Instructor
John Proulx
Quick Tip
Intermediate
16:53

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  • Ear Training
  • Practice Tips
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  • Fundamentals
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Have you ever wondered how some musicians can simply listen to a song and play it by ear without any sheet music? Well, in today’s Quick Tip, 8 Steps to Play By Ear, John Proulx shares how you can develop this ability too. In fact, ear training plays an important role in developing a well-rounded musicianship. You’ll learn:

If you have typically always relied on your eyes for everything that you play on piano, then this lesson is for you (and your ears!)

Intro to Playing Piano by Ear

There is often a sense of enigma or mystery associated with playing by ear. In fact, many students mistakenly assume that “you either have it or you don’t.” However, the primary reason why many students struggle to play by ear is because ear training instruction is frequently lacking or altogether absent in traditional music education settings.

In most music classrooms, students are taught to play instruments by learning to read music notation. There are several reasons for this. First and foremost, music notation is the most efficient way to get students to play together simultaneously in an ensemble. Secondly, the ability to read music notation can be acquired fairly quickly so long as new notes and rhythms are introduced gradually. By comparison, ear training typically progresses much more slowly. Practically speaking, it would be infeasible for every student in a band or orchestra to learn their own part by ear. Consequently, learning music by ear remains a mystery for many students.

What does it mean to be able to play by ear?

“Playing by ear” refers to a musician’s ability to perform songs that they have heard without the need for any music notation or sheet music. Instead, these musicians learn songs by imitating what they hear in live performances, on recordings or in their aural memory.

Learning and playing by ear is particularly common among musicians who play popular musical genres such as blues, jazz, R&B, gospel, pop and folk music. Musicians who play by ear also typically feel comfortable improvising to some extent.

How to Play Piano by Ear

Categories of Aural Recognition

Some people mistakenly assume that playing by ear is a singular skill, or perhaps even a special gift or endowment. However, musicians who play by ear are actually drawing on several different aural skills simultaneously. For example, the ability to distinguish between chord qualities (major triad, minor triad, etc.) is a separate skill from the ability to distinguish between different melodic intervals (octave, perfect 5th, major 3rd, etc.). Ironically, students who think that they could never play by ear may in fact already possess some of these essential aural competencies. In fact, the good news is that each individual aural skill can be isolated and developed just like any other musical proficiency.

Generally speaking, there are three broad categories of aural recognition that contribute to one’s ability to play by ear: (1) melodic aural skills, (2) harmonic aural skills, and (3) rhythmic aural skills. In this section, we’ll identify and define specific skills that fall under each category. We’ll also point you to specific resources that can help you develop these skills further.

Categories of Aural Recognition

It’s important to keep in mind that a student’s array of aural skills do not necessarily grow and mature at the same pace. However, they often work in tandem such that the development of one aural skill frequently benefits another. Moreover, students can begin to experience some degree of success at playing by ear even before all of their collective aural skills are fully mature.

1. Melodic Aural Skills

Melodic aural skills relate to one’s ability to recognizes individual notes, melodic intervals (a pair of notes played in succession), and longer intervallic patterns such as scales.

Melodic Aural Skills

Pitch Recognition

Pitch recognition refers one’s ability to hear a note and identify the pitch. Interestingly, not all musicians who possess strong pitch recognition achieve their results in the same manner.

Some musicians, for example, possess perfect pitch (also absolute pitch)—the ability to identify any musical note by name after hearing it, without reference to other notes. Musicians with perfect pitch can also sing a specific note on cue without need of a reference note. The number of musicians who truly have perfect pitch is quite low.¹

A much more common skill is relative pitch—the ability to determine pitches by their intervallic relationship to a reference pitch. This skill can be developed using ear training methods such as solfège (also solfeggio), the practice of singing melodies by assigning syllables to the successive tones of a major scale (i.e.: do, re, me, fa, sol, la, ti, do).

To practice your pitch recognition, check out the following links:
Keyboard Ear Training on MusicTheory.net
Perfect Pitch Quiz on TonedEar.com

Interval Recognition

In music theory, the term interval refers to the distance or span from one note to another (i.e.: octave, perfect 5th, major 3rd, etc.). Therefore, interval recognition is the ability to hear pitch relationships. This is different from perfect pitch, in which a person essentially recognizes a pitch by its frequency. Musicians with strong interval recognition can hear and classify how far apart two notes are from each other purely by how they sound in relationship to one another, even though they do not know the specific pitches involved. For example, most people can recognize the interval of an octave.

One of the most common ways that music students learn to recognize intervals is through song associations. For example, “Over the Rainbow” begins with an ascending octave. Another example is the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which begins with an ascending perfect 4th.

