Friday, July 24, 2009

About Playing by Ear

Some things can't be taught. You're born with an ability, or you're not. They say perfect pitch is one of those things. Can you hear a musical tone and instantly identify the note? Only a very small percentage of our population can do it. They can't explain how they do it, they can't teach it. They can
can only do it.

Playing music by ear was once thought to be unteachable
(or unlearnable depending on your reference point). In
fact many people are still convinced that playing by
ear is an inherant trait. Ask an "ear" player how they
do it, and they're likely to tell you, "I don't know, I
just do it."

Well I'm here to tell you that not only can anyone
learn to play by ear, it's actually quite easy once you
know a basic thing or two about chord playing. And most
of it is intuitive. Let me show you.

Start with the note C on the piano, and try to play
"Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Just experiment. Trial and
error. Make a mistake, hear it, and correct it. That's
all it is. Start on an E note and play "Mary Had a
Little Lamb." Start on C and play "Frere Jacques."

Some melodies are more challenging than others, so if
you're doing this exercise on your own, be prepared for
inconsistent results. But any melody is ultimately
learnable, using this trial and error method.

This little exercise is exactly what I try to do in the
first few minutes of my How to Play Piano by Ear
workshop. I will choose a student, put him/her at the
piano, give them a starting note, name a tune, and ask
them to do the rest.

And in the course of 25 plus years, I've only had a
handful of students (about three, actually) who could
not pass this simple test. It was easier for some
people than it was for others. But virtually everybody
got it.

Interesting side note. Guess who struggled the most.
Total beginners? No. It was those with years of
traditional classical piano studies that seemed to have
the hardest time with this.

Why? I don't know. But most of them, when I asked,
revealed to me that during their years of study they
were never encouraged by their teachers to play any
music that wasn't actually written down in music
notation format. They never tried to play by ear. They
were never allowed to.

The story does have a happy ending, however. Once they
were given "permission" to touch the piano on their
own, the classical veterans got comfortable with the
idea, and started to pick things up very quickly.

So that's a start to playing by ear. Chances are you've
done it already to some extent. If not, you should give
it a try. The next faze of the process is learning to
add the correct chords to the melodies you play.

Some people believe there is some magic formula that
has the song's melody dictate what the chords should
be. But that's not how it works at all. There is a
method for learning to add chords to a melody, and it's
not that difficult. But perhaps we'll leave that for
another time.

In the meantime, why not give the musical side of your
brain a challenge, and try learning a few tunes on your
own by ear. Here's a help. I can't tell you what the
starting note is for every song. But it's likely to be
either C, E, or G, and that will make it so that the
rest of the notes will be primarily white keys on your
piano. Go ahead, and give it a try.

[photo credit midiman]


  1. I can play music by ear! But I can only do so with one hand. My dream is to learn the piano since I was young and I'm sure I will realize this dream. Thanks for the post! :)


  2. Playing by ear with the left hand is actually easier than with the right hand. But it's much less intuitive. You need to have a little theory to know what you're doing.

  3. Excellent post. Playing by ear CAN be taught. Just a little willingness from the student and new doors of piano playing open up!

  4. I was looking for good blog to meet my friends need of learning piano so i get it here it really nice.

  5. I took Robert's "Playing by Ear" course on tape. The most useful thing for ME as a song writer, was knowing what chords to try while I sing the melody on top. It worked out pretty well ... my new musical is up and running thanks, in part, to Robert Laughlin.

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