Can You Learn To Play By Ear?

musician ear

Music can be defined as “organized sound.” If a musician can learn to hear the organization, they can replicate it without the use of any written cues at all. We will explore how to hear that organization in this article.

In order for a musician to play by ear, they must be able to identify keys, intervals, and if their instrument involves harmony (ie chords on a piano or guitar), identify harmony as well. Any musician can learn what to listen for when playing by ear, and replicate it on their instrument or voice. 

Steps To Playing By Ear

  1. Learn how to recognize major and minor keys, and what the notes of those keys sound like. 
  2. Play your instrument until you find the 7 notes that sound best with the piece of music you are listening to, and identify which key those 7 notes belong to. 

For example if you are listening to “Let it Be” by The Beatles, you will find all the white notes (all the natural notes on other instruments) will sound best. This means you are in the Key of C. 

  1. Identify the type of chords being played. 

For example identify if the chords are Major, Minor, Diminished, or Augmented. Then try to hear if there are any extensions (ie 7ths, 6ths, 9ths etc). 

  1. Once identified, refer back to which chords exist naturally in that particular key. 

For example in the key of C, C, F and G are major, while D E and A are minor, and B is diminished. 

  1. Play the chord that sounds best with the chord you are listening to, using trial and error and first. 

For example in “Let it Be,” after identifying the first chord is major, try an F, and see if that sounds like the same chord. You will find it does not. Then try C, and you will find that sounds correct. 

  1. Repeat this process for all chords. 
  2. For melodic sequences, listen to the direction of the melody, i.e. whether it goes up or down. Using your knowledge of the notes of that key, try the notes that are in that key to see which sound the same as the piece you are listening to. 

How Long Does It Take To Train Your Ear?

It does not take long to train your ear to find simple chord progressions and melodic lines. Once you have knowledge of the key signatures and chords of that key, music that doesn’t move outside of those keys will be easy to find within a few weeks at the most. 

As you continue to do this process over years, you will find that you will recognize things you have heard before, such a iv VI I V chord progression, or a major pentatonic descending line. The more references you have, the quicker you will be able to play by ear, and will be better prepared to handle songs or pieces that don’t stay within the key throughout. 

What Does It Mean To Play By Ear?

To play by ear is the process of simply listening to a piece of music, and being able to replicate that back on an instrument. This can be chords, melodic phrases, solo breaks, lead lines, or percussive parts. 

Playing by ear can be further taken into the context of improvisation. If a group of musicians are jamming, they are making things up and reacting to other musicians on the spot, without the benefit of exact notes written out on a page. Being able to pick out musical ideas, and in the moment replicate or respond to those ideas, is one of the greatest skills a musician can attain. 

It is also helpful in a studio environment. Sometimes musicians will be called into the studio to work with an artist who sings but does not play an instrument. That artist might sing a phrase they have an idea for, and the musician will be able to take those ideas and play them back on their own instrument. 

How Rare Is It To Play By Ear?

It is not at all rare to play by ear. The vast majority of musicians can do it, and depending on how much they practice the skill, do it well. 

The type of music one plays is a good indicator of whether that musician will be able to play by ear. For example, a Jazz musician will almost certainly be able to pick out very complicated phrases by ear, as it is required in the form of jazz. 

Classical Pianists, on the other hand, may not be as quick or skilled at playing by ear because they learn their complicated piano pieces from scores and may not practice that skill as much. However even when not as practiced, it can be expected that a classical pianist will be able to play at least simple musical ideas by ear. 

Is Playing By Ear Genetic?

Playing by ear can be trained, but it can also be genetic. Mozart is famous for being able to play back complicated pieces when he was just a child, and Elton John tells the story of himself picking out a tune on piano before he even knew how to play the piano. 

However, many musicians cannot play by ear until they learn their instrument and learn to recognize what they are hearing and regurgitate that back. They use skills rather than natural genetic disposition in order to play music back that they have heard. 

Some are also born with perfect pitch. This is the ability to be able to hear and recognize a note being played as most people are able to recognize a color. This enables those born with perfect pitch to be able to instantly tell which notes were played just by hearing them. 

Can Anyone Learn To Play By Ear?

Anyone who takes the time to learn an instrument can play by ear. Just as you can practice chords and scales on a guitar and get better, you can take a step by step approach to learning how to recognize and be able to play back just by listening. 

If someone has never played any instrument, they will have to learn it first in order to play by ear. If they can play an instrument, but have no knowledge of theory, they can still play by ear by practicing via trial and error, but the process will be sped up considerably if they learn basic theory. 

In the days of today where almost any song can be played by anyone at any time, by using streaming services such as spotify, playing by ear is more useful than it has ever been. If a musician has worked on this skill enough, they may, for example, be able to learn and play a full album that was released at midnight friday morning, by noon that same day, 

This skill will free one of the need to rely on others to transcribe music and publish it onto the internet or in books, and let them be able to freely hear and immediately play back their favorite pieces of music. 

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