🔎 Check out our Ear Training—Interval Crash Course (Beg–Adv) for a deep dive on intervals types, song associations and melodic dictation practice.

Use the following links to practice your interval recognition:
Interval Ear Training on MusicTheory.net
Interval Quiz on TonedEar.com

Scale Recognition

In the discipline of ear training, the ability to hear, identify and sing specific scale types is called scale recognition. Even though scales are formed from specific intervallic patterns, scale recognition should not be thought of as a more advanced aural skill than interval recognition. In fact, scale singing actually helps to train our ears to hear intervals that come from familiar scales.

Use the following links to practice your recognition of various scales and modes:
Scale Ear Training on MusicTheory.net
Scales Quiz on TonedEar.com

2. Harmonic Aural Skills

Harmonic aural skills relate to one’s ability to recognize and distinguish between different chord qualities, chord inversions and chord progressions.

Harmonic Aural Skilks

Chord Recognition

Chord recognition refers one’s ability to hear a chord and identify its quality. At the beginner level, students learn to distinguish between different types of triads, especially major versus minor triads. At the intermediate level, students learn to recognize additional types of triads and their inversions. Intermediate students may also learn to differentiate between major 7th, minor 7th, and dominant 7th chords. Advanced chord recognition includes on the ability to hear additional 7th chords and their inversions, chord extensions and chord alterations.

You can test and develop your chord recognition by visiting the following links:
Chord Ear Training on TonedEar.com
Chord Identification Quiz on MusicTheory.net
Here are PWJ courses for you to explore based on your scores from the exercises listed above:

🔎 Check out our Ear Training with Triads 1 (Beg/Int) course for an essential primer on learning to hear major and minor triads by ear. You’ll discover how to hear these triads in isolation, in chord progressions and within familiar songs.

🔎 To explore major and minor triad inversions by ear, check out Ear Training with Triads 2 (Beg/Int). In this course, you’ll learn how to hear inversions in isolation, in chord progressions and within the context of tunes.

🔎 If your ear is more on the intermediate level, check out Ear Training with 7th Chords 1 (Int) to practice hearing major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th chords in isolation and in a musical context.

🔎 Check out Ear Training with 7th Chords 2 (Advanced) to develop more advanced chord recognition skills with 7th chord inversions.

Chord Progression Recognition

Chord progression recognition is the ability hear to a chord progression by ear and identify the chord relationships using Roman numerals (aka The Number System). Music students develop this skill every time they consciously analyze the chord relationships within the music that they practice.

It’s also important for students study specific progressions that frequently occur in popular music such as the following chord progressions:

🔎 Check out our Play Piano Lead Sheets with 7th Chords course to learn 8 songs that use the 8 most common chord progressions found in fake books.

To test your chord progression recognition, check out the following link:

Chord Progression Quiz at TonedEar.com

3. Rhythmic Aural Skills

Rhythmic aural skills relate to one’s ability to identify various rhythms and meters by ear, including whether a meter contains simple or compound subdivisions.

Rhythmic Aural Skills

Pulse Recognition

At the most basic level, pulse recognition is a student’s ability to determine the primary pulse (aka: beat) of a song. Students learn to identify pulse by clapping, tapping and marching along to recorded music with a teacher.

Meter Recognition

Meter recognition is the ability to determine the recurring pattern of strong and weak beats within a song—especially duple meter, triple meter & quadruple meter. Music students learn to recognize meter by practicing basic conducting patterns.

Musical Conducting Patterns (Duple, Triple & Quadruple Meter)

Although meter recognition is related to time signatures, they are not identical concepts. A time signature (i.e.: 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, etc.) specifically relates to how a meter is expressed in music notation. Furthermore, time signatures also actually communicate a bit more than a song’s meter. For example, 3/4 and 9/8 are both examples of triple meter, however they are distinct in terms of how the pulse is subdivided (see subdivision recognition below).

Subdivision Recognition

Subdivision recognition is the ability to determine whether a meter is simple or compound. In a simple meter, the primary pulse is subdivided into even units such as 8th notes and sixteenth notes. Examples of time signatures associated with simple meters are 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4. On the other hand, in a compound meter, the primary pulse is subdivided into units of three. Examples of time signatures associated with compound meters are 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8.

Check out the following link to practice rhythmic dictation:

The Rhythm Trainer

Additional Aural Skills

In this section, we’ll mention additional aural skills that don’t fit squarely into just one of the broad aural skills categories previously discussed (melodic, harmonic or rhythmic).

