There are many master piano players who never learned how to read music.  While many believe that this is a requirement for playing the piano, others know that different paths are used to play well.  If you want to play piano by ear, then you can look at unique approaches that will speed up the learning process.  Certain techniques allow you to progress rapidly so you can teach yourself piano. 

Is Playing Piano By Ear a Talent?

There are many that believe that those who play by ear are able to do so only through luck or talent.  This particular myth is not true.  Playing piano by ear to some comes naturally while many musicians have focused on practicing to master how they relate to music.  There are some musicians which have pitch perfect hearing, meaning that they can hear a note and automatically know which one this is.  However, this is less than 1% of those who play the piano.  More important, this innate skill does not mean that someone can play by ear from recognizing tones.  Chord structures, melodic lines and other arrangements within the music also need to be heard and requires more than perfect pitch.

Development and training is essential to effectively play by ear.  Matching the tones of the piano to the music played is the fundamental approach to the ear training.  The training progresses to matching different sounds and chords to pieces of music and extending this to rhythms, chords and melody that match with the music.  It is continuous practice that develops the skill to play by ear.  It is important to learn and decipher different parts of the music, breaking it into different pieces and repeating what this sounds like.  It is through this practice that you can easily begin to learn by ear. 

How to Develop Playing By Ear

The key to learning by ear is to break your music into parts.  Music is made up of arrangements.  These include the melody, harmony and the rhythm of the music.  It also consists of sections that organize the song.  You will want to break these into sections, focusing on one part of the music so you can learn by ear.  Learning each layer will assist you with recognizing how to move with the music and supports the ear training that you are focused on.  The piano, as you may have learned, is divided into arrangements and parts, such as chords and melody.  By focusing on these elements first, you will easily be able to learn without sheet music. 

Step 1: Get the Root of the Chord.  Starting with the bass sound is always the most effective to learning.  This helps you to find the bass note, scale and the chord movement that is in the musical song.  Start by listening to the accented bass notes, such as on the count of 1, and match this on the piano.  You will find consistency in how the bass note moves, defining your chord progression from note to note.  An important part of the root of the chord is understanding the interval relationship to the next chord.  For instance, if you hear the note C, which then moves to F, then it is moving to the 4th of the scale, or 3 whole steps and 1 half step.  You will find that the root consistently repeats in most music, allowing you to find patterns for faster ear training.  The root of the chord also helps you to find chord progressions.  These become the foundation of the music you are learning.

Step 2: Define Your Rhythm.  Now that you have the basic movement of the chords, start to understand the rhythm of the song.  You will want to define whether you are in 3/4 , 4 /4 or another key signature.  You will also want to determine the speed of the music you are playing, specifically so you can match the accented beats and melody with the “1” or the speed.  By defining the pace of the music, you will easily be able to match the basic melody and chords with the piece you are learning. 

Step 3:  Defining Sounds. Is your music happy or sad?  Does it have tension with certain notes or is it harmonious?  Defining whether your song is major or minor will impact the ability to learn the music.  As you practice, you will want to instantly recognize whether the chords are major or minor, diminished or augmented.  Practice isolated chords to understand what type of chord they are.  You can apply this to any key signature or piece of music, making it easy to learn the chord structures in music.  You can practice by listening to different chord structures.  Define what type of chord these are then apply the same sound to any piece of music.

Step 4: Melodic Movement.  To start learning the melody, focus on the accented parts being played.  You will want to match this with the root structure you have.  Often, the melody will contain notes to the root chord to create a harmonious sound.  Always remember that the melody is simply a set of notes defined by an interval.  If you can match certain intervals and spaces between notes, then it will be easier to learn the melody.  It is not important to learn the entire melody, but focus only on the accented parts.

Step 5: Focusing On Major Parts of the Music.  You don’t have to have every note perfected when learning by ear.  When you first start to learn a piece of music, focus on the major segments.  For instance, the accented “1” will help in understanding how the music moves.  The major parts of the melody that stand out can also be a central focus at first.  As you become more familiar with the music, you will be able to move into the details of the piano playing.  To begin ear training, you only need to know the major sections or accents that define the song.

