Play Christmas Tunes by Ear
The holiday season is a great time for learning tunes by ear because:
- Tunes that are this familiar are the easiest to pick out by ear.
- Knowing a few seasonal favorites are likely to come in handy for festivities wherever there’s a piano nearby.
- Learning tunes by ear tends to fix them in your long-term memory, so you’ll be able to easily recover them for future holiday seasons.
Steps to Playing by Ear
1. Pick out the melody
Establish the key – On the piano, it’s easiest to play by ear on the white keys. Begin by playing the C major scale to get the sound of the key in your ear. You can always transpose it later to fit a better vocal range.
Sing the tune – Choose a tune and sing, hum, or grunt the melody in the key of C with or without lyrics. All creative musicians vocalize while practicing. It doesn’t matter how it sounds. It’s just a tool. Get used to the idea and do it often. If the tune doesn’t feel right in the key of C, sing it in a range that feels more natural and try to determine the key (this is harder).
Find the last note – Work backwards. The last note of most tunes is nearly always the “home” or tonic note (C in the key of C). With the key still in your ear, sing the final phrase. Make sure the last note is tonic.
Find the first note – Many tunes begin on the tonic note but you can’t count on it. For example, Mary Had a Little Lamb starts on the third note of a major scale. Sing the first note of the Christmas melody while playing up the scale until you find a match. For example, playing the C scale while singing the first note of Silent Night reveals that G is the first note.
Hunt and peck – Continue adding notes by through trial and error using notes in the key. If you find that you are playing more than a few accidentals outside the scale, you probably are in the wrong key. When you get stuck, think “does this next note go up or down?” If you get really stuck, hold the unknown note in your voice while playing up and down the scale to find a match. If you are completely stymied, start over with an easier tune such as Jingle Bells.
Memorize the melody – When you find all of the notes, burn them into your memory. It’s important that the melody be second nature in your mind and fingers before proceeding.
The next step is to find and add chords to your tune; a process known as harmonizing.
Look for chord tones – Melodies and chords are related. Analyze the melody notes to see if they contain notes in the I, IV, or V primary chords (C, F, G or G7). Pay particular attention to the strong beats at the beginning of each measure as this where you will play chords.
Make a choice – If a melody note can be found in more than one chord (i.e. the note C is in a C chord and F chord), choose the chord that sounds best to you. For example, the first note F in the third measure of Jingle Bells could be harmonized with either an F chord or a G7. They both sound good so just decide which one you like best.
Combine the melody and chords – Add simple left-hand whole or half note primary chords to the right-hand melody. Think ahead. Musicians don’t have the luxury of reveling in the moment like listeners. Be thinking, “The F chord is next” or “Here comes a G7.” If you are lucky enough to have a teacher who supports playing by ear, ask them to call out the chords.
The next step is to add style by plugging in a stock accompaniment according to your ability and taste.
Beginners – Play a rhythmic pattern with block chords. Here's one possibility:
A basic Boogie Bass pattern adds a lot of style.
Intermediate – Play left-hand broken chords. Here are some possibilities:
Advanced – Try adding harmony to the right hand by “hanging” chord tones off the melody notes. Always keep the melody on top with harmony notes below. This frees up your left hand to play bass lines such as the duet parts above or others of your own choosing. You might also try substituting secondary chords such as the Am7 chord in the example below.
4. Create variations
Since most tunes are less than 30 seconds long, it’s helpful to stretch them out a bit with repeats. But straight repeats can be a little boring so here are some ways to add variety the third or fourth time around. With melody, chords and an accompaniment style in place, add improvised embellishments to the melody. This example adds a neighbor note in measure 2, repeated notes in measure 3, and an anticipation in measure 4.
Good King Wenceslas with embellishments
What should you if while playing a solo piano Christmas tune, someone in the room spontaneously breaks into song? (It happens.) Join in of course and be glad your music inspired some merriment. Better yet, you start the singing.
Tip: No one cares about your vocal quality (or lack thereof) during holiday singalongs.
On the piano, your job just got a whole lot easier. With the melody covered by singing, switch to a bigger, two-handed accompaniment with the chords near right hand and an interesting bass line in your left. Here are some possibilities:
If the beat’s not steady, the tune’s not ready. Beware of getting hung up on the details in this process. The fact is, it doesn’t matter if you miss a melody note here and there or inadvertently chnage up your left-hand patterns as long as the beat is steady. Start slowly and avoid pausing to fix every little “surprise” when your fingers don’t match your aural image of the tune. A steady beat will wash away insignificant unintended notes and the tune will improve by itself magically when you play it again tomorrow through the miracle of brain processing during sleep.
Until next time, enjoy your creative music making journey,