Audiation

The term audiation was coined by the prominent music educator and researcher Edwin Gordon in 1975. Audiation is a musician’s inner hearing—the ability to hear and comprehend musical sounds that are not physically present. In other words, audiation is to music what thought is to language. As such, audiation is the fundamental aim of all ear training practice.

Transcription

Strictly speaking, transcription is the process of notating a tune or a musical excerpt that has been learned by ear. However, musicians frequently use the term “transcribe” loosely to refer to learning licks and riffs by ear, even if they skip the final step of writing them down.

Improvisation

Improvisation is the act of spontaneously creating music on the fly. In essence, improv is the ultimate aural skill.

How to Play a Song By Ear in 8 Steps

Now that we’ve identified the different types of aural skills that go into playing by ear, let’s put our ears to work! In this section, we’ll take a closer look at the 8 Steps to Play by Ear that John Proulx presented in today’s featured Quick Tip video. Here is an outline of the 8 steps:

John demonstrated each of these steps on the pop song “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran in the Quick Tip video. Due to publisher’s restrictions, we’ll apply these steps to a different song here. However, if you’d like a copy of the lesson sheet that appears in John’s tutorial, you can obtain it through our partners at MusicNotes.com.

For our purposes here, we’ll be using the traditional African-American spiritual “Deep River.” Overall, learning this arrangement by ear requires late-beginner to intermediate level aural skills. Nonetheless, many aspects of the tune will be accessible to early-beginners as well. In fact, we often learn more in ear training practice by what we get wrong rather than what we get right. Let’s take a listen…

To get started, you’ll need a blank sheet of staff paper (aka: manuscript paper). To get setup properly, listen to the recording above and try to figure out the time signature and how many total measures are in the excerpt. Then, create the appropriate number of measures on your staff paper by drawing bar lines.

Once you have your staff paper set up, check your work by clicking on the triangle (▸) below to reveal the correct answer.

Show Answer for Time Signature and # of Bars

 

The excerpt from “Deep River” contains 2 four-measure phrases for a total of 8 bars.

Transcription Score Setup

 

1. Identify the Root of Each Chord

The first step is to identify the root of each chord. The best way to do this is to try to sing the note that you hear as the root in each chord and then match that note on the piano. If you find it difficult to match the root with your voice, you can also try plucking notes at the piano until you find the note that matches the root on the recording.

Note: When a chord is inverted, this means that the root is not in the bass line. In such cases, some students may mistake the bass note for the root. This is okay for now…just write down whatever note that you think you hear as the root.

Take a moment now to replay the recording several times until you think you have identified the root of each chord. Then, pencil in your answers on your staff paper. If you have identified the key signature already, then go ahead and include that in this step too. Afterward, check your work against the answer below.

Show Answer for Step 1

 

Here are the roots of each chord for “Deep River.” This arrangement is in the key of F major.

Play By Ear Step 1 - Identify the Root

 

2. Identify the 3rd of Each Chord

Once you have the root of each chord, the next aim is to determine the chord quality. However, an intermediate step is to try to determine the 3rd of each chord. In order to do this, we want to try to sing the 3rd of each chord because this is the most defining color note when it comes to chord quality.

Another approach is to simply “try on” different 3rds for each root note like you would try on a piece of clothing. For example, in measure 1, the root of the first chord is the note F. Therefore, you could try on a major 3rd, which would be the note A. Then, try on a minor 3rd, which would be the note A♭. Which 3rd seems to fit better with the recording?

Once you have penciled-in the 3rd above each root on your staff paper, check you work against the answer below.

Show Answer for Step 2

 

Here is the root and 3rd for each chord of “Deep River.”

Play By Ear Step 2 - Identify the 3rd

 

3. Determine the Chord Qualities & Chord Symbols

Now that you have the root and 3rd for each chord, you’re in a good position to determine the chord quality. In this step, you want to “try on” a 5th for each chord. Remember, major triads and minor triads both contain a perfect 5th interval. Therefore, this should be the first 5th that you try on for each chord. However, occasionally you will encounter augmented triads and diminished triads. An augmented triad contains an augmented 5th, whereas a diminished triad contains a diminished 5th. After trying on various 5ths, determine which one fits the best with the recording.

Keep in mind, not all chords are triads. Therefore, in this step, you’ll also want to listen for any other notes that may be included in the chord, such as a 7th, a 6th, or an add2.

Once you have penciled-in the remaining notes of each chord, write in the chord symbol as well. Then, check your work below.

Show Answer for Step 3

 

Here are the basic chords in root position along with the corresponding chord symbols.

