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Learning to Play Ukulele By Ear
By Jim D'Ville

"Playing it by ear" is not just guesswork as the term often implies. Rather, it's a skill that can be improved with practise. Jim D'Ville outlines some practical ways to improve your listening and "playing by ear" skills.

Tuning

Do you tune your instrument with the aid of an electronic tuner? One of the benefits of using an electronic tuner is you can tune your ukulele to correct pitch in seconds. But at the same time, you are wasting a wonderful ear training opportunity. “Ear training?” you say, “UGH!”

Yes, ear training. Two seemingly harmless words that, when put together, conjure up thoughts of other equally undesirable tortures like playing scales and studying music theory. In the rush to play songs on the ukulele, however, we often overlook the most important aspect of playing music: listening.

Electronic tuners tune the eyes, not the ears. While you are looking at your tuner and turning the pegs, bringing the strings up to pitch, your eyes are taking in the bulk of the tuning information. You stare at the tuner, while your ears hang idle on each side of your head. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad idea to use an electronic tuner at first (especially if you are just starting out) to familiarize your ears with the correct sound of each in-tune string. But once that task is completed it’s time to start weaning yourself off “tuning by eye” and start tuning by ear. To do this you’ll need an A-440 tuning fork (see video below for step-by-step instructions).

Jim D'Ville demonstrates tuning a ukulele with a tuning fork.

When you first attempt to tune with a tuning fork you may experience doubt as to whether your A string is indeed in tune with the tone of the fork. Never fear, there is a little trick you can use to make sure your A string is in perfect tune. It’s called “sympathetic vibration.” Try this: strike the tuning fork on your knee and place it against your ukulele. If your A string is in tune with the tuning fork, it will magically begin to vibrate in sympathetic response to the vibrations emitted by the tuning fork when the fork is placed on the body of the ukulele. Touch the A string and you’ll feel it vibrating. None of the other three strings will be vibrating because they are not tuned to A.

Electronic tuners tune the eyes, not the ears... While you are looking at your tuner, your eyes are taking in the bulk of the tuning information.

So, buy yourself a tuning fork and practice tuning by ear each time you pick up your uke and before long you'll intimately know the sound of each in-tune string and be able to recognize them on command. After a while, you won’t even need the tuning fork. All you’ll have to do is think “A” and you’ll hear the tone in your head thus allowing you to tune to yourself. How cool is that?!

Tuning With A Tuning Fork

In C tuning (g, c, e, a) you tune the first string A with the tuning fork (in D tuning tune the fourth string A first). Holding the tuning fork by its base, strike the tines of the fork sharply on your knee and immediately place the base of the tuning fork on the body of the ukulele. The vibration of the tuning fork will transfer to the ukulele and an A tone will be emitted. Hum the A tone and put it in your ears and mind. Now pick the A string on your ukulele and bring it into tune with the A tone you are humming. Once you have tuned your A string to the tuning fork, find and fret the other A notes on the other three strings and tune those A notes to the A in-tune A string.

The Major Scale & Solfege

With the tones of the four open strings now familiar sounds to your ears, you’re already more than halfway to internalizing all the notes of the major scale. Only three notes remain. Teach yourself to play the scale – slowly at first – while at the same time humming each note as you pick it (see this article for more about playing the major scale). If you really want to take the bull by the horns (or more appropriately, the ears) you could use the solfege syllables and sing each note using its solfege name (i.e. do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti).

What good will singing the solfege do, you ask? It sears the sound of each tone of the scale into your ears and mind like a hot poker!

What good will singing the solfege do, you ask? It sears the sound of each tone of the scale into your ears and mind like a hot poker! Now, that may not sound like a pleasant experience, but when you can immediately hear and recognize each pitch of the major scale to the amazement of your friends and family, that’s when you’ll realize the effort was well worth it. Most importantly, this will help you to learn songs and melodies by ear more quickly, will improve your improvisation skills, and will give you a more intimate understanding of music.

Intervals

When a contractor builds a house, he doesn’t start with the roof. He clears the land and builds a solid foundation for which the house to stand on. The same is true for learning to play the ukulele. You don’t start by trying to learn the all the solos from Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. You start by training your ears to the in-tune open strings, the tones of the major scale, and the intervals found in that scale.

Intervals of the Major Scale
Perfect 8th (dodo)
Major 7th (doti)
Major 6th (dola)
Perfect 5th (dosol)
Perfect 4th (dofa)
Major 3rd (domi)
Major 2nd (dore)

An interval is the distance between two tones. The basic intervals in the major scale can be found in the accompanying table. You can learn the sound of these intervals by using the solfege syllables you already know. A good exercise to accomplish this is by playing and singing each interval starting with the first note of the scale each time (do – re, do – mi, etc.). A helpful aid in remembering the sound of each interval is to associate the interval with the first two notes of a song you already know. For example Michael, Row The Boat Ashore begins with a Major 3rd (do – mi) while the first two notes of Somewhere Over The Rainbow are the interval of the perfect 8th or "octave" (do – do).

Chords

With a little ear training practice, you will soon be able to recognize each tone of the major scale when you hear it played. The reason this is such a valuable – and practical – skill will now be revealed!

By hearing and recognizing the individual scale tones you will also be able to hear the chords built on those scale tones when they come around in songs.

All of your favorite songs consist of one or more chords, a chord being three or four notes played simultaneously. For example, in C Major the chord tones are C-E-G and in D Major they are D-F#-A. Simple songs like nursery rhymes usually have only two chords the “one” chord (I) and the “five” chord (V). Most folk songs use only three chords (I-IV-V) (see the free arrangement of I’ll Fly Away in this issue, for example). By hearing and recognizing the individual scale tones you will also be able to hear the chords built on those scale tones when they come around in songs.

Try this. Play a I-IV-V chord progression (C-F-G in C tuning or D-G-A in D tuning). Play each chord for two measures. Sing the solfege syllable with each corresponding chord (I-do, IV-fa, V-sol). You’ll notice each chord has a certain tonal “personality.” The I chord is restful; it sounds comfortable, like it’s happy just where it is. The IV chord, on the other hand, has a sorrowful and melancholy feel. Then there’s the V chord which is so proud of itself!

Try a variation on this exercise: pick the root of each chord (the note after which the chord is named) then strum the chord and sing the corresponding solfege syllable.

Find as many three chord songs as you can (there are tons of them) and amaze yourself at the repertoire you can build using just the I-IV-V chords. The genres of rock, folk and blues could keep you busy for years. Soon you won’t have to think about whether a song is going to the four chord or the five.

C Major Scale Diatonic Chords
C Major
D minor
E minor
F Major
G Major
A minor
B diminished

Beyond Three Chords

Continue your study of the major scale by training your ears to recognize all seven diatonic chords (chords indigenous to the scale). With these added chords the songs of the world are at your fingertips.

Teach your ears these new chords the same way you learned the I-IV-V and you’ll never have to guess again about where a song is going, you’ll hear it!

Jim D’Ville is co-author, with banjo legend and music theory maven Bill Keith, of The Natural Way To Music: An Organic Approach to Understanding & Playing Music, which “brings the principles of music into clear focus for learning musicians” (Happy Traum, Homespun Tapes). Jim teaches workshops and private lessons in Portland, Oregon and is a member of the Portland quartet Caravan Gogh.

In This Issue: PRELUDE IDEAS & LETTERS UKULELE REPORTS INTERVIEW FEATURE ARTICLE FREE ARRANGEMENT PEDAGOGY CORNER FROM THE VAULT