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Porträt Doro
by Dorothea Herrmann

How to Play Piano by Ear: A Quick Guide

Have a browse on YouTube and you'll find several self-taught pianists who only play by ear. Many of them don't even know how to read sheet music. And yet, they're still able to play the most stunning songs and covers.

How on earth do they do this? Well, they've got great listening skills and considerable talent. But this isn't something you have to be born with. That's right -- playing by ear is something you can practice. And we'll tell you how!

The secret of playing by ear is listening

First, choose a song that you want to play. In the beginning, it should be a melodic song. Rock or folk songs usually have a strong melody that is easy to detect. Rap or hip-hop songs are less suitable.

Listen to the song several times. To internalize the melody, sing along too. Don't worry about the lyrics -- you can just hum the melody if it's more comfortable for you.

guy listening to music
Take your time and listen to the song you want to play.

Now, try to match the notes of the melody with the keys on your piano. At the beginning, it'll be a lot of trial and error, but you’ll get better over time. When you’ve matched a few notes, repeat them a few times to make sure you remember them. Then, move on to the next part of the melody. Now, play along with the song and do some final tweaking.

Maybe you expected some brain-twisting instructions on this matter. But that's really all there is to it! This might make things sound easier than they are. For your first attempts, pick easy songs, maybe even nursery rhymes. Once you've mastered these, you can increase the level of difficulty bit by bit.

Four magic chords

As I’ve said so far, to play by ear, you don’t need any music reading skills or knowledge in music theory. But it does help. Many pop songs use the same set of chords. So why do pop songs still sound so different from one another?

pile of CDs

This is because chords can be played many different ways, and in different combinations. We call these combinations ‘chord progressions’. It's chord progressions that create rich variety of sound. Knowing the most common chord progressions in pop songs will help you work out the chords of a song much faster. Why? Because you'll know what you're looking for!

Practice with a friend

Some people have that awesome talent of perfect pitch. This means they're able to name or sing a given musical note without a reference point. Some people are born with perfect pitch, though this is rare. Listening skills can always be trained and improved. Even if you don't master perfect pitch, you can still be a very good musician.

Even practicing songs helps you boost your listening skills. But if you really want to put them to the test, try this this entertaining challenge:

two guys at the piano

Ask a friend or a member of your family to play two notes, one after another, on the piano. Then, it’s your turn to tell if the second note was higher or lower than the first one. At the beginning, ask them to play should play notes that aren't too close together. After a few rounds, they can increase the level of difficulty. Of course, you're not allowed to look at the piano during the game. Even if the person you're practicing with doesn't play an instrument, you can take turns. If they enjoy the exercise too, you can challenge each other!

After some time, try to work out which octave the second note was played in. You can then take things to the next level by trying to work out how many tones separate the first note from the second. This exercise is a fun and challenging way to enhance your listening skills. And great listening skills are exactly what you need to play your favourite songs by ear.