Play By Ear Step 3 - Determine Chord Symbols

 

4. Determine Chord Functions and Assign Roman Numerals

In step 4, our goal is to determine how the chords are related to each other. In other words, what role does each chord play in this key? For example, what is the tonic chord? We’ll want to label this chord with the Roman numeral Ⅰ. Next, continue to assign Roman numerals to each additional chord.

Some educators and publishers use upper-case numerals for major and augmented triads (i.e.: Ⅰ, Ⅳ, Ⅴ, Ⅲ+) and lower-case numerals for minor and diminished chords (i.e.: ⅱ, ⅲ, ⅵ, ⅶº). Others use upper-case numerals exclusively while indicating various chord qualities by means of chord suffixes (i.e.: Ⅰ, Ⅱm, Ⅳ▵, Ⅴ7, Ⅶº). You can use which ever system is most comfortable for you.

Once you have penciled-in your Roman numerals, check your answers below.

Show Answer for Step 4

 

Here is a harmonic analysis of “Deep River” in F major with Roman numerals.

Play By Ear Step 4 - Assign Roman Numerals

 

5. Identify Rhythms in the Melody

Once we have the chords, we want to turn our attention to the melody. In step 5, our goal is simply to pencil-in the rhythms that we hear using slash notation. These rhythmic figures will serve as “place-holders” for the actual pitches that we’ll discover in Step 6.

Once you have notated the rhythms, check your work below.

Show Answer for Step 5

 

Here are the rhythms in the melody of “Deep River” expressed with slash notation.

Play By Ear Step 5 - Rhythms in Melody

 

6. Transcribe the Melody

In step 6, we’re ready to fill in the notes for the melody. It’s fairly common that some notes of the melody will be easier to hear than others. For example, you may identify that stepwise motion is easier to hear than larger leaps. Therefore, you don’t necessarily have to fill in the notes in the order that they occur in the tune. Since you already have a place holder for each note from Step 5, start by filling in the notes that you are most sure of. Then, spend additional time trying to figure out any trouble spots. It’s a good idea to try to sing the melody as well.

Once you have transcribed the melody, compare your work to the answer below.

Show Answer for Step 6

 

Here is the melody of “Deep River.”

Play By Ear Step 6 - Transcribe the Melody

 

7. Play a Song Sketch (R.H. Melody + L.H. Chords)

Step 7 involves playing a “song sketch.” Think of this like a songwriter’s demo version or work-in progress. Realistically speaking, you are not going to hear and discern every nuance on a recording all at once. However, if you can determine the chords and the melody, then you’re about 90% there.

In the song sketch stage, we’re less concerned about chord voicings and voice leading. That comes later in the arranging stage. For now, we simply want to be able to play basic chords in the left hand along with the melody in the right hand. Note that you may need to play the melody an octave higher so that you don’t force your left hand to play too low. Also, if you hear that some chords are inverted on the recording, then go ahead and play the inverted chord shapes in your left hand.

Once you have drafted a song sketch for “Deep River,” check your work against the answer below.

Show Answer for Step 7 

 

Here is a “song sketch” of “Deep River.” Notice that we brought the left-hand chords up an octave so that they don’t sound so muddy. Consequently, the right hand is also performed 8va.

Play By Ear Step 7 - Song Sketch

 

8. Create a Piano Arrangement

Now we’ve come to Step 8 in which our aim is to notate our final piano arrangement. The creative process involved in completing Step 8 can vary depending on your source recording. For example, if your source recording is a pop song, then you’ll have a lot of decision making in Step 8 since you are essentially adapting the tune for solo piano. In most cases, it’s not possible or desirable to include every vocal and instrumental part in your piano arrangement. Instead, you want to capture the essence of the song while also creating an arrangement that is suitable for piano.

Since our source recording for “Deep River” is already is a solo piano arrangement, our task here is to try to faithfully transcribe the full arrangement. In this step, we want to listen for things like accompaniment patterns in the left hand and melodic treatment in the right hand. We also want to listen for any inner voice movement such as suspensions.

Once you have transcribed the complete arrangement of “Deep River,” check your work against the answer below.

Show Answer for Step 8 

 

Here is the final arrangement of “Deep River.”

Deep River - Intermediate Piano Arrangement

 

Conclusion

Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on 8 Steps to Play By Ear. In doing so, you’ve taken a big step toward developing your ears and laying a foundation for being able to play piano by ear.

If you enjoyed today’s lesson, then be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

 

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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¹ Witynski, Max. “Perfect Pitch, Explained.” University of Chicago News, 1 June 2022.

² “Audiation.” GIML The Gordon Institute for Music Learning.

Introductory image created with the assistance of DALL·E 2.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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