Entry Into Music—Playing By Ear

Playing By Ear means being able to play music that you’ve heard, but without sight of a music chart or score.

Most people can sing by ear, in fact that’s how most people sing! You listen to a song a few times, and you quickly pick up the tune (if it’s a good one!). Then, straight away, you can sing it. Once you’re familiar with the melody, it’s not hard to pitch the right notes with your voice.

It seems to be different for playing the melody on an instrument though. Now you have to work out the first pitch and find the note, then do the same with all the others.

There’s only one way to get good at this, and that’s to practise. The more you try, the better you’ll get. (Ah, I hear you cry, but that’s the same with everything! And you’re right, it is.)

The best technique is in your ability to sing the tune. If you can’t sing it, you won’t be able to play it. So listen to a song a few times, then sing it. Sing it again and again.

Now sit at the piano and try to find the first note of the song. In fact, any note will do, because you don’t have to play your song in the same key as the original, but you do want to choose the key you’re comfortable in when you sing, so try to match the note on the piano to the first note you sang.

Now sing just the first few notes of the song. You can sing the lyrics or just hum, but do it loudly, otherwise you won’t pick up the intervals. You only want two or three notes at this stage. Sing them and experiment with playing. You need to sing loudly and slowly, allowing yourself time to try different notes on the piano until you find one that matches. When it matches, play from the beginning as far as you’ve got. Does it sound right? If so, well done! If not, start again.

You will find that it takes less and less time to match the piano notes to your singing. But you need to practise this technique a lot to make a real difference to your skill at playing by ear.

So why bother? If you can read music, why not just get a copy of the chart and play from that? What’s the point of playing by ear?

In fact, there are many superb musicians who can’t read music and only play by ear. You may envy them their skill. If you’re a good sight-reader, they probably envy your skill! Both skills are desirable. Playing by ear allows you to play melodies that you don’t have sheet music for, and it makes it easier to change the key of those melodies, for example to play along with a singer who needs the song to be at a higher or lower pitch.

Get good at playing melodies by ear. You will be a much better musician if you can do this. You’ll be able to hear intervals and find the notes easily. And it’s fun!

But there’s more to music than melody! As pianists, we also supply the harmonies, also known as the chords or the changes. This requires even more acute listening skills. As you listen to your chosen song, try to identify the harmonies under the melody. The chords will change frequently. You don’t have to play the exact harmonies of the original, and many songs can be very nicely harmonised with only three or four chords. For most songs, these chords will be Chord I, Chord II, Chord IV and Chord V. Sometimes you will need Chord VI, but rarely.

Notice how the chords are labelled using Roman Numerals. This is musical convention. If you have never studied music theory, and you don’t understand how the harmonies are labelled and named, it would be a good idea to take a theory course with the express purpose of getting to grips with harmony.

Harmony is the basis of all music. Even when a melody is played on its own, it still has its roots in harmony. The chords are there, even if they’re not played.

This article isn’t the place for a look at chords themselves, but once you understand how to work out the four chords I mentioned above, you will be able to harmonise most songs.

Enjoy Playing By Ear!

Add it to your Entries Into Music!