7 Tricks to Learn to Play Piano by Ear Successfully

Do you want to learn to play piano by ear?  If so, you've come to the right place.

Any student is able to learn to play piano by ear, all it takes is a lot of practice and several different exercises and techniques to train your ear in memorization and replication.

Luckily, in this article, I will provide you with 7 tricks that I think will help students train their ear, brain and fingers to be able to successfully play by ear.

What Does It Mean to Play Piano by Ear?

In simple terms, playing by ear means playing piano without music notation. There are many students of music who only know how to play piano by ear, most notably guitar players who only know chord progressions. They may never learn how to read sheet music, but they can still play great songs and often sing the melody while playing piano.

The ability to play piano by ear also means students are able to replicate songs they hear on the piano simply through their own knowledge of music composition and theory. While it may not be instantaneous such as that of 14-year-old Mozart, students who can play by ear recreate the songs by combining perfect pitch, failed attempts and other piano knowledge. Some students choose to write these recreations out on sheet music to be able to play in the future, but that is not a requirement of playing by ear.

Some people assume that playing by ear means students have perfect pitch, how else are they supposed to match the notes in the song? This is not entirely true. While some students who play by ear may have the ability to identify pitch perfectly, it is not a necessary requirement to be able to play piano by ear. Anyone can learn to play piano by ear through practice. 

Playing Piano by Ear vs. Sheet Music

The clearest difference between playing piano by ear and playing with sheet music is the method of which the student is playing. One student is playing songs that they’ve heard before and can replicate, while others are playing songs that are written out in front of them.

The most important difference between playing piano by ear and playing it with sheet music is that there is no real difference in skill level. Any player can learn to play piano through rote memorization and any player can also learn to read sheet music and play piano that way. 

Neither form of playing is better than the other, they simply use different skillsets. Playing by ear requires more ear and pitch training while playing with sheet music requires more attention and finger dexterity studies. Both have their advantages and their fallouts, it simply depends on what the student’s goal for playing and learning piano is.

Each way of playing piano also enhances and helps learning to play the other way. The players that want to become well-rounded and learn different playing techniques and skills will benefit from both of these styles.

Advantages to Playing by Ear

Playing by ear requires a deeper understanding of piano theory and composition such as chord progressions, common baseline rhythms, and inversions. Through these students students who play by ear are able to analyze and replicate songs faster because they listen for the songs’ intricate theory foundations.

Playing by ear is usually good for learning well-known songs that are easily replicated due to their simple chord structure and repeating melody. While this type of playing could be used to replicate classical or more contemporary songs, it can create some difficulty because of the difficult compositions of those songs. Students who wish to do that will have to up their game a little higher towards Mozart and most likely develop perfect pitch.

It could also be that as a younger student, they simply learned how to play piano through rote memorization. This is not an uncommon teaching technique, especially with younger students who have trouble focusing or multitasking. It helps students focus more on hand placement and getting used to the layout of the piano rather than needing to learn that and read sheet music at the same time. If this is the way they began to learn to play piano, then it is not uncommon that is the way they continue to learn.

Playing the piano by ear can be a rewarding experience, but it takes a lot of practice and dedication

Advantages to Playing with Sheet Music

All this is not to say that playing by ear is the absolute best way to learn to play piano, there are quite a few advantages to learning with sheet music as well. For example, reading sheet music is almost like a baseline foundation in the music industry. It is a transferrable skill to all other instruments, and if students want to go professional in their music career, being able to read sheet music is a requirement.

Reading sheet music also helps build the ability to multitask. Students who play piano with sheet music need to be able to read the sheet music, including dynamics, figure out where their hands should be placed, know which fingers need to be pushing down and learn to read ahead so that there are no awkward pauses within the music. That is quite a lot to do in a very short amount of time. Once again, this is a skill that can be transferred to many other instruments and also everyday life.

Along with multitasking, playing piano with sheet music builds brain and finger dexterity connection. Because sheet music is less about the chords, and the written-out melodies tend to have more complicated fingerings than just trying to play by ear, the dexterity and flexibility is a necessity. Students need to be ready for anything in sheet music because it is less repetitive than playing by ear and is more demanding on the hands.

One last advantage to playing with sheet music is that there is a lot more music readily available for students. They don’t need to take the time to recreate songs, they can just go to a music store and pick something up, sit down and sight read. There is a lot more variety which can make piano playing a lot more fun that recreating similar songs over and over again.

But learning to play by ear is still a valuable skill and is a great way to impress friends, so here is a list of 7 tips and tricks that will help students learn to play piano by ear successfully.

Understand the Music

This may seem self explanatory, but in order to play by ear students need to be able to listen to the songs they hear. More than that, they need to be able to listen to the details that others may not catch and understand what is going on in the piece. Is this note going up or down? Is it a half step or more? What is the interval jump that just occurred?

Learning to listen is not as easy as it sounds. It takes time, practice, and usually the study of music theory to learn about the different segments of music. However, it is a crucial first step to learning how to play by ear because without the listening skill, your ears will never be trained enough to copy.

There are many ways to be able to learn how to listen. Students can do pitch training with a random note generator and match the pitch on the piano. Other options also include learning to sing the correct pitches and identify them, or learning some tricks on how to identify intervals within musical pieces. It doesn’t really matter which way students go about it as long as their ears begin to be trained. 

