All posts by Deborah

Deborah E is a #1 Jazz Singer with a memorable voice and coquettish, often sassy, presence. She is a certified sound engineer and is also married to the engineer who mastered her Albumette project. Listen for yourself at

Play Music by Ear: You are Never Too Old or Incapable

It doesn’t matter what type of music a musician plays, whether it is rock, jazz, bluegrass, or country music. Even if they have learned to play music by reading music, they have still listened to music and plucked it out on their instrument.

Hey, I am an accomplished piano player who plays the piano (keyboard, for you modern listeners). And, even though my mother handed me a program to learn how to play by ear, written by an accomplished professor of music and a college known for their music program, it was not the zing that put the learning in my soul. Instead, it was getting down to business and simply tinkering with the piano and playing what I heard. There was really no “program” that did it. Instead, doing it did it! Does that make sense?

You may be afraid that you are too old to play music by ear. But you are not! You can do it!

Where to Start

The key to where to start involves listening.

Even though there are no methods per se that work as well as just doing it, there are tips that may help you on your way.

Practice the Basics

Even though you are going through the process of learning to play by ear, don’t discontinue the basics, the foundation. Keep practicing your chords and challenging yourself of your progress with mastering the instrument.

All of this will help you in the long run when it comes to playing by ear. Also, it helps to make you a great musician.

Method 1: Slowing Down the Music

For example, one tip is to slow down the music so that you can hear it slowly and apply it to your playing on the instrument.

In some cases, you probably don’t have to slow down the music. For example, there are ballads that are already quite slow and you may be able to pick up the tune just by listening to it at normal speed. But, if you cannot, and need to slow down the song, don’t worry. You are still normal and possibly exceptional 😉

It used to be a lot easier years ago when slowing down the music. For example with reel-to-reel, you could just use half the speed of the normal speed. Of course, reel-to-reel is basically ancient these days.

reel-to-reel recording

Some of us may have had the privilege to use reel-to-reel when being trained as a sound engineer, but there are so many digital options that it is not often used these days.

The challenge, when using the reel-to-reel back in the old days was that slowing it down affected the pitch as well. So, it was not necessarily a perfect solution.

And, even with the slowing down that the reel-to-reel provided, at, say, half-speed, it was often too fast for some to catch the music by ear. It has been said that a one-tenth speed is a better speed for most people to learn to play by ear.

The Migration to Digital Recording

While reel-to-reel was convenient, like a flip of the switch, we are actually fortunate that we have moved into the digital age. Fortunate for the reasons listed above, but also because we are more likely to be able to reach the goal of one-tenth the speed or whatever speed we want.

And, you can slow down the music without affecting the pitch! That is huge! I mean, what are you learning to play be ear (notice the “ear” and hearing part of that) when the pitch isn’t right? Are you learning to play something incorrectly?

With digital recording technology, you don’t have to worry about it as much. But, the scope of the how-to is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Usually, it is a slider in the software, where you can use your mouse to change the speed. Of course, it depends on the software, but it is usually fairly easy to find, especially with the user guide that comes with the software.

And, with digital music, it is often fairly easy to import the music into your software. Again, be sure to consult your user guide.

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Method 2: Humming the Music Back to Yourself

It is also normal to be confused when listening to a whole band (or orchestra). It can be confusing when you are hearing several notes. If you find yourself drawn to a particular aspect of the song, feel free to go with it. You may be learning the harmony part, but that is ok. It is still complementary to the song and will work for that role. In the case of trying to separate out the different instruments and harmonies and melodies, the “humming” method (below) may help.

Also, slowing down the music may help you to separate out these different parts.

But, another method is to use the humming method. That is where you listen to the music, pick out the melody, and then hum it. You can keep humming as you find the notes on your instrument. The advantage is that you can manage the replay with minimal effort. You can slow down your humming back or speed it up again.

You can also use this method while you are doing something else (like cooking 🙂 ). And, if you have the words typed out and printed, you can stop to write in the chord (note) as you figure it out, but of course that is easier with your instrument than with a pot full of spaghetti, eh?

