Playing Piano By Ear

Learning to read music isn’t essential to being able to play the music. There have been many famous musicians – and even composers – who couldn’t read music notation. The Blues genre was largely created by musicians who couldn’t read a note!

So how did they manage?

They played by ear.

Playing by ear means playing without music. Usually it involves hearing a piece, and then sitting down at a piano and playing it without music – relying totally on your memory for what you have heard. Or alternatively, you can compose by playing around with note combinations until you find one that you like and storing the composition in your memory.

Before the music notation system existed, this was how all music was transmitted. Traveling musicians, performers, and monks, would all learn music by listening to others singing it, and then repeating it back. Often a choirmaster would have a repertoire of hundreds of pieces stored only in his memory. However, the problem with this system was the same as that of a game of Chinese whispers. Memories and what you hear are not infallible. And the more people who passed the tune on, the more distorted it became! Hence the notation system was developed.

You can try playing by ear yourself by listening to the pieces in these lessons that are on the audio clips until you remember the tune, and then playing them without looking at the music below.

Playing by ear is a good way to learn the piano really quickly. But beware! It can be a mistake to rely too much on this method as you will ultimately end up stumbling when you reach more technical pieces. I was tripped up by this very thing at school when I was learning the recorder. Instead of bothering to read the music, I would just play along with the others by ear. This worked really well…until we had a new piece to learn. Then I was stuck because I didn’t know how it sounded and I couldn’t read the music – very embarrassing!

In saying that though, this can be a really helpful method to get you playing fast. Particularly if you want to play pop or jazz, this is a really good method to use. To impress your friends and family, listen to pop songs on the radio and try playing them on the piano by ear!

To try playing by ear, first listen to the pieces below and try to play them through BEFORE you take a look at the music (no peeking allowed!).

This piece should be familiar to you, particularly if you are an American, it is the old folk tune ‘ Turkey in the Straw’. To give you a clue to get started, the key of the piece is F major, so it has one black note, Bb. The left hand is very simple and only has 3 notes. Listen once and then find your position on the keyboard. Tap time to the piece to guess the time signature.

This second piece is for the right hand only. Here are two clues to help you get started: (1) it is based closely around the C scale, and, (2) there are a couple of tied notes.

How did you do? Don’t worry if you found it difficult. It took me a while to get used to just using my ear and translating what I heard onto the keyboard. To see how close you were, take a look at the music below for both pieces.

Glossary of Terms

Choirmaster: The musical director of a choir.

Monk: A male religious living in a cloister and devoting himself to contemplation, prayer, and work.

Playing by ear: Hearing a tune and playing it solely from memory.