Playing by Ear with Brad Mavin

Playing by ear is one of the core musical abilities which ear training can unlock, and Brad Mavin is a music teacher who really understands how to teach it in a practical, relatable way. He’s sharing his approach with a video series “Learn to play by ear” which we continue today with Episode 3: The Cycle of Keys (a.k.a. Circle of Fifths, Cycle of Fifths).
(Missed Episode 1 or 2? Catch up here.)

The exercises we’ve been practising so far:

  1. Mimicking sounds: Play a note, sing it back
  2. Playing a phrase, singing it back
  3. Playing a note, singing an interval above or below it
  4. Playing through the chromatic scale, naming and singing each note as you play

Now in Episode 3 Brad teaches:

  • The Cycle of Keys: What it is and what it’s for
  • Understanding key signatures, sharps & flats
  • Chord progressions like I-IV-V
  • Discovering how intervals of fourths and fifths underpin chord progressions
  • Exercises to get the sound of these concepts into your head!

I get all my guitar students to do this. It’s really good for your ear if you sing it. That was the main thing that really helped my ear, and got me happening with working out songs and working out basslines.

The Cycle of Keys (Circle of Fifths)
The Cycle of Keys – click to download as PDF, with extra Guitar hints

If you start singing that cycle, I guarantee, if you do it every day, you will learn that sound and it will help you with how to hear basslines in songs. You’ll start hearing the chords and go “oh, that went down a fourth”, or “that went down a fifth”, you’ll start hearing that in the songs you’re listening to.

The Cycle of Keys is a powerful tool for a musician, and vastly more so when you’ve internalised the sounds it represents.
Study the chart, practice on your instrument, and you’ll start hearing these fourth and fifth transitions all over the place in music. You’ll also be able to use them in your own improvising, composing and playing by ear.

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