Have you ever caught yourself mindlessly humming a song you heard earlier that day? Or tapping along to a song on the radio?
If so, congratulations, you were playing music by ear!
Playing music by ear is simply the ability to hear music and to recreate that sound in some way.
We’re used to doing it with our voice. Somehow, we know what our vocal cords need to do to recreate a lullaby or a catchy tune we just heard.
But hand someone an instrument and playing by ear suddenly seems daunting and scary. Funny right?
Think about it: the process is similar. You listen to a sound, remember it, and then recreate it. What makes it different is the tool you’re using in the last step.
So playing music by ear is about gaining control over your instrument in the same way you can control your voice.
Once you do that, you can instantly play any melody or chord you hear in your head.
Many people assume that playing by ear is something only the most talented musicians can do. But they’re wrong. The ability to figure out a melody by ear is something that simply requires practice, just like learning a new guitar chord, strumming pattern or technique.
In this article, I’ll show you how you can learn to play by ear. I’ll give you some actionable strategies both for beginners and more advanced musicians.
Playing by ear vs. reading sheet music
For example, if you’re looking to learn classical piano, reading is simply essential. Classical music has a ‘written’ tradition, where composers create sheet music which is then performed by a Classical musician. Most performers read sheet music on stage too.
By contrast, most other musical styles have an ‘aural’ tradition. This includes jazz, blues, traditional folk music and popular music genres from metal, punk to classic rock, and hiphop. Performers in these genres usually don’t have music stands and sheet music on stage. They learn music by listening to recordings and figuring out how to play what they hear by ear. What’s more, these genres tend to have more improvisation and soloing than Classical music.
I’m generalising a bit here. But for most non-classical musicians, it is more practical and more useful in their day-to-day playing to learn to play by ear. Of course, the ability to read music is certainly useful for musicians in these genres, especially for professionals. And there are also instruments that often play in larger groups such as big bands, where sheet music is common. But overall, it makes sense to prioritise playing by ear. Aside from being useful, it’s a lot of fun and extremely rewarding to learn!