If you want to learn how to play piano by ear, this guide will show you how. You’ll learn how to find chords, how to identify melodies, and how to put it all together
What Does “Playing By Ear” Mean?
There are several frequent misconceptions about ear training. I used to believe them, so don’t feel terrible if you’ve wondered what it meant to play by ear.
Ear training for piano does not imply that you must learn every note on your instrument. While some people wish to attain this, the majority of us do not.
Even if you haven’t memorized all of the notes and their sounds in every octave and chord, you can still learn basic methods.
In its most basic form, piano playing by ear entails distinguishing between higher and lower notes as well as distinct time patterns. Let’s dissect that… however, first:
Do You Have Tone Deaf?
“I want to learn to play by ear, but I’m tone-deaf,” someone occasionally says. They don’t always care about ear training; instead, they claim that playing the piano is too difficult since they’re “tone-deaf.”
They’ve ruled out the idea of their being able to play even simple piano songs.
But there’s a catch. The majority of people aren’t tone-deaf. It’s also statistically unlikely that those (very sincere) persons were tone-deaf.
The disorder known as tone-deaf affects only 4% of the population. That’s it.
There’s a simple technique to detect if you’re one of the estimated 4% of the population who is tone deaf. Allow someone else to play some notes while you close your eyes.
What do all of the notes sound like? Or did you notice that each note has a distinct sound? Congratulations: You are not tone deaf if you heard it. We can now move forward without needing to be concerned about that.
Lows and Highs
You can distinguish between sounds now that we’ve demonstrated that you’re not tone deaf. Now you must put that skill to work and improve it. You’ll need to learn to distinguish between higher and lower sounds if you wish to play by ear.
Start with any key on your keyboard or piano. Play around with the surrounding notes to understand how the pitch varies as you travel further to the left or right. This isn’t difficult, but being precise takes time.
Because so many people have requested to learn this talent, I’ve just collaborated with my friend Steve Lungrin to develop some new ear training sessions. Sign up for my free 5-day workbook to be added to the waiting list to learn more about this fantastic resource.
Recognizing the ‘Feelings’
Understanding the “feels” of different songs is the next step in learning to play by ear. The “feels” are essentially distinct time patterns for your notes.
You’ve undoubtedly heard a different “feel” without realizing it if you’ve ever heard a popular song that sounded radically different from the original.
One of the easiest things to adjust when performers adapt a song is how they interpret the chords and how they play on pianos.
There are four distinct “feel” to consider. While they’re not difficult to learn if you have a solid chord-based foundation, explaining how the “feels” operate with just words is tough.
I strongly advise you to join my course waitlist to learn these skills in the most efficient method possible: through video.
Choosing the Melody
Up until this point, we haven’t discussed melody. Because I’m not a highly melodic player, it was never a top concern when allocating my resources.
But after receiving enough emails regarding learning melody, I realized this is a topic I need to address in the latest version of my online piano-learning course.
Finding a tune becomes second nature once you’ve taught your ear to recognize pitch discrepancies. Even if you’re not a singer, humming or singing the song’s tune will assist you in figuring out which notes make up the melody line.
It’s essentially a trial-and-error method. You can get good at it with a little practice pretty soon.
Listening Is The Key To Playing By Ear
First, select a song to perform. It should be a melodic song in the beginning. The melody in rock or folk music is usually strong and easy to recognize. Rap or hip-hop music is not recommended.
Play the music again and again. Sing along with the music to help you remember it. Don’t bother about the lyrics; hum the tune if it’s more comfortable.
Try to match the melody’s notes to the keys on your keyboard now. It will be a lot of trial and error at first, but you will improve over time. Repeat a few times after you’ve matched a few notes to ensure you remember them.
Then continue to the following melody section. Now play along with the music and make any final adjustments.
Maybe you were expecting some mind-bending lessons on this subject. However, that is all there is to it! This may make things appear to be simpler than they are.
Choose simple tunes, perhaps even nursery rhymes, for your first attempts. After you’ve mastered these, gradually increase the difficulty level.
