I am often asked how it is I can play the piano by ear and I have never really provided an adequate answer. This article is an attempt to explain what playing by ear means to me, how and why I do it, and what the pros and cons are.
What is playing by ear?
Literally, playing by ear means that you can learn to play a song on an instrument without recourse to musical notation or sheet music. All the learning is done by listening and copying what you have heard. There are of course shades of grey to the concept of playing by ear and it is rare that someone never reads any music in order to learn any tune. Most of the songs and musical pieces I play I have learnt by ear alone, but there are also a significant minority of pieces that I have had to learn both through playing by ear and reading sheet music. As a pianist who performs at weddings and other events, being able to play by ear is extremely helpful for me and has enabled me to build up a long and broad repertoire.
First playing by ear
I first played the piano by ear at the age of 3 or 4 by trying to pick out the notes of the theme tunes I was hearing on television. It was a case of trial and error. I would know in my head how the tune went, so it was a matter of making the notes on the piano conform to the sounds I knew I needed to play in order to replicate the tune I was hearing on television. This is effectively what I have been doing ever since! This interest, and ability to work out how a basic tune could be replicated on the piano without recourse to sheet music, led to my parents getting me piano lessons from the age of 5.
Developing a good first touch
Though I can play the piano by ear, I wouldn’t be able to play the piano to anything like my current standard without having learnt to read music and had very structured classical training in my formative years. My musical ear gave me an advantage but it didn’t remove the need for me to study and learn other aspects of playing the piano.
All basic skills on the piano are important, but the most important for me are scales and arpeggios. They are the musical equivalent of a young footballer kicking a ball against a wall over and over again, or doing keepy-uppies until they drop, or practicing free-kicks and penalties with the aim of hitting the same spot every time. In both cases, while you’re doing this on a daily basis, over several weeks, months and years with ever increasing complexity, you are building up a bedrock of fundamental skills which then become second nature and ones you can instantly rely on, enabling you to then undertake more complex exercises. In football this might be referred to as ‘touch’ and I think this is the same for the piano – without a subconscious and natural first touch, you can’t play either sport or music to a high standard.
For me, playing by ear does not mean I can just listen to something a few times then perfectly replicate any song or tune on the piano. However, it is a tool which helps me achieve the end result more quickly.
Better ears = poorer eyes
This has been the case for me. My ability to learn music by listening has inhibited my ability to read music. I can read music, but not to the extent that people might expect having listened to me play the piano. While I was learning the classical pieces I needed to play to pass my various exams my teacher naturally would play them to give me an idea of what they should sound like, and at various points during lessons, would step in and repeat phrases and specific technical aspects to help me break down the piece into manageable chunks in order for me to practice and then gradually put it all together as one musical performance. While he was doing this I was listening intently and when it came to mastering particularly tricky aspects where the musical notation seemed to be a foggy web of notes, latin words and weird squiggly marks on the page, I was simply copying what I had heard and using the sheet music as a sort of back-up to remind me roughly of where I was in the overall piece. This helped me learn music more quickly, but at the detriment of my ability to read music. I have evidence too – I passed all my exams very comfortably, but only ever passed one with distinction because I routinely failed the sight-reading aspect of each exam!
Trial and error
Playing music by ear is a case of trial and error for me. As you get older you listen to more music of different styles and have a greater back catalogue of musical memories, chord progressions and melodies to draw from. This helps me as I learn new songs as there are usually aspects of a song that are familiar to me, even listening for the first time. By this I mean there are chord progressions that will have been used in previous songs which I already know how to play, so already there is a familiarity and base from which to work out how to play a new song. Where there are less familiar chords in use, as is the case with some of the more complex jazz and classical pieces, I can rely less on my ear for the specific notes and will need to seek out the sheet music to ensure I get it spot on, though still relying on my ear to replicate the beat, tempo and overall phraseology.
So that is what playing the piano by ear is to me. It’s a useful tool that I always apply when learning a new song. It’s not instantaneous and still requires work and practice, and certainly isn’t the only method I need in order to learn to play a new piece of music.
I only have my own experience to draw from but I believe that anyone can use their ear in order to learn music – you just need the patience and time to go through the trial and error process. If you know when you are playing it wrong, you’ll know when you’re playing it right.
Oh, and a final thought, I found some books for sale online purporting to show you how to learn to play by ear. Please for goodness sake don’t buy them, just have a go and see what happens!