Free Lesson #1 - Playing by ear

The essential starting point when learning to improvise is playing by ear, which means that instead of using notation, you play the notes as you hear them in your head. Playing by ear uses a different part of your brain and helps you develop a deeper connection with the music. Some musicians find it challenging to play by ear, but like any skill, it will improve with regular practice (called ear training). 


Most young children can play by ear well if it is taught in a fun, entertaining way. Many adult learners, who have spent a lifetime playing classical music, are often terrified of playing by ear but are usually much better at it than they think. 

The key to success is learning in small steps and allowing your ears time to develop. 


The following exercise uses a common practice referred to as call and response. You will be shown which notes to play but have to work out the rhythm and sequence of notes by ear. 

This sample exercise uses three notes. With these three notes, you can create some very familiar sounding melodies. You would be surprised at how many blues, pop and folk melodies are written with just these three notes! 

Use whichever transposition is correct for your instrument. 

There are two parts to the exercise. 


Part 1 - The Response

On the audio track you will hear a four-beat count in, then a two-bar phrase (this is the call) followed by two bars rest. You should play during the two bars rest. Try to copy the call exactly and keep in time with the rhythm section. Your phrase is the response. Repeat this for each of the eight different phrases on the track. 

  • Part 1 - The Response
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Part 2 - The Call

Now use the same 3 notes to improvise your own two-bar phrases. Play similar phrases to those you heard in Part 1. Keep the same structure by playing for two bars, then resting for two bars. You will play the call and the rest bars are space for the imaginary response. Start playing straight after the four-beat count in. 

When improvising your calls try to imagine the whole phrase in your head before you play it. Use each two bars rest to think about your next phrase. Hearing the phrase before you play it will really help your rhythm.


  • Part 2 - The Call
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This lesson is an extract from "An Introduction To Improvising" by Buster Birch, which is part of the "How To Learn To Improvise" series of interactive digital books. The book includes a complete step-by-step approach for anyone new to improvising, with all of the material written in concert, Bb, Eb and bass clef, making it suitable for virtually any instrument. As with all of the books in the series, the audio examples are embedded and immediately available at the touch of a screen, making them extremely convenient to play along with. 


Please click HERE to download a free sample or purchase the full version.