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A Learning by Ear and Transcription Project for Intermediate Band

Updated: Jan 28, 2023

Contrary to popular belief, I enjoy coaching large ensembles. These groups are really good at facilitating the practice of reading European staff notation, but something these ensembles have historically not been good at is facilitating the practice of learning by ear, arranging, and composition. I know, ear training is part of the training, but ear training and learning by ear are not the same thing. Here is a blog post explaining the difference and the benefits of it. This year, I’m teaching instrumental music (band) to learners in Grades 7 through 9. Among their scale studies and their band rep, the Grade 8 and 9 learners have this project assigned to them where they are to pick a song they love, learn the melody and the bass line by ear and transcribe it into Noteflight Learn. I give between 20 and 40 minutes per class to work on it depending on the day. So far, I am impressed with how it is going. Many are picking out the notes right away, others need some coaching through sections of it but are ultimately succeeding with the task. They are working in groups or individually to finish the project. Here’s the plan:

A Project for Your Intermediate Band Learners

Transcription project 𝅘𝅥𝅮

For this project, you and up to 2 partners, will be learning a song of choice by ear, arranging for your instrument(s), and transcribing it into Noteflight Learn (possibly for someone else to play).


Step 1: Choose a song that you would like to learn. If the song is in a challenging key for you or your group mates, it may have to be transposed to an easier key. Use the Transpose Chrome Extension or BandLab for Education to change the key of your song.

Note to Facilitator: So far, none of them have had to transpose it. They are just learning new notes as they go, as they have to.

Step 2: Learn the melody and the bass line by ear. If you are writing for a third player, find inner harmonies that work for your arrangement. Be sure to write down the form of the piece as you go (introduction, verse, chorus, etc…). For help with a bass line, or another site can be used for clues. If you have 3 players in your group, one should be the lead on the melody, one on the bass line, and the other on inner harmonies.

Note to Facilitator: also has a transpose tool, but is also sometimes incorrect, so it should only be used for clues.

Step 3: Enter those parts into Noteflight. Make sure you know the key and tempo so playback is accurate. Begin with the pitches and then change the rhythms as needed. If you are unsure of a rhythm, ask me or a friend to help.

Note to Facilitator: This may not happen for a while, and if it does there is a bit of a learning curve for those who have never used this type of software before: one of the many skills that the larger project promotes.

Step 4: Submit your good copy (sheet music) and all your work to me. You or your group will perform this via in class, video, or other approved method.

Note to Facilitator: Performance is not necessary but a pretty neat experience. They could even record their screen playing it from Noteflight using Loom or Screencastify as a form of performance. Performance isn’t always live.

Step 5: Give your work to another classmate or group of classmates to see if they can play it.

Note to Facilitator: This could be an extra element. Consider that one of the main reasons for writing an arrangement down in European staff notation or another standardized notation is for someone else to play it.

Tips for success

Do not do the entire song: Pick the important parts and make an interesting arrangement from those. For example: use only an intro, verse, and a chorus.

Use copy and paste when needed. Ctrl + C (copy), Ctrl + V (paste). Hold ‘shift’ to select multiple measures to copy or paste using your mouse. Use the Noteflight command summary sheet available from me.

If an enhancement or ornamentation is added that is currently beyond your ability, do not add it in!

Begin with a rough draft with staff paper or rough shorthand notation. Example: just the note names or rhythms you might recognize.

Try playing it first and learn the first bit by ear before writing it down.

When learning by ear, find the beginning note first. Stop the recording after the beginning note and sing it, then try to match it on your instrument. This will help you to find the rest of the notes easier. If it is a new note that you’ve never played before, find the fingering for it.

Bigger speakers or headphones make it much easier to hear bass lines. It is often better if the recording is the same volume or louder than you.

Note to Facilitator: You may have a larger speaker or practice rooms for them to focus on their song. Encourage them to bring their own bigger speakers or headphones.


Mentor “Text”

Like when facilitating Language Arts, a mentor text is often shown to learners as a reference to compare their original work to. I showed “Hello” by Adele arranged by Lucky Chops. I made sure to point out how the bass line repeats for the verse and that the melody is traded among a couple of instruments to keep it interesting. For the most part, they will notice the same notes being reused to form the melody, mostly relying on rhythmic variation to keep it interesting. Here is the video:

In the Deep End

You might be thinking that there are a lot of concepts to be learning all at once and that perhaps this is too advanced for them. Yes, there are a lot of concepts to learn at once, but too advanced? Perhaps not. I am basing this project on the Informal Learning approach designed by Dr. Lucy Green. The approach focuses on the following tenets:

  1. learning by ear from a recording

  2. giving learners choice in the repertoire they learn and play

  3. learning concepts as they encounter them

  4. learning in peer groups

  5. learning is authentic and holistic

  6. creativity is entangled throughout the learning process and often happens naturally within these settings

The benefit of using this approach is that it can engage learners in the process more effectively and they will learn new concepts earlier that they may not have learned if they were not engaging in this approach. Think about all the amazing things that are happening during this project other than learning by ear: They are learning new rhythms and how to eventually write them, they are learning new notes and key signatures, they are learning new styles that they may not have played before, they are listening to music differently than how they might have been previously. These only scratch the surface of the skills and concepts that are gained through this project using this approach.

If you are wanting to learn more about the Informal Learning Approach, many of my column articles in the Canadian Music Educator Journal discuss this approach, as well as my current and forthcoming books. A new book edited by Steve Holley, Zach Moir, and Kat Reinhert called “Action-Based Approaches in Popular Music Education,” also discusses the Informal Learning approach by Green. Of course Lucy Green’s books are also great. If you don’t know where to begin, try these ones:

Do you have similar projects that you do with your band learners? Book suggestions? Do you follow the informal learning approach? I would love to hear from you!

Until next time, Happy Musicking.

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