Finding notes and playing longer melodies by ear

In How to play the ocarina by ear, you learned how to play some short melodies by ear on the ocarina, using a range of 3 notes. But what about playing music in a larger range? How can you find the notes?

While it may feel intimidating, its easier than you might expect with a few additional techniques. The key things for learning longer pieces of music by ear on the ocarina are:

  • Breaking the melody into shorter sections.
  • Finding the first note of each section.
  • Identifying the shape of the melody.

Breaking a song into short sections, and slowing it down

If you try to learn a whole song at once you may find it overwhelming as you may not be able to remember all of it. A melody can be broken down into smaller parts, learned one at a time, before finally playing them together.

For example, if you consider the following melody:

It can be broken down as follows. The split point is pretty arbitrary. Depending on how good your short term memory is, you may find it easier to learn longer or shorter parts.

Splitting up a melody can be done in a few ways:

  • If you are learning from a recording, breaking up a melody can be done easily with an audio editor. These include Audacity (free) or Reaper (paid) that can loop small parts of recordings.
  • If you are learning with a teacher, you can ask them to play a melody in short sections for you.

Another useful trick is to slow the melody down, as this allows you to more easily hear what it is doing. Most audio editors can also slow down recordings without changing the pitch.

How to find the first note

Once you have a melody broken into sections the next step is to find the first note.

The skill you need here is called relative pitch, understanding where one note is in relation to another note. Relative pitch is a skill anyone can learn with practice. You do not have to be born with it.

First, it is essential to learn to play your ocarina's chromatic scale. In western music each octave is divided into 12 notes, and the first note in any song you are listening to could be any of these.

Finding the note on your ocarina is then a matter of:

  • Holding the pitch of the note you want to find in your mind.
  • Play any note on your ocarina. Is the pitch higher, lower or the same as the note you are trying to find?
  • Play higher or lower notes as needed, until they sound the same.

Learning to hear when a note is higher or lower than another note is pretty easy, and audio examples are provided below.

This is how a note sounds when it is higher.

This is how a note sounds when the pitch is the same.

This is how a note sounds when the pitch is lower.

As you get better you will also learn that the different intervals between notes all have distinct sounds, and be able to jump directly to the correct note. Learning to identify intervals is another aspect of relative pitch, and will be explained later.

A game to practice finding notes, Match the pitch

Match the pitch is a simple game you can play to practice finding notes on your instrument.

  • It plays you a note within the specified range.
  • You find the note on your instrument as quickly as you can, pitch detection is used to know when you have played the correct note.
  • The more notes you find in the allotted time, the higher your score.

Note that to use this game you really need to know all of your ocarina's fingerings. You can learn them by reading Learning the fingerings. You could learn fingerings for a few notes, and then practice them with the tool, before expanding your range.

Also note that this same game can be played in-person if you have a teacher, or friend who plays an instrument. Just ask them to play notes for you to find on your ocarina.

A possible cause of confusion

As you are practising finding notes in real music it is very probable that you will encounter notes that don't exist on your instrument. Ocarinas, especially single chambers, have a very small sounding range.

It is easiest to start out playing by ear using music that you know is in range. I have made a collection of folk tunes that fit in the range of a single chamber ocarina, and software to transpose them to fit ocarinas in different keys. See A collection of folk music to play by ear on the ocarina.

As you get more experience it also helps to practice finding the same note in different octaves. If the note you are listening to is out of range, the same note will be playable in a higher or lower octave.

You could also find it easier to work out a melody on an instrument with a larger range, then adapt it to the ocarina afterwards. Keyboard can work well for this.

Finding the key of the song

Strictly speaking you already know enough to figure out a melody at this point. You could go through and figure out every single note one at a time. But there are some things that make this easier, and the first is to find the key of the song.

Most music does not use all 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Songs are normally written in a subset of the notes called a 'key'. Keys have two-part names like 'G major', 'D minor', or 'C dorian':

  • The first (for example 'G') names the root note of the key.
  • The second names the notes that you will find in that key, as well as its characteristics. Major keys are often said to sound 'happy' for example.

If you know the key of a song, you also know what notes it is going to use. For example, if the key is G major, it will be using the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F♯, and G. You can find the notes in any key by searching 'Notes in [key name]' online.

In many cases, you can also find what key a song is in by searching 'key of [song name]'. If that doesn't work, its possible to find the key of a song by ear.

Identifying the key of a song by ear

Learning to identify keys by ear depends on two things:

  • The root note, or 'tonic'.
  • The type of scale.

The tonic of a piece of music is the tonal centre of the music, and you can usually find the key by finding the pitch of the melody's last note. This trick works as most music is tonal, it is a 'journey' through a series of pitches, which resolves to the tonic note.

Once you have found the tonic you need to find the type of scale the song is using. This can be done by listening to the 'flavour' of the sound, does it sound happy, or sad?

Scales are formed from a series of intervals, and different kinds of scales like Major or Minor are formed from different sets of intervals, and thus sound different. Learning to identify these is another aspect of ear training and relative pitch.

I'd suggest learning to identify scales with the same tonic and range initially, for example the difference between C major and C minor.

The C major scale built from the intervals: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half The C minor scale, built from the intervals: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole

To practice:

  • Ask someone to play you different scales 'octave to octave', or use an ear training app.
  • Initially, listen for the difference in the character of the sound.
  • You can also listen for the order of the intervals in the scales.

Obviously, the notes in real music are not organised so neatly, and this creates an additional challenge. Its a good idea to start playing music by ear using music in a limited set of keys, and expand to real-world music as your skill grows. The collection of folk music previously mentioned is structured in this way.

There is also a technical trap as some keys use the same set of pitches, but use a different note within that set as their tonic. For example, the keys 'G major' and 'E minor':

Music is not always written 'octave to octave', and you may encounter music that is in G major, with the same note range as E minor, with the tonic of the scale in the middle of the range of notes used:

For the goal of playing music by ear, this doesn't really matter as you'll sound the same, and is more of a theoretical curiosity. The point is to look out for what note the music resolves to (ends on).

Hearing the shape of the phrase

Now you know the key and you know the first note. From this point finding the rest of the notes is generally pretty easy. Melodies usually flow up and down following the scale, so the following notes should be close by.

Slow down the melody, don't try to do this at full tempo.

  • Listen through the entirety of the phrase, and for each note hear if it is higher, lower, or the same as than the previous note.
  • Also, try to hear how far away the note is from the previous note.

Either do this in your mind, or if it helps, draw it on paper if you find it useful.

When you play by ear, you want to hear the different pitches and visualise them in your mind. Drawing the pitches as a graph may also be helpful at first.

Closing notes

It's worth noting that you don't need to learn the full details of a song at once. Melodies have critical notes, or 'bones'. And just like the bones of an animal hold up its body, the bones of a melody support its details.

Remember the tune from the start of the article? If you were to play only the 'bones' it would sound something like this:

When you are learning to play some music by ear, you don't have to pick out every single note from the start, rather you can pick out the 'bones' of the music first, and then fill in the details later.

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