Originally published in a chapter entitled, "The Process of Learning by Ear" from Action-Based Approaches in Popular Music Education (2021), McLemore Ave Music. Reprinted with permission.
A version of this post also appears in Rock Coach: A Practical Guide for Teaching Rock Bands In Schools. Check out both of these awesome resources.
Aural learning, or learning by ear, is an often-neglected skillset within formalized educational environments. Considering that “[t]he vast majority of all music ever made is played by ear” (Lilliestam, 1996, p. 195), not giving by ear-based learning ample time and attention may be short-sighted. In most vernacular and popular music traditions, “…there is no score, and the musicians, both amateur and professional, learn to play music by ear from a recording or by seeing a part demonstrated by a peer” (Hannan, 2006, p. 148).
There are many approaches to teaching children that focus on aural learning and copying like the Suzuki, Gordon, Kodály, and Orff-Keetman approaches. Similar to these more common North American approaches, informal learning focuses on the skills of peer learning and playing music by ear from a recording. But How? In her 2014 book, Lucy Green points out that there are many different approaches, or learning styles, students use to learn a song by ear. She has aptly named the four main groups:
Impulsive learning style – plays loudly and with little listening.
Practical learning style – listens carefully and finds pitches in systematic way using those found pitches as anchors to work out the melody.
Shot-in-the-dark learning style – very hesitant and may seem anxious. Lacks confidence and stabs at random pitches and may not recognize if they are right or not.
Theoretical approach – asks a lot of questions about the procedure or about the music.
(Green, 2014, pp. 19–20)
Since any group of learners is diverse, when working within an informal learning paradigm, there needs to be a shift from envisioning your role as a teacher to that of a facilitator or coach, and a focus from the group of students to the individual learner. This paradigm shift stresses that the teacher in the room is to facilitate the learning environment and that the students are to learn. Coach means the teacher can help guide learners through something while still letting learners mostly navigate the learning.
Throughout this chapter I will present a step-by-step approach for scaffolding the aural learning process for 9-to-11-year-olds using a learner-centered, process-based procedure. It is an authentic approach, meaning that “…goals and learning processes are realistic, culturally relevant for learners and meet their needs” (Evelein, 2006, p. 184). For beginners, this approach works best using a riff-based song where an ostinato-like pattern is the basis of the accompaniment.
Step 1: Active Listening
Active listening involves listening to a piece of music for the purposes of analysis, transcription, how to dance to it, how to play it or any other way of learning the piece. We will be focusing on the how-to-play-it aspect. Begin this process by listening as a group for the instruments and sounds that make up the ‘undermusic’ (Green, 2002), which is the music set under the vocals in a recording. Help conceptualize this to learners by writing “vocals” on the dry-erase board with an arrow pointing from it to the word “undermusic” (see Figure 2).
Many learners have never been inspired to listen to anything other than the main vocal line. It is important therefore to engage students in actively listening for what instruments are present in the recording. Explain to learners that they must resist the urge to sing along to the vocal line and to “tune in” to the instrument parts. Help learners to understand this by likening “tuning in their listening” to their eye’s ability to focus in on a specific object.
During the listening process, set learners up for hearing a particular instrument’s entrance by saying, “there is something new coming up; listen for it.” Help guide the listening by gesturing when a new instrument is added or when the section changes. Play the recording all the way through and then ask what sounds they were able to hear.
After the guided listening, write what instruments and sounds make up the undermusic as a group on the dry-erase board. If a learner found a new sound, ask that learner where they heard it in the song and scrub to that part in the recording to explore what it might be as a group. If the sound’s origin is uncertain, give it a name that describes it and include it into the list.
In a riff-based song, there will be an “anchor,” to hang onto. If learners are having trouble focusing in on the undermusic, finding the riff anchor is helpful. Most riff-based songs will start the main riff at the beginning and layer all the parts from there. Attaching an action to the riff (or any sound) is helpful for learners being able to follow these parts. For movement, have learners mime the familiar instruments with you, or have them copy your hand movements to move along with the contour of the riff.
