Playing Music by Ear

Playing by ear is less frequently encouraged in traditional music lessons, which is surprising given that most musicians would love to develop this skill. Why is the ability to play without music considered second rate to sight-reading? For many students the lack of this ability creates deep reservations about their musical skills. Furthermore students who can play in aural-based and creative ways—such as playing by ear, playing without music, and improvising—are more likely to continue to participate in musical activity in post-school life. Educators in Finland are acting on this research. Music schools now require classical piano instruction to include non-classical elements such as ‘comping’ (a chord-based accompaniment style) and improvisation. This is based on the idea that classical music skills and understandings are not necessarily transferable to other types of music. The government provides training and assistance to help teachers adapt to these new techniques.

Some teachers equate playing by ear with fixed genetic ability and believe it cannot be taught; however, it can be learned. Through sustained practice everyone can improve his or her aural acuity and learn to play by ear. Also, teachers might not encourage playing by ear because of how they were taught. There is an old saying: “Teachers teach how they themselves were taught”. Avoiding this requires vigilance to prevent perpetuating dated practices of the past.

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. – anonymous

Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson had an astonishing ability to reproduce sounds in his head. As he put it, all musical ideas originate in the brain. To develop his remarkable facility he sang a melodic phrase then attempted to copy it on the piano. He then extended the challenge by playing two hands one octave, then two octaves, apart. This is an excellent way to train the ear and develop hand-ear coordination. Louis Armstrong, Errol Garner, Chet Baker, Paul McCartney, and Bono could not read music, but they could all play by ear.

During my work as a pianist on Hayman Island, I met Dick Rudolph, who wrote the number-one hit ‘Loving You’ for his wife, Minnie Ripperton, in 1975. Dick and I spent some time together playing piano and sharing ideas. Dick told me that what we were doing was similar to how he went about writing songs. His method was informal. Notation was not part of his creative process, but he loved playing with musical ideas and was able to vary and extend his simple ideas in a musically satisfying way.

New ideas come to people through play and experimentation. How much time and encouragement do we give students to play with their musical ideas? