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I was recently asked to help a friend with her singing by playing along on piano without any sheet music - just chords etc to whatever she was practicing (for her musical theatre or something), and I realized for the life of me I simply cannot do it. I don't know what pitch she is singing at and I can barely match that to anything on the piano - and definitely not on the fly! I've had the same situation with a friend who is guitarist, I'm just not able to do anything alongside without sheet music in front of me.

Also watching various videos of accomplished musicians, it seems this would be a skill they loosely, to some extent, all posses regardless of their speciality. I.e. Leonard Bernstein seems to be able to play reduced chordal / melodic snippets from orchestral pieces in interviews at a moment's notice, or at the extreme end, Fazil Say plays a piece of video game music that he hears on the spot etc (as per the video below). Of course, I don't expect to be of the same calibre as these people, but it feels embarrassing that I fumble around to find the first note of a piece, and then a further few minutes to find an accompanying chord that works with the melody.

I'm supposedly working on late intermediate / early advanced classical pieces now after many years, but I am completely at a loss when i'm taken off script - and it feels like I'm missing a core part of being a musician. How do I go about changing this - do I need to begin treating theory / improvisation / listening as an entirely separate area of study?

(below, the Fazil Say clip)


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Originally Posted by alexii
I was recently asked to help a friend with her singing by playing along on piano without any sheet music - just chords etc to whatever she was practicing (for her musical theatre or something), and I realized for the life of me I simply cannot do it. I don't know what pitch she is singing at and I can barely match that to anything on the piano - and definitely not on the fly! ...


You need at least a chord chart, so don't be so hard on yourself. Without a chord chart or the ability to practice the accompaniment in advance, you would essentially be playing entirely by ear. If you have never done this before, don't expect to be a whiz at it on first go.

With a chord chart though (so long as you can read chords) will be easier than sheet music as you just need to provide the rhythm and background harmony, that is now provided via the chords. No need to worry about matching pitches of what the singer is doing. They are the star and you just want to provide supporting accompaniment so they sound better.

If you can't easily get access to a chord chart, you could make yourself one by dissecting the sheet music, figuring out the chords and writing them out for yourself.

Then there will be the issue of having an interesting accompaniment vs. a dull accompaniment. But, not a big issue if it is just for practice sake to help out the singer.

You still need access to the original source of the music (just as the singer once had) in order to make yourself up a chord chart.

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I’m the same- nearly six years at piano and I use sheet music all the time. I enjoy the challenge of improving reading/ sight reading but it would be nice to play along with someone- something really simple. Then again other than the teacher I don’t really mix with any musicians. I think my ear has improved in some ways over that time but not to the degree I’d like

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I would think playing the piano with/for or companioning a singer, cold-turkey and off the cuff, without prior rehearsal, or written/lead sheets would be very difficult and a task for highly accomplished pianists/players/musicians.

I know this is kind of apples and oranges, or should I say bass guitar vs. piano, but when I was in my late teens, (a senior in high school to be exact) I started playing the electric bass guitar for a semi-pro Gospel singing group. The band was a trio of the piano, bass guitar and a drummer, initially; and, it sounded pretty good. We'd rehearse once a week, and I was usually familiar with the songs they performed.

On occasion, they'd play a new song I was not familiar with during a performance, and I'd ask the pianist what key the song was written in. Once I had that info, I was ready to join in, with some degree of musical accuracy, based on my general knowledge of music, scales, and chord progressions/combinations. On a totally new song, I rarely hit a wrong note, and it didn't take long to be able to follow the melody and chord patterns of the song. I wouldn't call it "easy peasy", but was something I was able to do.

That said, there is a huge difference between playing the piano and the bass guitar. The bass guitar is pretty easy to play, at least in my view, because you only play one note at a time, and rarely, or never, multiple notes at a time.

For me, it'd be nice if the piano was as easy to play as the bass guitar was. However, before playing the bass guitar, I had played the regular guitar for years, which helped me play the bass guitar to a high level pretty quickly.

I agree that having some kind of lead sheet or chord chart would help tremendously.

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To accompany a singer without sheet music (that is, either fully written out or in the form of lead sheets/'guitar chords') you need two abilities: a good ear and a knowledge of harmony.......unless you have perfect pitch, in which case all bets are off.

Of course, first of all you need to find out which key the singer wants to sing in - she may not even know herself, so you'll have to find out by 'trial and error'. Get her to sing the whole song - or at least, the first verse or stanza - and you should be able to discern which is the tonic note. (That's what I mean by having a good - or 'developed' ear, i.e. decent aural skills......and of course one assumes she can sing in tune and the song isn't atonal wink .) If the tonic note she's singing in is in between two notes on the piano (quite likely if she doesn't have perfect pitch), you'll need to get her to pitch slightly higher or lower, unless you're using a digital which can go microtonal on transposition.

Then - again, if you have decent aural skills and a working knowledge of harmony - you can play an accompaniment using the correct harmony, based simply on the notes she sings. (Those of us who have studied music as an academic subject, or in the higher grades in Theory exams will remember learning to harmonize tunes that you've never heard before, in the manner of a Bach chorale or similar.)

There are many ways to develop one's ear: like anything to do with music (or life), start with straightforward simple stuff. Get familiar with intervals and how simple tunes get harmonized, and learn to recognize the underlying harmonies. My ear developed quickly as a kid when, in my new high school, we sang hymns at every morning assembly. The simple tunes and straightforward harmonies allowed me to remember and play them by ear afterwards on the piano, and write them down on manuscript paper - in fact, I usually wrote them down 'by ear' before I got to a piano to play them and check whether I "heard' them right. (Of course, I was also learning basic harmonization then.)

