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Reading music vs. playing by ear

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Joined: 17 years ago
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For most of the nearly 30 years I've been struggling with guitar playing, I've learned songs from fakebooks, or tried to figure out the chord changes by ear, simplifying it to fit to my rather limited and crude techniques and making my own "arrangements" which mostly was rythm guitar and singing. 2-3 years ago I decided to learn to play "properly" and started to learn songs from tab and notation, painstakingly slow and sort of intimidating since instead of getting to play the song in a crude way in a few hours, I could spend months on "impossible" fingerings and still play the tune pretty poorly. I soon realized that tab are very limited when it comes to visualizing the music, since you really don't get any information readily on how the tune goes. Standard notation is much better since you get instant information on the rythm, as well as you directly see how the melody lines move, and how the different voices move if the chords are written out.

Having had very little confidence in my ears and my ability to learn to play by ears, it was some sort of revelation for me when I started to play with a banjo player a few months ago. After the first session, I put on a song I really wanted to figure out, and suddenly I figured the key, the chord changes, and a way to play it in a version that incorporated chord voicings and rythm figures I've got in my "toolbox". So now I approach music I want to learn by playing on "repeat" and listening, listening, listening, being aware of different things, getting the melody memorized well, figuring out the key and changes, mainly by listening to bass lines, and figuring out "key riffs" that are the "backbone" of the song. To me this is a lot more satisfying and challenging than sitting for weeks with a transcription.

I believe that reading music takes away some of the attention that really should go to the relation between what you do (play and sing) and what you hear. What I'll focus on to improve my playing, is to learn the fretboard better, and also pure technical exercises to be more precise both with my picking and fretting hand!

There's still so much to learn, almost unlimited possibilities to get better, but that's fine with me, in fact I believe that's what really keeps me going on with my playing! :D