Arranging – Playing By Ear on the fly

Arranging – What is it? How is it used in playing by ear? You hear this term being bandied about and you may wonder what it means. I know that I have looked at and listened to a song because I knew who arranged it. It’s just the way it is. Sometimes you can just listen to a song and you could tell right away who arranged it based on the chord progressions and other musical elements that signify one guy’s work versus another. It is very fascinating.

But what is arranging? And how is it used to play by ear? My favorite resource, Wikipedia, describes Arranging as a “musical reconceptualization of a previously composed work. It may differ from the original work by means of reharmonization, melodic paraphrasing, orchestration, or development of the formal structure.” This definition is pretty accurate in that describes what an “arrangement” is. In terms of playing by ear, sometimes you can use inversions, or relative keys as a technique to achieve the reharmonization or reconceptualization as mentioned above.

Another excerpt from the Wikipedia article states that, “Arranging “involves adding compositional techniques, such as new thematic material for introductions, transitions, or modulations, and endings…. Arranging is the art of giving an existing melody musical variety”.   For some people, playing by ear is very similar to playing from memory, meaning that they learn a song and can play that song without the sheet music. Depending on your level of expertise, some people can even play these memorized songs in multiple keys without having to practice them. In other words playing by ear can be likened to arranging on the fly or instant arranging.

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