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Why Don’t I Just Buy the Songbook

Surely you could buy the songbook if you like. But, will that make you happy? There is a certain satisfaction that accompanies playing something by ear. Instead of giving credit to those who transcribed the music into a readable sheet music form or included in a songbook, you have cracked the code yourself! You have accomplished it all yourself!

There is some pride in learning to play music by ear!

Granted, if you learned how to play music from a songbook, like I did, as a child (three years old or so), then playing music from something printed in front of me can be relaxing and enjoying. It is like sitting next to a comforting, peaceful stream.

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If that describes you, then sure, play music with the songbook or sheet music. But, then likely you are not reading this article because you already have it all figured out, playing music by the book or playing it by ear, or any combination thereof, as you please.

But, this article is about the process of learning (or acquiring the ability) to play music by ear.

Method 3: Combination Approach

If you are able to read music, you can use that skill, in combination with your music by ear skill. Use the songbook or sheet music as a quick look to see what the notes are. You can also use it confirm that what you have been coming up with is right on target.

Don’t feel like you are cheating. You are still accomplishing your goal of the ability to play music by ear, but you are using the resources available to you. That is a good thing!

The “Fun Factor”

Part of the reason that it is good to learn how to play music by ear is that it is fun! Just think of the blast you can have at parties. Someone pulls out a guitar and you join right in on the musical fun.

If playing an instrument isn’t your thing, you can practice singing. Sure, it may seem easier but in this case, you can learn how to replicate the tonal aspect of the singing and the little tricks of the voice 😉

Afterall, the voice is an instrument as well!

Of course, as with everything, the more time you spend working on your skill, the better you will get and the faster you will get there!


So, in summary, here are some tips for learning how to play music by ear…

  • Slow down the music so that it is easier to break down the music.
  • Hum the music back to yourself and continue to do so as you repeat that on your instrument.
  • Use a combination method of learning to play by ear and confirming it with a songbook, if that is something you are comfrotable doing.

The Future of Nintendo Wii and Virtual Reality

It is no small wonder that Nintendo Wii has been phenomenally popular and then even more popular than that. Who can resist the cute little cartoon characters and the realistic playing experience, even before virtual reality came on the scene?

Nintendo made a name for itself back in the days of Mario and his brother Luigi and it was as if we were a part of their family. (Or, were they a part of our family?) Either way, it felt as if it was the family time when we sat down to play the popular video games. Then, as guilt may have tried to creep into the mix, warning us that we were spending too much time with our eyeballs glued to the screen, as video game junkies, the Wii gaming system was introduced to the public.

Now, it was not a case of playing video games, but it was a case of exercising, which is good (no, exceptional) for the health and it was a case of spending time with the family. Now, we were no longer a globe full of slothful people sitting in our rundown hole-in-the-seat chairs, eating Cheetos and spilling sodas on the stained carpet, but we were athletic, in-shape, healthy people (or so we told ourselves).

According to Nintendo, they are a bit at odds with the idea of virtual reality (VR). Then, again, hasn’t Nintendo pretty much always done what they wanted to do? Isn’t that part of the mystique and intrigue of the company and its products? It is a leader of the pack and Nintendo doesn’t wait to be told what to do. Instead, they tell the rest of the world what the rest of the world should be doing. Such is the case with Wii and such is the case for a lack of need (or desire) for VR.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For those individuals who do not necessarily want to take the full plunge into VR, there are other options. For example, there is still the option of playing the games available on the Nintendo systems, including Wii. It is not like there is a marriage commitment, but rather a choice that is made each time a player moves forward. That person decides what he or she is going to do for that moment, whether it is VR, Nintendo Wii, or something else.

Virtual Reality Coming on the Scene

Already, there is a sense of virtual essence within the gaming system. That is part of Nintendo’s framework, so in that sense, they are ahead of the game.

Trying to compare Nintendo Wii to a 3D VR experience would be like comparing the game of ping pong (with a partner) to that of a ping-pong table folded up against a wall, for the single player. The ping pong table up against the wall in the basement is a solo event. But, the activity of going to the local pub and singing Karaoke is not solo. One is a singular event of improving oneself and the other is a social experience. While there may be a crossover between the two events, they are not the same. One involves the building of the community and social growth. The other involves the personal and physical growth of that individual.

