What Does It Mean to Play By Ear?

Before I took my first guitar lesson, I did nothing but play by ear on guitar and the piano. It drove my sister crazy that I could pick up melodies easily on the keyboard without music while she struggled to get through her piano books with her teacher at her side.

My first experience with reading music occurred while taking guitar lessons in the back of a music store. At 13 years old I found it somewhat boring but thought it important. My patient teacher (whose name I’ve long forgotten) used the Mel Bay book Volume One. I still use it today with beginning guitar students. Money wasn’t plentiful in my family so I didn’t stay with him very long, but I’m forever grateful to have started in that way. 

  My early music education also included a lot of jamming with friends and learning music from records which developed my musical ear. It was a fortunate time to come up musically when popular songs had hooks, pre-hooks, bridges…chord changes, and distinct melodies! I don’t mean to bash songs of current times. But they are generally pretty basic relative to the music I grew up on (Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Five, War, James Brown, Aretha Franklin etc…).

          So, I began learning rich music by ear. All of this natural ear training as well as the music reading experience I had been exposed to, gave me a foundation to continue learning independently and eventually go on to major in music education in college. 

Currently, many years later, a bi-monthy church gig keeps me in pretty good shape music-reading wise and I still play by ear quite a bit these days, particularly with various groups and the Great Black Music Ensemble of the AACM Chicago. 

But what does playing by ear mean?

When you play by ear you exercise a strong connection between your musical imagination and your instrument. You are able to ‘capture’ musical ideas and reproduce them either vocally or through an external instrument.

When you are able to learn something by ear, this internal musical connection between your imagination and your instrument becomes extremely important as your body makes associations and distinctions between the known and unknown, what is new and what is repeated; you put together the opposites of long and short, high and low, soft and loud etc. Your ear searches immediately for patterns and qualities that distinguish notes, chords and sections from one another. Similarly when you play unfamiliar music (with or without music), you use all of the above simultaneously in real-time.

So how does it work?

Think of it like this. You don’t learn to speak a language by simply looking up words in a dictionary. Sure a dictionary is an essential tool, but you won’t learn to speak and comprehend solely through its use. You will need guidance towards recognizing and producing patterns of speech, idioms and tone of voice. In a similar fashion, in order to play by ear, you bring into your body, through active listening – note and interval patterns, chord qualities and sequences. To be successful, you will need to make solid aural associations in regards to near and far, long and short, consonance and dissonance, high and low etc…

Some people do it naturally through playing loads of music. I mean, if you take the time to learn 500 tunes, you’re going to, at the very least, develop a strong sense of melody and harmony as well as a heightened sensitivity to notes, intervals, chord qualities and form. Learning tunes from recordings is a real boost to your aural skills in general.

So learning music is very important to developing your ear. However, this would take a lot of time. It would be more efficient for your musicianship to do ear training work at the same time. That’s where effective ear training comes into play. A former student of mine once said after doing a series of Performance Ear Training exercises, it felt like he’d gotten a ‘brain tattoo’, that the relationships he was studying had somehow become an indelible part of him. I understood what he meant because once you’ve thoroughly digested the sound of a major third interval, you’re not going to confuse it with any other in the same way that you won’t confuse the color green with red.

So, if you want to really play by ear, you must get serious about identifying the sounds you hear in their raw form and you do that through carefully constructed activities and exercises. But not just la, la, la etc. You perform specific exercises that will ‘stamp’ individual sounds and patterns onto your brain. 

Since most melodies we encounter feature a preponderance of step-wise motion or whole and half steps, I usually start out with such exercises.

The following is an exercise you can try. I use the Movable Do system of solfege by the way. There is a lot of info about it online. 

Play any note on the keyboard and match the sound with your voice.

Now sing it as ‘do’ and sing three notes up the major scale.  do re mi 

Now play that note on the keyboard again.

Call it ‘re’ and sing three notes up the major scale.   re mi fa 

Play the same note on the keyboard again.

Sing it as ‘mi’ and sing three notes up the major scale.   mi fa sol 

Play the same note on the keyboard.

Sing it as ‘fa’ and sing three notes up the major scale.   fa sol la 

Play the same note on the keyboard.

Call it ‘soland sing three notes up the major scale.   sol la ti 

Play the same note on the keyboard.

Call it ‘la’ and sing three notes up the major scale.   la ti do 

Play the same note on the keyboard.

Sing it as ‘ti’ and sing three notes up the major scale.   ti do re

Play the same note on the keyboard.

Finally, sing it as ‘doand sing three notes.  do re mi 

It takes some getting used to but it won’t take long to get this. 

Other things to do:

  • Sing three notes downwards from the same note, always on the scheme of the major scale.
  • Increase the number of notes, for example sing four, five, six notes upward or downwards
  • Sing the starting scale degrees in a different order. Instead of adhering to the major scale in order, move in the cycle of fourths, i.e.
  • From Do
  • From Fa
  • Ti
  • Mi
  • La
  • Re
  • Sol
  • Do

I’m sure you’ll find this useful. If you’d like more Performance Ear Training with guidance get in touch.

Donovan Mixon