Play Ukulele by Ear: Jim D’Ville Interview

Jim D’Ville recently released a DVD teaching you how to Play Ukulele By Ear and has been blogging helpful hints and interviews with ukers from the hugely knowledgeable to the clueless but handsome. So I turned the tables on him and coaxed a few my tips out of him.

What does ‘playing by ear’ mean?

To me, playing by ear means listening to what a song is doing and being able to recognize what is going on and then playing along with it. Many genres of music have a certain form which simply repeats itself. For example, if you familiarize your ears with the sound of the 12-bar blues chord progression every time you hear it you’ll know how to play along with it without thinking about it. Play a C Major chord, then a C7chord, then an F Major chord. Millions of songs start with this I-I7-IV chord sequence. Once your ears are familiar with the pattern it’s like hearing the recognizable voice of a friend when these sounds come around in a song.

Why is it important for ukulele players to learn to play by ear?

Because it’s more enjoyable. When you are staring at a piece of sheet music your eyes are distracting your ears from truly hearing what is going on. You’re trying to do two things at once. It also prohibits you from listening to what the other players might be doing.

How does someone start out learning to play be ear?

By listening. It sounds simple, but at most of the ukulele clubs I’ve visited the first thing they do is hand out sheet music. My approach is to first introduce the ears to the sound of the one and the five notes of the C Major Scale (C & G). Since most simple songs only consist of two chords (C-G7), this is a great place to start the ear on its “play by ear” journey. The most powerful relationship in western music is the transition from the five to the one (V7-I). Think big rock concert encore, fiveeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee, one.

What’s your top tip for playing by ear?

Introduce your ears to the sound of the C Major Scale pattern of whole-steps and half-steps, the sound of the Major and Perfect Intervals found in the major scale and the sound of the Diatonic Chords in C (C Major, D minor, E minor, F Major, G7, A minor and B diminished). This gives the ears a solid foundation of the basic sounds found in songs. The primary thing to remember is that ear training does not happen overnight. Take your time and enjoy listening to the sounds you are creating.

Read more and buy Play Ukulele By Ear on Jim’s blog.

View Comments


  1. Armelle October 21st, 2009 7:19 pm

    Very good questions asked, Al ! Thanks for doing this interview.

    I’ve always admired people being able to play along with someone after listening to the song for just a minute.

    This interview kind of demystifies how that works !

  2. Mike Woodhouse October 22nd, 2009 11:18 pm

    The Video only plays a third of the way, or is that just me?
    otherwise great interview, I often think I should try and be a bit more ‘musical’ about my playing…in fact a few have said it.

  3. J-Hob October 23rd, 2009 9:10 pm

    I’ve been following Jim’s blog for a while now and am awaiting the arrival of his DVD. It certainly seems a natural progression to playing more naturally, I’m hoping that it clicks for me!

  4. Woodshed October 25th, 2009 1:59 pm

    Armelle: Glad you liked it.

    Mike: Plays alright for me but YouTube was screwing up for me earlier in the week.

    J-Hob: Let me know how you get on with it.

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