s inevitable when teaching a part song by ear that not everyone will be singing all the time. Each part needs to be taught in turn.

A good teacher of songs will minimise the time that other parts need to wait (see How to teach (and learn) a song by ear). But there will always be times when you’re not singing.

This can have serious consequences.

By listening to the other parts being taught, it reinforces them in your head. When it comes to your turn it may well have washed your own part away!

There are ways to avoid this (see below), but it’s hardest at the very beginning of the learning process when your part hasn’t been taught yet.

At this stage you need to listen mindfully to each part being taught, but not engage the learning part of your brain. It’s easier than you think! Simply notice the melodies and enjoy them, but don’t sing along in your head.

At the start of the learning process you can also begin to learn the lyrics and rhythms of the song without engaging too much with the specific notes of the other parts.

Later in the process, there are other things you can do whilst waiting for your own part to be taught:

  • sing your own part in your head to get a real sense of how the harmonies work together
  • notice the rhythms of the piece – your part may well follow the same rhythmic structure. You can also understand how the song is structured as a whole
  • revise the lyrics in your head each time round
  • note any instructions given – it may be that your choir leader introduces useful information about the dynamics of the piece at this stage
  • develop your own listening skills by moving your focus from individual parts to two or more parts together

A good choir leader will minimise the time you spend waiting by breaking the song up into small chunks. Also by ‘duetting’ each part against the others in turn so you can begin to hear how the harmonies work together.

There are definitely some things you should not do whilst waiting:

  • chat to your neighbour – even if you think you’re being quiet it can be very distracting for those trying to listen and learn.
  • zone out – and think what you’ll be having for tea. Becoming absent (or chatting to your neighbour) means that you’re no longer part of the group. You’ve stopped paying attention. Just because the focus isn’t on you doesn’t mean that you’ve stopped being part of the team.
  • sing your own part out loud – you may not yet have it right and it can be a real distraction for the other part trying to learn their bit.

It may seem like hard work, but the more you focus whilst learning a song, the more you will get out of it. And the better you will learn and remember the song rather than having to keep going over it later.

I’d love to know what you do whilst other parts are being taught. Do you have any useful hints?

You might find these other posts of interest too:

Learning songs by ear

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

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

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Chris Rowbury



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