The most important aspects for students to learn is pitch, intervals and form. These are the bases of music theory and composition and will be the easiest to replicate when trying to play by ear. Eventually that will lead to students learning to identify key signature and chord progressions within songs as well.

Identify the Patterns

If music is broken down into its basic parts, it’s really just all about the patterns: The same chord progression over and over broken down in different ways to create a melody, the same melody repeated with different flairs, or the left hand relentlessly doing the same supporting beat while the right hand flies over the keys. Once students recognize this it makes learning to play by ear a lot easier.

Patterns make it so there is less to learn within the music, less to recognize and less to memorize. They appear in any and all music whether the student is looking to play popular songs or classical ones. Identifying the sections that are the same or follow a similar pattern make repeating the music easier and faster.

There are a few ways to practice identifying patterns, but the most effective is to just keep studying different kinds of music. It can be staring at sheet music until the patterns jump out, or playing a bunch of songs so common patterns become ingrained in your hands, but just keep studying. It’s especially important to study different styles of music because they will all have different styles of patterns for the students to learn.

It would also be beneficial to learn music theory which is all about identifying the repeating fundamental patterns of music. Chords, key signatures and composition all fall under this category.

Learning how to play the piano together.

Learn the Theory

A great way to learn the recognize patterns and understand music on a deeper level is to learn the theory. Theory tactics like the circle of fifths or different scale iterations can help train the ear to recognize the intimacies of music and be able to eventually copy it without sheet music’s help.

While it may seem boring or complicated, learning the theory behind music basics will speed up a student’s ability to play by ear. Theory teaches how music is composed and teaches how to listen for these different compositions. Replicating them become a lot easier if students are familiar with what they are listening for and trying to replicate.

There are a multitude of ways to go about learning music theory. The first being to find a teacher. It can be an online video series or an in-person teacher. Another way to learn music theory is find a theory workbook that preps students for state-level theory tests. Either way theory is all about the music and it’s important to know this if students want to learn to play piano by ear.

Get Comfortable with Failure

While this may not be a tip for actual playing of music by ear, it’s an important trick to help enhance and advance learning to play by ear. This is not a skill that will be developed over night, and it’s important to remember that this is quite a difficult skill to learn.

Especially with learning the pitches and intervals, it’s important to get comfortable with failure. There are very few students that get this right the first time, for many others it takes multiple attempts and learning to identify the wrong notes and pitches can be as important as the correct ones.

This tip extends to when students have developed the skill to learn to play by ear. While starting to replicate a song, unless students have developed perfect pitch (which once again is not a requirement for learning to play piano by ear), there will be many failed attempts to recreate a certain section. This is a skill that requires dedication above all else to eventually become second-nature, but until then failure is inevitable.

Watch While You Listen

Especially for students just starting out with their studies to learn to play by ear, watching people play the piano while listening to the song can be extremely helpful. This not only helps students learn to match pitch, but can help students learn where each pitch is and notice the octaves and keys the song is written in.

While watching and listening is not learning by ear, it is an important step because students are still learning by rote memorization. They are not using sheet music or notation, they are simply listening and looking and copying. Eventually this will lead to them only listening and copying.

The important part is to set the foundations for what the students are listening for. Especially for those students who are visual learners, this is a great first step to become an auditory learner. It sets the foundation of what different composition techniques look like and how to play or replicate them which will eventually be necessary for students to do on their own when they play by ear.

Practice, Practice, Practice

This may seem like an obvious step to learning how to play by ear, but it is as important as any of the others. Practicing theories, chord progressions, scales, and arpeggios are all great ways to build fundamentals for learning to play by ear.

Most surprising to many is that practicing with sheet music can even be quite beneficial as well. It can help expose students to more different kinds of music faster than those learning to play by ear. It exposes them to different keys, time signatures and composition styles all of which are important to know and be able to analyze when learning to play a song by ear.

Start Simple

Eventually learning to play piano by ear can make way for analyzing extremely complex songs with changing time signatures, rapid tempos and complicated key signatures, but it’s important to start with more simple songs to play by ear. Start with songs that maintain the same time signature throughout and use a basic key signature with less flats and sharps. Practicing these can help build up confidence and lay the foundations needed for learning more complex songs by rote.

Foundations are important in any piano playing skills, but especially in rote learning. Most importantly for learning rote, theory foundations and piano playing foundations are necessary. Piano playing especially is a building skill, without the foundations the more advanced skills have nothing to build on and thus would never be developed.

A Final Reminder: Make it Fun

Learning by rote can be a pretty stressful skill to learn. It requires a lot of learning from failed attempts which can be disappointing. Rather than stress about it, remember to learn to play by ear is just something for fun, it’s not required of any student. 

A great way to make this hard skill more fun is to get friends involved! Have them help by playing notes on the piano and trying to identify what they are, or make it a competition to see who can figure out a certain song fastest. Either way, piano playing is meant to be fun, so don’t let a hard skill bring it down.

  • If you’re still interested in learning how to play piano or keyboard, get your copy of Piano for All today, which features 10 eBooks, 200 video piano lessons and 500 audio piano lessons!

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