Man playing piano in the middle of a busy park

The Truth About “Playing By Ear”

The other day, I got an interesting question from a student about reading versus playing by ear. As I was writing a response, I thought it was probably something that could help a lot of other people, as well. The question:

I learned to read (sheet) music years ago and still rely on that. I wonder if it is hindering me learning the Piano in a Flash techniques. So, how do I play by ear? Should I be memorizing tunes and chords?

You are not “supposed to” play by ear per se… But that will come naturally the more you play in these styles. To be clear, I am considering “playing by ear” and “playing by having learned a tune from a lead sheet, then not needing the lead sheet anymore” two different things. We are clearly doing the latter.

So with that said, the goal of reading/learning a tune from a lead sheet is to not need it as soon as possible. Use the lead sheet to learn the basic outlines of the tune (the bare-bones melody line and the chord progressions). But DO try to, as soon as it makes sense, get to a point where you can play the tune without looking at the lead sheet anymore. The goal is to just be able to sit down (without the lead sheet) and play that tune.

In a way, I guess you could kind of consider that “memorizing” the tune, but it’s a LOT different than memorizing traditional sheet music note-for-note because the lead sheet, by its very nature, is just a sparse “outline” of the tune. Memorize the outline, and you are then free forever to sit down and play the tune and more freely add embellishments, or play in different tempos, et cetera, while not being burdened by the note reading anymore. That’s the goal.

Maybe a good analogy is the difference when speaking publicly between reading word-for-word from a totally written out speech (traditional sheet music) or speaking from some note cards with just an outline of the main points in order (lead sheet). In the former, it will be identical (and boring as can be) every time through, where instead of speaking and communicating well you would just be, in essence, reading out loud. Not too interesting to listen to, or to orate for the speaker either. The latter, using a rough outline on note cards, would be a little different every time through, more communicative, and probably more tuned into your personal mood at the time you were giving the talk. Although following the same basic outline – each “performance” of the speech would be slightly different.

That’s what we’re shooting for… making music every time though vs. just regurgitating the exact same thing by rote time-after-time.

Hope this helps! 

  • Wendy Taylor
    Posted at 02:44h, 28 April

    I consider playing by ear the ability to know how to put on the keys any tune in my head. Maybe a little error here and there but it comes out right. Now the advantage of this vs classical style played according to Hoyle is that I can know the sound of many chords and just add that accompaniment uniquely mine, but harmonizing tune/chords. My dad could do that, my aunt, his sister, and I have waited 70 yrs to play piano. I love music and classical exacting respectful of a composer’s musical creation. AND I just would like to be able to accompany as on guitar with chords I have learned. Now, since I can play melody by ear, you are going to let me fly! I am anxiously awaiting my materials. It’s hard to take the lesson and not have to book to refer to, but I did lesson #1 & 2 today anyway. Thank you.

  • Roberta Huxford
    Posted at 11:10h, 08 May

    I play in The C chord a lot. I’d like to adventure in other Chords.
    What chords go with what.

  • Karen Hymiller
    Posted at 16:44h, 02 June

    I have finished course one but still feel I am not memorizing how to play tunes without the music. What’s wrong with me? Will I ever get there or am I a lost cause?


    • Hannah Derleth
      Posted at 18:17h, 10 August

      You are definitely NOT a lost cause, Karen! The memorizing comes with time. It took me several years before I felt comfortable playing songs without music. It might help to learn the music one measure at a time, too– I found that working with incredibly small chunks helped me learn a song a bit faster.

  • Brenda Logan
    Posted at 22:42h, 22 June

    Hi Scott…I really like your explanation of what it means to “play by ear.” I have attempted to explain this concept to people when I tell them that I want to learn to play by ear. People think that playing by ear is to be able to sit down at the piano and be able to randomly play the piano. I tried that and it did not work. I needed more of an understanding of the concept even for myself. What you just explained is exactly what I found “playing by ear” to mean…I just couldn’t explain it. By the way, I have spent an inordinate amount of time on music theory to get me to my point of understanding…I know and can play scales, chords, inversions (in all 12 keys) etc. I am looking forward to delving into your course to help me put together what I have learned thus far and start playing meaningful piano with confidence.


    • Hannah Derleth
      Posted at 18:04h, 10 August

      Hi Brenda,

      With your prior experience in music and passion for the piano, I have NO doubt that PIAF courses will work wonders for you. Let us know if there is anything we can do. 🙂

  • WmMatt Harris
    Posted at 20:45h, 12 July

    Yes, for sure. Once one learns the song’s progression, one “speaks” from one’s note cards. It is different every time. Right on Scott!
    Matt Harris, Bossier City, LA

  • Trudy Marvel.
    Posted at 18:57h, 15 August

    I have just completed Course book 2 class 7. I really enjoyed playing the LH bass line consisting of the roots of the chords. How can I figure out the LH bass for Please Mr Postman & Stay?