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Why By Ear? By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Friday, August 23, 2013

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Hi, I'm Murphy Henry! And welcome to my first article for Banjo  Hangout. You might have heard of my method of teaching--The Murphy Method. (I like alliteration!) We teach by ear. We do not use any tablature or written music, ever. We teach all the bluegrass instruments but, because I'm a banjo player, we are perhaps best known for our banjo instruction.

My bona fides? You want bona fides? Oh, ye, of little faith. (Yes, I was raised Baptist! In Georgia.) I am one of three women included in the book Masters of the 5-String Banjo by Trischka and Wernick. (The other two? Lynn Morris and Alison Brown.) I started playing banjo in 1973 and have recorded seven actual vinyl LPs (and numerous cassettes, eight-tracks, and CDs) with my husband Red and our band. I have taught at numerous banjo camps across the country including the Tennessee Banjo Institute and the Maryland Banjo Academy. And for years I wrote the On The Road column for Banjo Newsletter. (I still write the General Store column for Bluegrass Unlimited.) Will that do ya? If not, there's always Google! 

Right now I want to talk about one of my fav-o-rite topics: Learning Bluegrass Banjo By Ear. 

If you are new to the banjo or new to Banjo Hangout, you may not realize that there is an alternative to learning banjo from tablature. Well, there is another way and it's BY EAR. Curious? I know this topic is frequently batted around here at Banjo Hangout. So let me share some of my thoughts with you. After teaching banjo for 40 years I have learned a thing or two in my own quest to turn students into real, live banjo players.

There are three main reasons to learn by ear: 

  1. It’s easier. (OMG is it easier!)
  2. It will enable you to play with other people.
  3. It leads to improvising.

Now to expostulate. I’m gonna skip over how much easier it is to learn by ear because that's a hard one to talk about. You'll figure that one out for yourself! 

But playing with other people: that is the goal of almost everyone who takes up the banjo. Maybe you want to play with a small group of friends or in a family band. Or maybe you’d like to jam with other people in the parking lot. Bluegrass is a friendly music. It wants to be played with other folks. 

Now, think about the nature of Bluegrass Music as you have observed it. Bluegrass musicians do not perform looking at music. You do not see music stands on a bluegrass stage. (Okay, Ralph Stanley sometimes has to have the words in front of him now. But he’s Ralph. He can do whatever he likes!) Bluegrass music is, by its very nature, a “by ear,” improvisational music. If you want to play in a symphony you’ll have to read music. If you want to play church piano or organ, you’ll have to read music. Many genres of music call for note reading. But not bluegrass. It calls for playing by ear.

But I can’t learn by ear, I hear you saying. I’m not that talented. I don’t have a music background. I’m too old. I’m a visual learner, I learn better from paper. Phooey to all that. Almost anyone can learn by ear if you just take it slow, a few notes at a time, and start with easy stuff. (NOT Blackberry Blossom!!) Which is exactly what we do on all our DVDs. We teach it S-L-O-W. (To paraphrase Conway Twitty: I want a teacher with a slow hand....)

So, right from the beginning, learning by ear enables you to play with other people. Why? Because as you learn each song (one piece at a time, just like Johnny Cash got that car) you are actually able to HEAR what you are playing. It makes musical sense from the git-go. Your songs sound like songs. Your spouse or partner can actually recognize what you are playing. They might even compliment you. And it’s almost impossible to play out of time. 

But if you are learning from tab, you don’t know WHAT the songs sounds like. So how do you know if you’re doing it right?

If you are a tab reader (a tab eater as my friend Bill Evans says), you probably have had the experience of learning to play lots of songs. At home. But when you try to play them with someone else, it’s a total disaster. Why? Usually it's some timing error that you don't even realize you are making. You don’t “hear” what you are playing. And if you can’t stay in time--and recover from your mistakes--no one can play along with you. It's a sad, difficult situation that I've seen way too many times.

