A pianist’s ability to recreate a song they’ve heard without using sheet music is known as playing by ear. Playing by ear is quite useful to be able to do, as pianists don’t always have time to learn and memorize sheet music, or maybe there is no sheet music available! A fun way of looking at is that playing by ear might be thought of as a music-specific example of oral tradition. Some early Blues pianists are examples of this where they solely learned piano by ear! So let’s get into how to play piano by ear…
Now learning to play piano by ear is not easy! It will take time, so do not expect to be able to do it within a week. However, by reading this article you will start to be able to pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses and the time it takes you to learn how to play piano by ear will decrease dramatically.
Guide On How To Play Piano By Ear
The key to playing music by ear is to first listen to it. So pick a song, any song that you know and can play easily on piano. Hopefully, that song has a strong melody. Now just listen to the song, with intent, focus on following the melody and chord changes (disregard any extraneous instruments or complicated basslines for now).
Great job! You’re one step closer to playing piano by ear! That’s the first step. Listen with intention to songs you know and pick out the melody and chords!
Recreate Riffs and Melodies
Alright if you think you are ready to move on from listening then the next step is recreating! You are officially playing piano by. ear now, great work!
Try some easy tunes you know, happy birthday, twinkle twinkle little star, e.t.c. And if you already know how to play these then shift the root note and play them in a new key!
Learn Common Chords
Many songs use the same chords, and some of the songs even use the same chord progressions! I suggest you immediately learn some of the more popular progressions:
I vi IV V
The Pop Progression is something you must learn to make your playing by ear journey much faster or at least open up many popular songs to be recreated much quicker. I will not go into a massive list of chord progressions here, a list of sad progressions can be found here, and some functional ones.
Just know that many of these progressions are going to just be variations on the above, and that any pop song you here is probably some combination of these four chords! So the I, V IV, and vi chord are likely additions to any chord progression you try to recreate.
You are going to have to start ear training in order to play piano by ear! I suggest getting your friends together and doing some ear training games! This is good fun, and improves your listening abilities
Alternate between playing the piano and other instruments. At first, play just fourths or fifths. Then add in octaves, seconds, major thirds until you can name nearly every interval on the piano. This will help you build the skills you’ll need to distinguish notes in a song. When it becomes too simple, put each other to the test by playing intervals, chords, and so on.
Start Recreating Songs! (Transcribe and Play)
Now when you first start doing this, you are going to be transcribing music. You play a little bit and then you try to play that by ear, and it goes slowly and slowly until you get so good you don’t have to write the notes down and can just play the entire tune by ear!
Practice some simple piano songs, with no sheet music! Get an audio recording of a song, and start trying to recreate it. Here’s a list of some simple tunes you can learn to play. Feel free to choose your own!
1. Drunken Sailor
2. All the Pretty Little Horses
3. Amazing Grace
4. Musette in D Major, Johann S. Bach
5. Red River Valley
6. Swan Lake Theme, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
7. Barcarolle, Jacques Offenbach
8. Clair de Lune, Claude Debussy
9. In the Hall of the Mountain King, Edvard Grieg
Now I know this isn’t playing by ear, but it’s a very related activity. If you don’t usually sight read I want you to start sight-reading, and if you do already practice, up the practice time! Sight-reading involves quickly processing information and transferring into piano playing, which is extremely familiar to playing by ear.
I’ve found that sight reading speeds up learning across many piano activities including learning to play by ear and you should adopt it into your regimen to learn how to play piano by ear faster!
I’ve listed many many many techniques that will make you better at playing piano by ear. But I want to emphasize that only with practice and time will you get better. You just have to keep trying till you are capable. Imagine one day you will sit down at the piano and be able to play any song you hear off the radio on the piano, and any time you feel like giving up just know that you’ll be glad you didn’t!
So get out there and start playing by ear… or at least trying!