Tabs, ear or sheets?

How do you prefer to learn new tunes? By tabs or by ear? And why the one over the other?

I have this theory that when you learn a song by tabs, you use your brain different than when you learn it by ear. While learning by ear is more of a process of understanding the song, and using that understanding to play it over again, learning by tabs is a little different. You memorize a pattern, and whenever you play your brain is working on remembering that exact pattern rather than focusing on understanding what is going on.

I don’t know if this has anything to it or not, but to me it makes a lot of sense, and it’s the reason I gave up tabs.

I have been looking at music theory lately, and sheet music seem like a very good compromize between these two. You don’t actually memorize anything, but you read and understand the music as you go. It is definetly something I’m going to give a closer look at with time. It is very fascinating that you can actually read the music!

Hey Whiskat (formerly known as God)

I am in to tunes and melodies mostly…

So majority here is tabs.

Eventually I hope to expand my horizons outwards and upwards into ear and sheet…So kindly ask me again in oh say about 364 days from now! :wink:


Keep On Harpin’!

Whoa! I’m into tunes & I play by ear. I hate tabs but find them of use to learn tunes that I don’t know. That said by repetitious playing of the tune by another artist I generally get a feel for the melody & I’m on my way.

If it’s a tune I know and especially if I know the lyrics then I never need tabs. I’m currently doing a harmonica course and many of the courses earlier tunes I already knew. The demos of some of the tunes were in parts slightly different to the way I played them and some I thought sounded better. Here I consulted tabs to locate the difference. Perhaps I have ‘selective hearing’ ie my wife believes so but generally this relates to other than music!

I believe that by playing by ear you can quickly develop your own style & some tunes might not be exact according to tabs. But often I have found tabs that are wrong. Use tabs to give a start, a guide, like a road map. Don’t try and memorise tabs though as this will restrict your repertoire as there will only be so many (not many) tabs that you will remember. Tabs though might be good if eg you are like Rain Man and can memorise everything!!!

Just wondering but how do you learn how to play by ear? If i could learn by ear, it would be amazing. I wouldn’t need to go online or anything, or have a whole record of tabs i want.

I like Night Train James for showing you this. :wink:

Start with just one of his vids, subscribe, and go through them. I think you’ll like the journey! Enjoy!! :slight_smile:

Learn harmonica by ear

Learn harmonica by ear, BEND NOTES NOW!

Nothing is more exciting than taking a great song and dissecting it. And rebuilding it. MUHAHAHA Just the other day, I was fooling around with my harp trying to learn the Transformers theme song and I ended up with the riff for “Smoke On The Water” (-3,-4,5 -3,-4,-5,5 -3,-4, 5 -45, -34) I’m still working on the rest. I’ve also been playing a few tabs, such as
“Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, “Kum by ya(?)” and “Oh Suzanna” and others. They help me find my way around the harmonica as well as keeping me motivated. As for sheet music…who needs it! ;D Great tabs for beginners)

James is awesome. I learned a lot from his vids, but that Hoodle diddle technique still eludes me to this day. I learned bending from these guys

Basic Beginning note bending

Ace> In time as you get to know where all the notes are you will have what is referred to as muscle memory. This should not take that long for simple 1st pos tunes.

Whilst playing by ear is great there are times when it becomes, for me, more of a challenge. Some tunes that sound simple sometimes don’t fit with 1st pos playing & it becomes fun finding what pos best fits. Even some simple 1st pos tunes can be spiced up to sound better played in another pos and a tune like Amazing Grace is a good example.

Practicing scales and arpeggios in different modes is the best and the qiickest way to learn your way around the harp. Boring, but the correct way. Me, I take the long way by just playing and it has held me back.

A good learning 1st pos tune to play is ‘Over The Rainbow’ as you do big jumps ie hole 4 to 7. It’s an easy tune to play. I get amazed at how one accomplishes muscle memory eg I can have a harp in my left hand behind my back and provided it is the right way around, without looking I can put it to my mouth and hit the correct hole. I certainly am not that coordinated with other things.

I’m definitely a “TAB” guy. But once I learn it I put tab away and its in my memory for good, might just have
to refresh memory on some tougher tunes.

One thing happened that was pretty cool and interesting, I was driving my Snap-on truck down the road and
just practicing the major scale back and forth back and forth. And in my brain I heard a song there.
I kept playing it and I finally started playing “The First Noel”. Kind of by accident it was cool to learn that
song without the tab.

Tabs for me at least to get started.

Harp on!!

I was driving my Snap-on truck down the road and

Phew! For a minute there I thought you were going to say you were standing outside fueling up your truck while another lady driver was standing around the pump fueling up her truck and with harmonica in hand, you…

Phew! Just checked! Yeppers, 3 of the 7 Seals are still intact! ::slight_smile:

Keep On Harpin’!!

I’m a Tab man,
to me life’s too short to be feckin’ around with staves,clefs,and all that notation. I wanna learn the tunes, man !! 8) 8)

Here’s the deal with playing by ear. It can’t be taught! The only way is to practice your ear, listen to music everyday. Truly listen!

(You don’t listen to music if you have it on in the background while doing something else. Sit down a cup of coffee or a cigarette while you put on your favourite record. Listen to it as you would watch a movie.)

There are two tips I can give you to help you. In 99% of all songs you can find the first interval within seven attempts. Start on one hole, try to play the next one. Doesn’t sound right? Play the same hole again, then try to play the hole two holes away. Doesn’t sound right? Keep on going until you’ve got the first interval down. Once you got two or three intervals, it gets a lot easier!