Increasing Your Ability to Play By Ear

Most musicians focus on ear training and develop the skill over time.  By learning pieces of music, you are automatically increasing your auditory recognition of playing by ear.  However, you can also begin to focus on the different theories of music to develop a stronger ear for learning.  Practicing this consistently will help you to easily recognize melodies, intervals and chords in any piece of music.

Intervals are one of the keys to increasing your ability to play by ear.  You will want to listen to different melodic structures and chords so you can begin to hear the intervals being used.  Many will use song recognition to train their ear to specific intervals.  For instance, “Oh Christmas Tree” starts with an interval of a major 4.  Every time you hear this in music, you can use the same reference to the interval.  Find references for every major or minor interval in the scale.  You will begin to hear them in music, making it easier to learn by ear. 

A large component of playing by ear is recognizing the type of chords you are playing.  You will want to focus on whether a song is major or minor by defining the mood.  You can practice by listening to certain chords to see if they are major or minor.  Similar to intervals, there are reference points that are used to make sure you are in the right type of key or mood with the music you are listening to and learning. 

There are certain ways that you can continue to activate your ability to play by ear.  Looking at specific tricks will assist with the capacity you have to learn.  Keep in mind the following:

  • Match intervals before you match notes
  • Recognize the mood of different chords and notes
  • Focus on accented parts of a song
  • Applying theories to ear training accelerates your ability to play the music
  • Unaccented notes or minor chords are not necessary to learn in the beginning

A specific approach with ear training makes it easier to learn.  There are different applications that you can keep in mind while you are learning, specifically to accelerate your understanding of a piece of music.  You will want to have a mindset with the ear training to make the process easy, fun and effective with the learning you are interested in. 

Ear Training with the Piano

Familiarity with the piano will make it easier to learn by ear while allowing you to progress quickly.  Before you begin to learn music by ear, you will need to understand the fundamentals of the piano.  The first step to this is to understand the tones on the piano, such as the lower and higher parts of the instrument.  As ear training is based on tonalities and intervals, you will want to apply this to the piano while you learn.  This changes how you play your pieces while allowing you to not miss a beat.

The importance of ear training and understanding the piano is also based on the layout of the piano.  You will need to have a general idea about the black and white keys on the piano and how these change tonalities while you are learning music.  You will also want to look at the intervals on the piano and how this might alter the structure of the music you are learning.  Familiarity with the piano as well as the tonality within the instrument assists you with more support for learning by ear. 

Tips To Keep In Mind

Tip 1: Know Your Song Foundations.  A song will always go back to the root of where it started from.  Often, this becomes more repetitive with the music.  If you know where the root of the song is, it will become easier to decipher the rest of the song. 

Tip 2: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.  Many musicians will try to focus on getting every note right when learning by ear.  Jazz is designed so the musician didn’t have to repeat the exact notes, using personal expression for new versions of the music.  Focus on the structure of the chords, basic melody and the accented parts of the song for faster learning. 

Tip 3: Break Your Song.  Divide your song into parts, such as the verse and chorus.  Even classical and jazz music has repetition.  By defining where the repeated portions are, you can break down your song into parts while following theories and structure with the ear training. 

With simple steps, you will easily be able to play the piano and learn by ear.  Recognition of intervals and chords begins a journey to understanding music without sheets of paper.  You can further your learning by dividing the layers of your song for easier applications.  Consistent practice with ear training ensures that you will become successful with the approach, matching you with some of the greatest masters that only played by ear. 

If this article was helpful, please “like” Digital Piano Review Guide’s Facebook page!

You Might Also Want to Read:

  1. How to Play Piano Chords for Beginners
  2. What’s the Best Way to Learn Piano at Home?
  3. 5 Crucial Tips for Learning Jazz Piano
  4. Guide to Piano Chords for Beginners
  5. How to Learn Piano Chords Fast
  6. 5 Piano Lessons for Kids That Are Fun and Effective
  7. 5 Adult Piano Lessons to Master the Piano