Apart from hymn tunes, simple pop songs with easily recognized melodies (John Denver etc), you'll find use straightforward harmonic progressions using I, ii, IV, V(7), vi: recognize all these and you'll be able to provide simple chord accompaniments for most songs. If you look at a songbook which provides guitar chords with the lyrics, you'll see how those same chords are used in well over 90% of the songs, >90% of each song, if not 100%. (For instance, in Country Roads, the harmonies used are I, vi, V, IV, I in that order in the first verse. In the key of A major, that means the chords of A, F#m, E, D, A....and those chords pretty much cover the whole song.)

You can learn basic harmony from books and/or good YT videos. Don't go into fancy stuff until you can 'hear' all the basic harmonies in any simple tune - everything from Twinkle, Twinkle to Amazing Grace to Silent Night - simply by singing the tune aloud (or in your head). That's how you can start accompanying singers by ear.


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Hi, Alexii,

There are certain formats that are very well known. The blues structure would be one of these formats. Pop musicians know the structure well enough that, to play together, they only need to agree on which key to play in. The same goes for a certain number of well-known standards or pop songs. This means becoming familiar with a body of non-classical literature. Chord charts are helpful but they only tell half the story. You want to get lead sheets with the chord symbols and the melody spelled out. Learn to play the melody and chord progressions. When you pick up some comping techniques over the chord changes, you will surprise yourself with your ability to back up singers and fluently play with other instruments.

Good luck with your pursuits,


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Even if you knew the chord progression was C, to the F, to the G. (I, IV, V)
Would you know what to play without notation? Here's a suggestion:

Remember, I'm not a teacher. I don't even play one on TV.


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Good point Farmerjones, which gets me thinking.

To the OP; Have you even had a chance to hear the piece in it's full context? That is, how it is supposed to sound altogether with all instruments in it's final
format?

If so, you can go ahead and learn it by ear using the methods prescribed by bennevis and others above.

But, if all you have is the melody line from the singer, you do not have enough information to learn it by ear. You may be able to harmonize the melody with something that fits, but if the progression is not right, it's just going to throw her off.

If it is the least bit interesting, it probably does not work with any of the canned progressions.

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I have people whip out their phone and Google up some song. I've got a pretty good ear but, I know they tweak the pitch on commercial songs, so I don't even try. To explain this makes their eyes roll back in their heads. So I just shrug and shake my head. There's only a billion songs I've not heard. Actually, it helps a great deal if I like the tune. Almost impossible if I don't. Paul McCartney said he knew he had a good song if it was easy to remember.


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I definitely do not have a good ear - i just tried doing interval recognition on an app and even using only major thirds, perfect 5ths and octaves, i was still making errors!! Also my knowledge of theory is currently dysfunctional - since resuming playing a few years ago, i have focused solely on playing & learning new repertoire, so i'll have to change that.

So no doubt - the odds were stacked against me. For reference, the first song we tried was unknown to me, but we had a video to listen to. The singer didn't yet have sheet music for it, but had memorized lyrics anyway. The second we tried was Bernstein's "Somewhere" from West Side Story and whilst i could pick out a melody by experimenting, i couldn't work out appropriate chords. (Sheet music of course exists for Somewhere - but i wanted to try without, with a piece i was familiar with)

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Originally Posted by Greener
. . . You need at least a chord chart, so don't be so hard on yourself. Without a chord chart or the ability to practice the accompaniment in advance, you would essentially be playing entirely by ear. If you have never done this before, don't expect to be a whiz at it on first go.

+1 !!!!

Without a chord chart (or lead sheet, which also has the melody), you're doing complicated guesswork _in real time_. Unless you have a large repertory of pre-mastered patterns, relevant to the style of the song, that's not something most people can handle.

_With_ a chord chart / lead sheet, you _know_ what's coming next, and you can prepare for it.


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This brings up the interesting thing about the human abilities. It is has so much variety among people. Some people have the absolute pitch ability, and are able to directly translate what pitch/notes are in their mind to the keyboard --- for the case of piano that is. Sure, aside from absolute pitch ability, it's also necessary to learn the piano playing skills in order to unleash some potential. And with absolute pitch and playing ability, then comes other features that somebody needs, such as musical ability, memory ability, coordination ability, fast thinking ability, processing power. All these features are seen at various levels in various people. Some people may have it all ----- these features that is, such as impressive with all these abilities at the highest level.

Although - as we sometimes know ----- some people with extreme impressive abilities can have some other 'function' compromised - such as a behaviour issue, eccentricity, or medical issue etc. Not always though.

We also know that some people that have certain potential, and that have developed enough ear training and other musical skills - at home with intervals etc ----- are also able to directly translate what note is in their mind/head onto the keyboard --- maybe just requiring an initial calibration before starting their session.

Lots of different sorts of people out there. Just how far each individual can go, or can get to. Who knows. It just depends on the individual and whatever happens in their life - including choices, own base potential, opportunities, influences, etc.


One ultra interesting feature or ability that most people have is --------- having any particular sound heard in their own 'mind', and most of us have the ability to actually sing, or whistle that note (in the 'mind') immediately - no calibration needed. Basically - the ability to use own body (mouth) as a real 'play-by-ear' (play from the 'mind') instrument. This kind of feat is most interesting. It is like an inbuilt function! And most people can't do this same translation thing of 'note in head' to say a piano (unless they have absolute pitch ability or ear-training and relative pitch ability - with initial calibration). While everyone can play their 'mouth' (instrument) without any need for calibration. A most interesting feature.


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