The other way, which is the way I use, is to learn the lyrics. Sing them in the shower, hum them on your way to the store. Sing them in your head whenever you can. When you can sing it right (this can for me take anything from two minutes to two weeks), just start fooling around on the harp while thinking of the song.

Some can play by ear easier than others, but don’t ever tell yourself you can’t do it! I was horrible when I first started, had no perception of melody, harmony or rythm at all. I was truly unmusical. But I kept at it, practiced scales, improvised a lot. Tried playing after records all though I didn’t get it right, at all. Today I’m still not a very good ear player, but I can do it. And playing the harmonica now is a houndred times more fun than before.

Sit down [with] a cup of coffee or a cigarette while you put on your favourite record. Listen to it as you would watch a movie.

Gee dad, is that the secret? I knew you knew, dad. So like when you’re sitting in the den with your coffee and cigarettes listening to your favorite records when mommy is shouting at you from the kitchen, you turn the music up louder because you want to hear it better! Is that it, dad?

How about when you get off work at the plant? Instead of coming straight home as you promised mommy, me and little sissy, you always end up at the tavern? Is it because they have that new jukebox that plays all the new records that you don’t have here, dad?

But what does it mean when mommy says you like to drink away the rent money, dad?

She calls your coffee funny names like “whisky” “bourbon” “scotch” and “gin” I think. Yeah, funny names for coffee, dad. Don’tcha think too, dad?

Mommy says you stay at the tavern because of a waitress named Dolores. Mommy says Dolores brings you lots to drink and even lights your cigarettes when you’re too tired to light them yourself. And Dolores does other things mommy says she won’t talk about in mixed company or in front of us children.

Mommy’s thinking about taking a trip by herself somewhere but doesn’t know where yet.

Is Dolores going to be my new aunt or new mommy, dad?

Oh golly gee, so many questions. My head hurts, dad. But thanks for telling me the secret to learning how to play harmonica by ear, dad! I just can’t wait til I’m old enough to have some coffee and cigarettes of my very own. Then I’ll be able to listen, really listen to records and learn how to play just like you, dad! And wont’ that be fun?

And golly gee wilikers, dad, do you think then maybe you could tell me the secret about the birds and the bees. You see my back hurts from carrying all these biology books from the library trying to find the answers. Maybe you and your waitress friend Dolores can help me, huh, what do you say, dad? Okay?

Well okay, thanks again dad for sharing your harmonica secrets with me! I sure do appreciate them, dad! Love ya, Bobby!

I really enjoy reading the great advice and tips about playing by ear. I never really thought about it until now. Thanks so much everyone for inspiring me higher to work on this as well. :slight_smile:


Keep On Harpin’!

Peace & SPD Out!

Howdy Fellow Harpsters & Harpsterettes!

While searching for answers on other topics, I came across this:

I haven’t had time to test or download anything yet. But figured it would be a good place to start whence I’m able to get back to it later.

If anyone does try this, please let us know your reviews and results!



Keep on Harpin’!

SPD Still On The Job!

Nice poll, Whiskat. :slight_smile:

I play by ear, and can’t remember the last time I learned a tune by reading tablature. For some reason, I dislike tabs…but it’s maybe just because I’m not good at reading them. :stuck_out_tongue: I learn tunes much faster by ear.

I used to read tabs when I started playing. I found lots of websites which provided harmonica tabs on the Internet, and found the whole tab thing really cool. However, I soon realized that I was becoming dependent on them. I couldn’t figure out how to play tunes I heard on the radio all by myself. I needed tabs!

Things changed when I started listening to old-time harmonica players such as Deford Bailey and Sonny Terry. I couldn’t find tabs for what they were doing anywhere on the Internet. So, I really had no option but to learn their tunes by ear! ;D It was hard at first, but I eventually got the knack of it.

I never read tabs now. If I want to learn an unfamiliar tune, I just look it up on YouTube. There are always lots of videos by piano players, guitar players, violin players etc. Once I am familiar with a tune, I can figure how to play it on a harmonica.

Sheet music: There are (enviable) people who can “sight read” sheet music. They can “hear” a tune just by looking at a piece of sheet music! I wish I had that ability. :slight_smile:

Learning tunes by ear really opened a new dimension to my playing. I think every harmonica player develop the skill of learning tunes by ear. All the great players learned a lot by learning by ear. They didn’t have no tabs. Many nuances of a song cannot be transcribed…and you have to “listen” to them. As David said, it’s okay to use them like a guide, or a road map, but it’s not a good idea to rely on them too much.


Hey Whiskat,

This a really cool post. I’m glad I finally made my way here.

Mostly I learn by ear but I do like to use tabs when I get stuck…

I don’t like sheet music… bad childhood memories of learning piano…


Sometimes I think tabs get a bad rap. I learn songs by tab, but it isn’t like I’m actually memorizing the tabs themselves. I look at the tab while playing the tune a couple of times, then I look away from the tabs and play it again until I can do it without the tabs. If you gave me a pen an a piece of paper and asked me to write down the tabs for the songs I know I couldn’t do it without playing through it, so I’m not really memorizing the tabs, I’m memorizing the song. I’d still like to learn to read music someday though.

I learn songs by tab, but it isn't like I'm actually memorizing the tabs themselves.

Gregmatic very very very good point I never thought of it that way ::slight_smile:

That’s exactly how I learn tunes exactly. Like you said once you got the tune memorized I can’t write
down the tab.

Sometimes I think tabs get a bad rap.

I agree 110% :wink:

So if your learning a tune, whether you learn it by ear or using tab, end result is the tune is learnt.
The tab isn’t memorized.

Thanks Gregmatic for bringing that out 8)

I feel better now using tab to learn the tune ;D

Harp on!!