Have you ever wondered how someone can sit down at the piano and just play? How someone can hear a song and just start figuring out what notes to play? Maybe you’ve just chalked it up to innate ability. The simple answer is that your ear can be trained, with some work, to distinguish between pitches in a way that translates into your piano playing.
Before I continue, there are some basic assumptions I am making about you. I am assuming that you have SOME familiarity with the piano-meaning that you know some basic chords and scales. If you don’t, not to worry as you can learn this very quickly! Just click here.
People often ask me how I can play whatever I hear on the piano. I always tell them the same thing. With the right foundation, it’s really like repeating back something that was said to you. Music is very much like language. It has syntax and logical approaches. These 7 steps are my technique to revealing what you hear in a way that you can make sense of it and start playing.
This seems simple enough. If you are new to trying this, start with the extremes of the keyboard. I’ll admit, it is almost impossible to test yourself so you might have to find someone to quiz you. Once you get the hang of it, start trying to distinguish between notes that are much closer together. If you can distinguish between semitones (notes that are side-by-side) on the piano, you are ready to move to step two!
An interval is defined as the space between two notes. We have different names for different intervals and learning this will not take you long at all. Here is the chart. Since playing music by ear is really just playing intervals in succession, you can see why it is important to have some grasp of the language, right?
Once you have a relative grasp of the chart, you are ready to practice recognizing them with your ear! I equate this exercise to wine tasting. Distinguishing between different wines can be improved through practice. As you train your mind to remember the different flavours, you are really creating a library of recognition that you can draw upon whenever you interact with that familiar wine again.
In music, we employ the same practice to improve our own library of interval recognition. This is how we do it: Print off this pdf to help you!
An interval uses two notes right? So by that knowledge, we can use the first two notes to very recognizable songs to help us recognize that interval’s flavour. The PDF you printed off will have a list that matches each interval with the song that uses it at its beginning.
Since we are in the technology age, I would strongly recommend that you get an app to help train your ears. I like using Ear Master because it is quite thorough and has everything you need to succeed! Using an app will speed up this process and will stop your practicing from feeling like work by turning it into a game! It records your results so you can see your progress which is just what some people need to get motivated enough to keep going.
If you would like more information on intervals, I cover them in my course here.
Chords are the bread and butter of playing music by ear! Being able to recognize a chord that you hear is very powerful in that it gives the musician tremendous insights on melody and harmony. Here is an example:
A C chord is comprised of the notes C-E-G. If I recognized that a C chord was being used, I would also know that my left and right hand could freely move to any of these notes and that the melody would include many of them too.
Chords are like the finer wines of ear training. Intervals are important to add to your library of flavours but building recognition for chords will change your world. Take some time to understand this chord flavour chart!
Secondly, in more modern genres of music, we begin to see patterns in how chords are used. In most types music a succession of chords will be repeated throughout the course of a song. This succession is known as a chord progression. In popular music, chord progressions are recycled one after the other and believe it or not, there are not that many of them. Here is my popular chord progressions chart.
As you can see, many songs that you may have come to love have been used over and over by other artists creating a slightly new way to experience the progression.
What does this mean to you? Without really trying, you will begin to develop a chord progression flavour just by hearing songs that use the same one. Let me be clear on something. You really have always had this ability, the only difference is that you now have a language that you can use to label it.
Pretty cool huh?
You may not know this but the most important notes for musicians who play by ear are the bass notes. Why? Bass notes give the musician one note to which a whole chord is built. Since most chords have 3 notes, it’s really a matter of process of elimination to figure out what chord you need to play. Here’s an example:
Pretend you hear the note E in the bass. This gives you 3 options. The chord will either be one where E is the first, third, or fifth note in the chord. So your options become: E-G-B, C-E-G, or A-C-E.
Now I hear some musicians saying those aren’t all the possibilities and the answer to that is quite simple. Most music uses only combinations of major and minor chords. The major chord is the natural 1-3-5 notes of the scale that starts on 1. The minor version of that chord is that same chord with a lowered third (play the third down a semitone [next note]). If you were to try the major and minor of each of the three chords, you would find your chord.
In most cases, a line using the bass notes C-F-G will actually belong to the chord progression C F G. In other words, the note in the bass line will more than likely be the note the chord starts on.
Here are some audio examples.
The technique you need to open up to for this task is singing. Singing helps you internalize the melody and once you have it internalized, it will be much easier to play a melody by ear. To start, practice singing Mary Had a Little Lamb and then try to figure it out. Let yourself make mistakes! Ear training is not about doing it perfectly but getting your bearings for note distances.
Remember when you first learned to catch? How many times did you drop the ball? Can you catch now? Yes you can! Allow yourself to drop the ball and make connections with your hand and the keys. The more you interact with the piano the more you will learn intuitively.
Next, try to play something a little more difficult like Happy Birthday or Row Your Boat. As you get more comfortable, you will be able to move into playing the music you love.
Remember to break things down into small pieces as recommended in my blog post, “How to practice”.
(Affiliate product recommendation here)
So you are trying to play a song by ear and you can’t pick out the bass or the melody and the music is going by too fast to label the chord progression, what do you do?
Quick answer is to get AnyTune Pro. I have this on my phone and it will let me slow down the music to such a speed that I can hear every note in the song.
Remember to take your time with it. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the only way you will be successful in ear training is if you can learn to be happy with the success you achieve on a daily basis. Try to learn a new song every week or two but just make sure that you are choosing a pace that you can commit to.
I know I know, you hate music theory. The truth is probably that your teacher didn’t engage you with it and you took it out on the material! Not to worry, PlayPiano has its very own videos for each theory building block that will quickly shape you into the piano player you want to be.
Click here to get started on the first lesson.