How Do You Play The Piano By Ear
Step 1: Listen to the Music
Listen to one song repeatedly to begin training your ear. Make it a melodic song, and pay attention to the nuances in the music, such as the highs, lows, and stops and starts.
Take careful note of every sound, shift, and accent. To improve the sound of the music, beat out the song and hum or sing the words out loud. Do this until you can sing the song correctly without any accompaniment.
Step 2: Make a match
It’s time to shift to the piano now that you’re a clear contender for American Idol. Again, hum or sing the melody, but try to isolate the notes you’re singing on the piano.
It will take some trial and error at first, but as you progress, you will instinctively recognize the sounds that come out of your mouth and associate them with the keys on the piano.
Slow down and focus on a few notes at a time, going through the same few small sections of the song numerous times before moving on to the next.
Step 3: Learn music in order to spot patterns.
When learning to play by ear, knowing what music is all about — the chords, intervals, scales, chord progressions, and melodies – substantially increases your chances of success.
You’ll be better at picking out patterns within songs, distinguishing intervals between notes, and recognizing the sounds connected with which chords after you understand the different pieces of music and how they’re put together (for example, serious tones are minor chords, discordant sounds are generally diminishing chords, etc.).
This is the key to learning to play by ear because if you recognize a musical pattern, you don’t even need to study the song!
Bonus training tip: Play this game with a friend to better train your ear without transcribing a song: Request that your friend taps two piano keys.
You must determine whether the first is higher or lower than the second. This will improve your listening skills, allowing you to recognize notes in a song. When it becomes too easy, put each other to the test by playing intervals, chords, etc.
Learn More Intervals To Play Piano By Ear
Intervals can also assist you in determining chord progressions. There is a clear interval between each chord, and it goes from one to the next.
We’ve only gone over the big fundamental intervals today, but there are plenty more. Consider other intervals and songs that use them. If you get stuck, there are lists online like this and this that can assist you in finding minor interval tunes, such as these:
Minor 2nd interval (i.e. C to C#)
Für Elise and the Jaws theme
Minor 3rd Interval (ie. C to Eb)
Greensleeves and O Canada
Minor 6th Interval (ie. C to Ab)
The Beatles‘ “Because” is featured in the Love Story theme song.
Try playing a tune by ear once you’ve mastered a few intervals.
The Advantages of Music Reading
I realize this is a post on playing by ear, but there is something to be said for learning to read music. You may have already decided to play by ear, which is OK; both methods have their merits.
I would recommend learning to do both. As a result, you’ll be a much more flexible musician, capable of playing in various styles and genres.
Reading music gives you the freedom and ability to play nearly anything, and as I’ve stated, it’s not a choice between the two. Learning to read music might help you play by ear more efficiently.
While playing something simply by hearing it is an excellent talent, there is nothing more liberating than sitting down in front of a piece of music you’ve never seen before and playing it.
You will be able to play anything if you can read and read music fluently.
When learning to play the piano by ear, one thing to remember is to practice often. I strongly advise you to study up on effective practice and metronome use, both of which are articles on this website that I believe will be beneficial to you.
What Are Intervals, Exactly?
The distance between two notes is known as an interval.
Intervals are the fundamental elements of music. When one note leads to another, and then another, music is created.
Understanding how melodies and harmonies move will help you recognize intervals. You can play these movements on the piano with practice!
Is Ear Training Beneficial To You?
Is ear training appropriate for you? It’s possible if you:
- Have already mastered the conventional OR chord-based way of playing the piano.
- Are prepared to put in the effort to learn how to distinguish between higher and lower pitches.
- Don’t mind the trial-and-error method
- Make learning to play melody a priority in your piano lessons.
Reading music is a wonderful skill. Playing by ear is also a valuable skill. Fidlar would recommend honing both skills. However, unless you’re incredibly talented, you’ll have to work hard to play piano by ear.
Make sure you understand music theory. Understand popular chord progressions from start to finish. Know every scale in every possible key. This will make playing the piano by ear completely natural.