Now, let’s add some color to our example. Let’s say there are ping pong tables and Karaoke at the local pub. Playing ping pong in your basement (with the half table) is a solo event. However, going to the local pub on Friday night and playing ping pong or singing Karaoke is a social event. It is a social experience.

One involves the building of the community and social growth. The other involves the personal and physical growth of that individual.

Back to Nintendo Wii and VR? They are different events (like ping pong compared to Karaoke), but they can be used in different ways (whether a solo event or a social experience). So, at the end of the day, if someone wants to skip VR and play Nintendo Wii, why not let them? To each his own, no matter what the definition is.

Hardware that You May Need to Consider When Pursuing VR

Deciding what you need, when it comes to hardware, for a Virtual Reality (VR) system, is like deciding what car parts you need for the car you are about to buy.

See, it is helpful if you either already have the car, or you have decided why type of car you will be buying. Otherwise, you could be getting VW (Volkswagen) parts for a Rolls Royce or something else, just as ludicrous.

As an example, if you are building (or putting together) an Oculus Rift system, you will need a system that has a halfway decent graphics card. Examples of graphics cards that will work for this set up may include GeForce GTX 970 (affiliate) or AMD Radeon R9 290 (affiliate).

There are certainly better graphics cards that are available, but you will want to do at least a minimum of research and ensure that you are able to obtain the best graphics card that you are able to afford. At the same time, you will want to ensure that it (i.e. the graphics card) is the correct one for your system and compatible with what you are putting together for your VR system.

The hardware choices may not be an inexpensive path to follow. Granted, it is less expensive if you choose to use your smartphone technology and something like Google Cardboard.

Because of this, many VR newbies start with the do-it-yourself Google Cardboard route before choosing to invest their hard-earned money into a more expensive VR system setup.

For those of you who understand computer systems, you know the challenges.

For example, you know that with a high-end graphics card comes the need for a decent amount of memory. Without a decent amount of memory, your system will crash and burn. At best, you will not have very functional 3D virtual reality characters and engagements. For any basic computer system, even running Microsoft Word, you will want at least 8GB of memory. In reality, if you are able to get more than that, it is that much better and your VR experience will benefit.

Also, you will want to ensure that you have the basics. Those basics include USB ports, wireless access, video ports, microphone, and camera-capability (if not already built into the system). You will want to ensure that the core CPU can handle all that you have to throw at it.

Similar to choosing that car and then buying the parts, you will want to decide what type of system you are building and then do your homework. Research what it is that you need. Use online review systems like Amazon’s rating system and discussion forums, for starters, when it comes to starting your research process.

In addition to the online resources, be sure to avail yourself of your friends and family, especially if they are into VR as well. Likely you have some who are interested in virtual reality. Maybe you all meet up at the pool house at the end of a busy week or you meet online. If so, use the opportunity to ask questions. Be sure to ask the hard questions and find out what it is that you need for your VR system.

Remember this. Hardware is hard. In other words, you will need to dish out some cash for that decision. Also, be prepared for a high price tag. Or, go for the smaller one, by way of the smartphone inserted into the more economical viewer. That option is easier. Also, going “small” is a great option to follow while taking the time to decide what system it is that you will ultimately want to build with your hard earned money.

Virtual Reality and the Education Playing Field

In times past, students used to take field trips. These excursions would allow them some time away from the classroom. It also allowed them to have meaningful experiences, as well as educational experiences.

During these field trips, they learned important lessons about life. Also, they learned about how specific aspects of life function.

Some forms of field trips were what was called, “Career Days.” These would allow students to be mentored by those people of a chosen profession.

Times Change

Funds have not always been readily flowing for all schools. This means that providing for exciting field trips may be difficult. With minimal funding for student exploration, there are also increases in technological careers which could use the exposure. These two aspects create even more difficulties in funding the very experience that would benefit the students the most.

Virtual Reality for the Education World

Welcome to Virtual Reality (VR) for education. This provides an opportunity for students to experience something that is similar to a field trip. It is similar to what would be experienced outside the classroom. In this case, it offers the ability to save money by not traveling beyond a few feet from the classroom itself.

This is a great opportunity for the school to save money. It is also a great educational benefit for the students, fellow classmates, instructors, school administration, school board, and the community as a whole.