Step 2: Finding the First Note
Finding the first pitch is important for the process of learning by ear; it gives learners a base from which to begin and sets them up for success for the rest of the activity. Learners should begin on an instrument that they are already familiar with so that learning the instrument does not interfere with the aural learning. Having learners begin on pitched percussion instruments with removable bars and etched-in note names can be beneficial. In many settings, these pitched percussion instruments are often referred to as Orff percussion. They are designed for educational purposes and are common in North American elementary schools. The design of these pitched percussion instruments makes them easy to find notes and can be set up in a configuration that works for a particular task.
Play the first note of the recording and stop it just after the first note/chord sounds so learners can focus only on that pitch. Then sing the note and have learners search for it. Tell them that if they can sing it, they should be able to find it on their instrument. Listen-sing-play, or in most cases, listen-sing-search until most have had an opportunity to find the first note. If the note is a bit hard to hear, or it is in a lower octave than learners can sing, play it on another instrument or sing it for them in their register so they can get a better of idea of what they are listening for. In a 2010 study on teaching students how to learn by ear, Green also “…avoided jumping in to tell them a note name or show them where to put their fingers” (p. 49) to help learners go through the authentic process themselves.
Before releasing what the actual first note is, go around the room playing the first note for each person while they play what they think it is on their instrument directly after. Each time, ask the question, “is that one the same, or different?” If they answer with “different,” ask if the note is higher or lower than what was played. This step can be accomplished with individuals or groups, but do not tell them right away if they are right or not to encourage active listening. After every learner has had a chance to play theirs, ask individuals what they think the first note is and then, as a class, come to a consensus on what they think it is. If the first note is E, ask the following: “How many of you thought it was F?,” “How many of you thought it was D?” and “how many of you thought it was E?” then tell them which note was correct and play it together. It is important to make sure that learners aren’t made to feel lesser than another classmate for getting the note wrong because the process is what is important, and mistakes are expected. An example of how to handle this would be if a learner—or group of learners—is within a tone or semitone (or even a third) of the starting note, always make sure to say something like “I can definitely see why you would have thought it was that: it is only one (or two) away!”
Step 3: Learning the First Phrase
Once the group has decided on the first note, the next steps are to continue with this same process for the entire first phrase. Play the recording up to the end of the first couple of measures, or sometimes, the next note. The number of measures, or notes, that you decide to play in this step depends largely on the length of the riff, and where your learners are in their understanding of this process. Give learners ample time to experiment and see if they can find the next few notes, encouraging them to sing it and play it. You may have to stop a few times to have them listen-sing-play again if they have lost the pitches in their minds. As you go through this process, discuss what the next notes could be and get volunteers to play what they think it is. Play the riff on another instrument to see if learners can match it like before.
Step 4: Learning the Whole Riff
Once the entire pattern has been explored, practice playing the entire riff together as a group and loop the riff up to four times to see if they can keep the groove for that amount of time. Then, rehearse as you see fit to help learners stay together and feel the groove. One of many ways to help with this is to adjust YouTube’s (or other app) playback speed to play along with the recording at a slower tempo.
By this point, several learners will be ready to switch to the next instrument for the song. To help get ready for this step, ask learners to think about their top three instruments that they would like to play. Make sure learners know that they may not get their first choice, so they must want to play their second and third choices too. This is where learners will get to explore new instruments, so knowing how to play the new instrument is not required, only the desire to play.
