How to develop playing by ear

I often get this question on how to play by ear or how to develop playing by ear? There is no straight answer for this but there are guidelines that you can follow to develop this skill. There are 3 important attributes you must have to be able to play by ear. There are :-

  • Passion for music
  • Patience
  • Music sense

I've divided playing by ear development into 2 categories which are :-

  • Students who already have background in music eg. piano grade 4 and above etc
  • Students who have no background in music at all.

Students with background in music

If you are already learning piano at maybe grade 4 level, you don't have to worry about the playing part as you already can play or probably can memorize songs. I'm assuming that you are already good in your scales and arpeggios. Please take note that memorizing a song is different skill from playing by ear as it uses your muscle memory to play it. You probably played the song for at least 100 times and you can memorize it. Playing by ear is knowing what chord is coming next and is not by memory. But muscle memory cannot be disregarded as it is the 2nd step for playing by ear in order for you to remember the song. Okay, lets start right into the topic now.

The easiest way to start with playing by ear is learning the chords of the song. Start  by downloading the chords of a popular song that you like for example a simple song like 'Perfect' by Ed Sheeran as it is a song with only 5 chords. If you have a tutor to guide you that would be great to speed up the process. Get to know the melody of the song (This is important). Learn to play the melody with the right hand by listening to the song as many times as possible. if possible play in the original key as you can play along with the song. Next, you have to learn the chords with the left hand. Start by playing block chords (Playing chords by holding it for one bar). You can do this by looking at the chord chart that you downloaded. After this try playing both hands with the left hand playing block chords.

Once you have a achieve this, try playing the left hand with some patterns to it such as one chord per beat or using arpeggios to play the left hand. Do take note that you need a lot of patience and determination to do this for a start. After you achieve both hands playing. Try improvisation (Another topic to be discussed) by giving more variation to your piece. Everybody has a different style of playing. My personal favorite style of left hand accompaniment is playing like Richard Clayderman as I grew up playing a lot of his songs. . As I mention earlier, these are the basic steps to play by ear. After achieving this with many other songs, try new songs without even having the chord chart. Listen to the bass of the song to get the chords.  I can guarantee you will improve tremendously if you do this.

Another style of playing is accompaniment piano where you do not require to play the melody of the song. For this style, you are actually playing for a solo instrument or a vocalist. Therefore you do not need melody playing. This style is easier to develop compared to the former that I have mentioned. You need to train your right had to play the chords of the song and the left hand just playing the bass of the song. Start by playing block chords too where right hand holds a chord with left hand holding single note of the chord. For example if the chord is Eb, then right hand would play the chord Eb, G, Bb and the left hand holding the note Eb. This is called a cadence, play one cadence per bar. Next you have to learn to play repetitive chord with the right hand while left hand still holding single note. Also learn to play the chords in different inversions. Your change of chords should have very minimal movements of the notes.

Get to know the progression of the songs that you are playing. There are standard chord progressions that you should know which are chord II - V- I, IV- V- I or I-VI-IV-V. To learn chord progression is important for playing by ear. Your tutor should be able to help you with this. Please note that the tutor can only guide and coach you with the chords, style and improvisation. The hardwork of practicing must be done by you and you alone. Here are some important tips to play a song by ear further

  • Listen to the song and try to catch the melody (Sing along)
  • Listen to the bass of the song (must use proper speakers or earphones) and try to get the chords
  • Try not to look at the score or chord chart before you play the song.
  • Listen to the song as many times as possible and try playing the cadence with the actual song being played
  • Do NOT give up and keep on trying. After that play it for your tutor to listen
  • Always observe how other pianist is playing his/her accompaniment and style. Copy it if it sounds good to you

Students with no background in music

For this, you definitely need a tutor to start with. Basic knowledge of theory and reading will help with your future playing by ear. Learn up scales and arpeggios as this will be useful for your improvisation and arrangement of the song. After learning these basics, you can develop playing by ear as the same steps as students who have background in music. Learning the guitar actually helps you in playing by ear in piano. From my experience, I have taken proper piano classes since 7 yo and at about grade 4 level I started to learn the folk guitar by myself. I realized that it help me a lot in my playing by ear especially knowing the chords and chord progressions of the song.

 

Conclusion

There is no shortcut in learning playing by ear. Be very patient and always listen attentively to the songs that you are listening to. Try to get the chords once you have a piano near you. Develop your sense of music, listen to your own playing and always observe other good pianist and learn from them and follow the tips that I have mentioned above. There is no end point in playing the piano as I myself am continuously doing the things that I mentioned above and learning new things everyday. Be creative to explore. I hope this blog helped you at least on how to start with playing by ear.

Feel free to leave a comment below if you have anything to add, share or ask.

Below is an impromptu instrumental that I recently composed played called 'RIver Of Peace'. You can also stream or purchase the song in spotify, iTunes HERE

 

 

Thank you for reading and listening

 

Let The Music Play

 

Cheers,

David Cha

 

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