And, for smaller schools, private schools, or even homeschooling, the VR educational experience provides an opportunity that may not have been available in decades past, in the traditional methods.

It Isn’t Just Field Trips (What About the Problem Solving Program?)

Another program that used to be available in the academic world is problem-solving. It was not as common as the field trips and may not have been offered at all schools. Regardless of its popularity, it is something that can now be presented via virtual reality. The students read about specific problems and use virtual reality to test and implement solutions for those problems. Also, situational debates (even between schools) can give the students the virtual environment to take action. This prepares them for future careers and opportunities.

These fields, as well as others, like medicine, architecture, and science, allow for the students to practice their skills. It allows them to hone their skills in ways that benefit them, benefit their academic growth, and benefit the community. This is something that VR makes possible by dropping the learners into the environment. As a result, it is an environment in which they can practice and apply those skills.

More on the Topic of Field Trips

Fortunately, an emulated field trip can be handled in different ways. The curriculum for the educational program, as well as the objectives, dictate the plans. For example, it may be possible to track where the student is in the process. Of course, it depends on the VR software. The student(s) participates in an event with a movie box or panoramic view (3D). The instructor provides additional information. This provides a full-circle instructional event. That event translates into learning.

An academic test may be used in addition to the VR experience and it involves scoring. The scoring determines the progress of the student. In this similar fashion, virtual reality provides opportunities for grading. It doesn’t have to entirely replace the other teaching methods, but instead, it can enhance those methods, providing the interactive environment the students need.

Considerations for Buying Used VR Equipment

While it may be advantageous to purchase your virtual reality (VR) equipment and devices brand new, if you are tight on money, buying used may be something you want to consider.

There are several sites that may be used for swapping equipment. In many cases, VR players (as in the people) want to upgrade their equipment and they are ready to sell their older equipment and gear to those who are just starting out in VR. Maybe they just want to help out another player who wants to save a buck or two.

Proceeding with Caution, but Armed with Information

While no particular site can be recommended over another and each VR player needs to proceed with caution, a basic understanding that scams do occur is a helpful place to start. Also, there are some sites out there that have been around for a while and have built up some level of credibility.

Still, be sure to do your own research and don’t take just anyone’s opinion as absolute, without your own research and opinion.

There are no warranties for the following listed sites and no recommendations to use these sites. They are simply listed because they exist on the internet and may be of interest to you. Along with that comes the familiar advice of “Buyer Beware.”

There are a few things that you will want to keep in mind, regardless of where you buy your used VR equipment, or from whom you buy it.

You will want to ensure that the vendor or the person from whom you are buying the equipment is credible and trustworthy. Fortunately, sites like Amazon and eBay include opportunities to rate the sellers (and the buyers).

It is nice if we, as members of the global community, do our duty and rate the products with which we have experience. Even in cases where the product (or service) is inferior, we are being kind to those who read the review and for those who are considering the next purchase. We are helping them to be able to make an informed decision.

The Importance of the Ratings (and Reviews) of Others

So, as that future buyer, be sure to read the ratings for your vendor and read the ratings carefully. Look at the numbers, but also look at the comments. This is very important so you will want to read the details of how the situation was handled. This is helpful when you find write-ups that are a bit confusing. This should give you an idea of what type of person you are dealing with before you enter into this future transaction.

If you are not sure about all that you are reading (or the product itself), contact the seller. Also, observe how quickly that seller gets back to you. Pay attention to how kind (or not kind) he or she is, and how helpful they are. If you have any bad vibes about the communication process, you may want to consider going somewhere else for your transaction. If you decide to move forward with this seller, assess the potential for loss and identify whether or not you are able to absorb that loss if the vendor/seller turns out to be a poor risk.

Ensure that you are purchasing the right equipment, that it is functional, and that it is clean. Check to see that there is a warranty for the equipment and gear. Sometimes the sellers mean well, but they accidentally pass on equipment that is non-functional. You want to ensure that the seller has some sort of guarantee that has you covered if that should happen.

This list should get you started and help you as you accumulate more gear. You will become more experienced in this area. Soon, it will be YOU who will be the one offering the expert advice.