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!

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