Now, some of you might be saying that you don’t have these problems. You can read tab just fine, thank you very much, you don’t make timing errors, you can, in fact, play YOUR SONGS with other people. And maybe you can. But, I ask you, can you play anybody else’s songs? Can you improvise a break on the spot to a simple three-chord song that you’ve never played before, that you’ve never even heard before. Probably not. (But my hat’s off to you if you can!) Our students can do that! Just ask Marty, Martha, Ben, Kasey, Bob, Jon, Ruth, Patty, Claire...all Murphy Method improvisers.

The greatest thing about learning by ear is that it leads to improvising. Tablature will not get you there. (Hey, I understand there are exceptions to this, but I don't see too many of them in the student category. These tend to be super-talented professional-level players.) Learning by ear gives you the tools to start improvising. Is it easy? Well, for some folks it is, and some folks have to dig a little deeper. But most of my students, at least the ones who stick with it, and the ones that I see on a regular basis, have pretty good luck with improvising.

The other piece of learning to improvise is getting out there and playing with other people. And that is called jamming! But that is a topic for another day! To quote the Fabulous Flint Hill Flash: "Roll on, buddy, roll on!"

20 comments on “Why By Ear? By Murphy Henry”

Andy Campbell Says:
Friday, August 23, 2013 @1:28:23 PM

Casey, your family's lessons are good. But they are nothing like Learning by Ear.
You simply tell people where to put their fingers. Oral Tab, if you like.

It is very good, but NOT learning by Ear.

Keep up the good work.


Glasstinman Says:
Friday, August 23, 2013 @2:12:51 PM

I stumbled across the Murphy Method here on BH after struggling with tab for a couple of years after taking up the banjo later in life. For me the Murphy Method has worked and I now enjoy the freedom of picking with others without having to carry a book of tab around.
I wished I lived closer to VA and could attend her weekly jamming class. I don't knw if it is real tab as the previous comment stated or not, but I do know it worked wonders for me.

capmike Says:
Friday, August 23, 2013 @2:29:19 PM

Murphy I got all your banjo DVDs and I can say without doubt learning your way is easier than tab. I learned guitar 25 years ago by sight reading music and by tab. Enjoy the banjo much more and progressing much faster thanks to you and your family

dbrooks Says:
Sunday, August 25, 2013 @7:36:58 AM

Nice article, Murphy. While I write a lot of clawhammer banjo tab, I always stress the importance of getting away from tab as soon as possible. Certainly, I think it is a mistake to play from tab regularly. I view tabs as a way to introduce one person's arrangement of a desired tune as a starting point. It is important to have the tune in your head. If you cannot hum or whistle it, you do not know the tune. Tab can help push your boat away from the dock, but you need to make the journey (and the tune) your own after that, in my view.

thatdarnhelcat Says:
Monday, August 26, 2013 @11:00:18 AM

Andy, I'm currently a student of Casey's. And while she is teaching me traditional songs by telling me where to put my fingers, I've been gradually picking out other songs by ear. Granted, I played piano by ear for 20 years so it's not a new technique for me, but I had to get the fundamentals of banjo down before I could start to play.

staggerlee Says:
Monday, September 9, 2013 @9:52:28 AM

Nice blog, Murphy. When I wanted to learn banjo, I did not know any teachers in my area, so I started with Pete Wernick's Beginning Banjo tape. Not too bad, but not really taking off. I then discovered the Murphy Method and tried out a couple of your DVD's. Since then, I have not even tried to learn banjo tab - I play pretty much by ear. I learned to maintain a melody pretty much with my thumb and fill in with the other fingers and it seems to work for me. Just my two cents worth, but I think that the Murphy Method is an excellent place to learn banjo and eventually play by ear. It just seems like a natural progression. Bottom line, Murphy, you and Casey need to keep on doing what you are doing. It works and leads to fun with the banjer!

