Is Playing Music By Ear Just for the Gifted?

October 2nd, 2019 - 16 Comments

A Piano in a Flash student recently wrote in saying “….God bless you if you have the gift of both being able to read and play by ear.” 

But is it a gift or something else entirely?  Scott “The Piano Guy” Houston has a few thoughts on that subject.  He says:

“I really honestly don’t think playing by ear is a gift any more than I think being able to read notation is a gift. Or maybe a better way to say it is that if it is a gift, we ALL have it. Learning to play “by ear” is just another way to say that you are a really good “educated guesser” as to what is coming up next in whatever you are trying to play.

It’s a totally learnable skill that at its core, starts with interval training and learning common chord progressions(whether those two things come overtly or just through a lot of playing experience.) The more you play using chord symbols and chord progressions (and free yourself from only being able to read “from the sheet”,) the more your ear just starts to get so familiar with what different jumps from chord to chord sound like that you can start to anticipate what is coming next with more and more accuracy.

It’s not like you just wake up some morning, or get hit by lightning and say “Aha! I can play by ear now!” Instead, it is a slow progression of trial and error where you find yourself mentally “guessing (or maybe better said, anticipating) what the next chord (or melody note) will be with a lot more confidence.

I now can pretty much play by ear (or give me a couple of minutes, and I’ll mentally work through some tune quickly and get it figured out). However, at the age of 56 that is something I have only been able to do the last 20 or so years. I certainly did not have that ability as a kid growing up or even when I was playing professionally in my 20s.

Scott also reminds us that in Course 4 we work extensively on intervalic training, which sets up students for then getting into some of the more overt ear training stuff coming your way in Courses 5 and 6.  

Simply put, playing music isn’t for the chosen few.  It’s for EVERYONE and we know it’s for YOU, too. Come on, the kids are grown, the career is done and it’s YOUR time now. It’s YOUR turn to play! 

Your TURN to Learn More About Musicians Who Started Off Playing Entirely Different Instruments:

https://www.ultimate-guitar.com/articles/features/8_great_musicians_who_played_a_completely_different_instrument_at_first-97628



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16 responses to “Is Playing Music By Ear Just for the Gifted?”

  1. Connie Susan Bell says:

    I would really love to play the piano, but I feel I just won’t have the time. I am 71 and I have wanted to play the piano since I was a young girl.

  2. Annemarie B Lafreniere says:

    Thank you Scott, so people who claim to never taking lessons but play by ear are just exaggerating? I’ve often wondered; thanks for solving the mystery.

  3. Floyd Nudi says:

    I am 82 years old. When I was a kid (6-7 yrs. old) I was able to sit at the piano and pick out a tune that I could sing or hum, with one finger. My mother decided to start me in piano lessons when I was about 11 years old. I took piano lessons for about three years and loved it. My teacher was a concert pianist who was trained by the same teacher as Liberace. She told my mother that I was a natural for the piano and thought that I would be a professional pianist. I liked playing the popular tunes but was not interested in the classical music. When I reached high school age, my mother enlisted me into a Catholic pre-college high school. Home work was always very time consuming, plus I had a job at a service station after school and weak-ends to help pay for my first car. Due to a very busy schedule, I had to give-up my piano lessons. But I never gave it up. After high school, I went to college and became a professional Marine/ Wildlife biologist that took me all over the country.
    Since I was moving a lot during my biologist career, I never had a piano for almost 40 years. I retired in 1996 and bought a digital Yamaha piano a few years before retiring and just love it. I still had all of my written music sheets, so I started playing again. I am now 82 years old, and have been playing the piano since I retired, much of it without any written music sheets. I basically use the same technique that you are teaching and have been using this technique for over the last 25+ years. Plus I do a lot of improvising, playing many songs by ear without written music. Some songs that I haven’t played for a long time, I will have to get out the ole sheet music. Music has always been a big part of my life. In my younger years I also played the accordion, harmonica, ukulele, and a guitar, none of which I can play today.

  4. Steven A Metzger, MD says:

    Love everything you put out. Love the Piano in a Flash course (I’m now on course 4).

  5. Graham says:

    Hi Guy’s
    Oh how I wish Playing by Ear was true for everyone , my dear departed Mother could easily do it , but that skill seems to have slipped through my hands despite trying for many years ,
    Ah well its still good to try & try again ,even though I fail
    Graham

  6. Gretel says:

    Just wanted to say, you are a great teacher!
    I am struggling my way through your course three at the moment. It‘s fun! Thank you!

    • Theresa Houston says:

      My name is Theresa, and I work with Scott here at Piano In A Flash. I will be sure to pass your nice compliment to Scott. It will make his day! Please remember that we are here to help. If there is a particular thing that you are struggling with, let us know. We are here to support you! Sometimes, as I’m sure you already know, it just takes some “seat time” to get a complicated technique “under-hand.”

  7. Yolanda Hall says:

    Enjoyed the article.
    I am trying out the fingering and chords. It is a slow process, but at this stage in my life, I have the time, and am not rushing it. I feel that during the long winter months, I’ll have plenty of time to try out different songs, and get better at picking out the tunes myself.
    I appreciate any tips I can get and also encouragements as well.

  8. Ron S Glick says:

    I agree as I only learned how to play by ear after playing over 50 years when learning chord sequence patterns for each key and then trying to play songs without using sheet music. My Dad, however, could play naturally by ear without ever taking lessons or learning chord patterns so I guess it just came easily to him. He did learn how to play the violin though before playing the piano.

  9. Sarah says:

    You have given me a much better perspective. Thank you.

  10. Ronald Geary says:

    In am 85 and am convinced I can learn to play by eah

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