Step 5: Choosing an Instrument
Have up to three learners at a time volunteer to play a “mini-audition” for the class when they feel ready. Count the volunteers in and have them loop the riff at least twice. Some learners will crave the opportunity to play their part for you at break time or in class while others are learning their new parts—all are okay. Learners never “fail;” they get as many attempts as they need with ample practice or coaching time in between. The idea is for all learners to have a base to build from. Perfection is not a priority; nor is it realistic. Readiness looks and sounds different for each learner. If learners are ready, they get to go to the instrument of their choice assuming there are enough of that specific instrument available (hence, their top three choices). Try not to have more than five learners switching in one class as it can become more difficult to manage.
If a learner is new to the instrument they choose, show them the first note or region of frets/keys/holes in which they might find it. Then, through trial-and-error, they see if they can decipher the riff on the new instrument. While these learners are trying to figure out the same riff on their new instrument, other groups are working on the part they need to advance or the new instrument they chose. Some coaching may be required. If a learner is an absolute beginner on drums, coach them through a basic rock pattern using the Rock Pattern cards (see Figure 3). Even if the song does not use a basic rock pattern, this will still create the desired effect and is helpful in deciphering other rock-based patterns. If the chosen song is triplet-based, the basic blues pattern will suffice.
In between adding new instruments, keep learners playing together as a group to establish groove. While establishing groove, it is important to ask questions like “what instrument will start this time?” and “what will come in next?” as these are simple arrangement opportunities and ways that learners can develop creative autonomy in the music-making process. Once a consistent groove has been established and the instrumentation is in its “final” stage, it is time to add vocals.
Step 6: Add Vocals, Rearrange, and Share
To add the vocals, ask who is interested in singing and give those learners lyrics sheets to read. Actively listen to the song again as a group, but this time listen for the melody and the words of the vocal line. Those learners who are singing should read along and/or mouth along to the words to help focus on those parts. When the vocal line seems secure, coach learners through making arrangement decisions again. Make sure to try every learner’s arrangement idea. A discussion on how to end the song is often necessary, but also dependent on how the song ends on the recording. For example, if the song fades into nothing at the end—a technique often referred to as a studio fade—replicating that effect live is not possible. It may be necessary to give suggestions on how to end the song and have learners choose between those. Watching a live recording of the song on YouTube by the original artist can give some insight on how the artist ends the song in a live setting.
Once learners feel as though they are ready, invite another class to share the music with. It is important not to force the performance and to only share when learners are ready, which will be different for each group. Often, a conversation about what share-ready means is warranted. Once the arrangement has been “performed,” anyone who wants to switch to another instrument gets to do that. The previous learner then teaches the new learner on that instrument the part with facilitator coaching as needed. Then work the song up to share-ready again. Since learners know the song already and are learning it with each other, it often gets to share-ready much quicker than the first time.
Learning by ear is an often-forgotten musical skill in formalized music education, and many teachers are not clear on how to approach it in the context of an elementary classroom. The procedure that has been presented will help in establishing a routine for authentically learning a song by ear as a group in your classroom. A shift to a focus on the process and the students as learners are paramount to helping you be successful with implementing this procedure. In the end, do not be afraid to trust learners with learning by ear, and do not be afraid to learn with them. Learners may surprise you with what they can do.
Evelein, F. (2006). Pop and world music in Dutch music education: two cases of authentic learning in music teacher education and secondary music education. International Journal of Music Education, 24(2), 178–187. doi:10.1177/0255761406065479
Giddings, S. (2017). Rock Coach: A Practical Guide for Teaching Rock Bands in Schools. Stratford: Steve's Music Room Publishing.
Green, L. (2010). Musical “learning styles” and “learning strategies” in the instrumental lesson: Some emergent findings from a pilot study. Psychology of Music, 40(1). doi:10.1177/0305735610385510
Green, L. (2014). Hear, Listen, Play!: How to Free Your Students' Aural, Improvisation, and Performance Skills. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hannan, M. (2006). Contemporary music student expectations of musicianship training needs. International Journal of Music Education, 24(2), 148–158. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/0255761406065476
Lilliestam, L. (1996). On Playing by Ear. Popular Music, 15(2), 195–216.