Banjo Bob

Tom Meisenheimer Says:
Monday, September 9, 2013 @10:26:31 AM

Very interesting! See my latest blog, and if you wade through the fog and you'll see that Without knowing it I, too, have learned to play banjo by the Murphy Method...or, because I'm such an ancient collection of bones, by the Meisenheimer Method. Listen, duplicate, play, invent. Glad someone else knows how this music travelled and thrived. Oral tradition (aural tradition). No sheet music stands on anybody's stage. Old time, brush arbor, folk or frolic, all by ear.

Mash Says:
Monday, September 9, 2013 @5:32:24 PM

Been playing.....plucking... for a couple of months and just got your beginning lesson. Love it. Come play in my Appalachian Mountain Spirits Mercantile, in Marion Va, home of Song of the Mountains.
Yours Truly,

Lewis M Says:
Monday, September 9, 2013 @6:51:39 PM

How to I contact these people about purchasing lessons from them?

bass88 Says:
Monday, September 9, 2013 @7:52:17 PM

I think I'm going to try this course. I've been playing for 8 months, at first I learned. from tab books but quickly realized that it didn't sound right when I actually got up to any kind of speed. So I started learning chords and that lead to picking out melodies by ear! It was easy to see in my first Jam playing by ear and having a concept of timing was a huge advantage!! I agree with learning by ear especially in folk music!

Louisiana Says:
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 @12:24:55 AM

I can recommend the Murphy Method to anyone trying to learn the Banjo without teacher- it worked so well for me- it's just so good being able to play the favourite songs in no time- and now I also feel that playing according to tabs- which I found very hard when I was starting, is much easier. I wish there were more DVDs.

Tam_Zeb Says:
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 @3:59:46 AM

Hi Andy Campbell.. I don't wish to debate this here all I would say is you have your opinion and I have mine. Of ALL the instructional materials I have, and I have pretty much every book and DVD that has been recommended on the BHO. The Murphy Method is by far THE BEST INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIAL for learning Scruggs Style Banjo. You can wrap it up and call it Oral TAB if you want but that doesn't change the fact that it stands out amongst the Best of the Best. Yes I use TAB now to study specific arrangements using TABLEDIT where I can hear something of the melody but I struggled with TAB when I was learning the basics of the banjo. NOT all TAB is well written so that is another down side to learning from TAB. Had I not found the Murphy Method five years ago I would not be playing banjo today plain and simple. Murphy inspired me to pick up my banjo every day and devote time to study. It's fair to say that NOT EVERYONE GET'S IT but those of us that do make great progress. If your NOT LISTENING YOUR NOT LEARNING

rfrizzle2 Says:
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 @8:22:11 AM

Murphy. Need more song titles that you that you have.
Rich Freeze

caseyhenry Says:
Tuesday, September 10, 2013 @9:51:26 AM

If I could go back in and edit to add the website I would, but since I can't, here it is:

You can find all the DVDs, etc., there!


michael ryan Says:
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 @2:01:26 PM

can i learn this method using a 4 string tenor banjo

caseyhenry Says:
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 @2:04:21 PM

We don't have any DVDs for tenor banjo, unfortunately. Sorry!!

Monday, September 16, 2013 @11:07:39 PM

Hi Casey
I live in Australia. How can I get hold of your method dvd's? Your website says you don't send things our way. Any suggestions... I like the look/sound of what you and your mum do!

caseyhenry Says:
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 @3:28:01 AM

We can, actually, ship to Australia (and the digital downloads are always a quicker option...) Email me directly to arrange an order:

Jack Baker Says:
Saturday, September 21, 2013 @6:28:26 AM

To All:
"Learning by ear" is listening to a recorded source and transcribing it to tablature or the "watch what I do" method. The Murphy method makes a lot of people happy and they learn. What does it matter what Casey or Murphy calls it?...Jack Baker

gspornitz Says:
Monday, October 7, 2013 @10:19:34 AM

All that really matters, nit-picking aside, is whether you find the method easier to use in learning banjo than tabs. Apparently, there is agreement that Murphy makes making music more manageable!

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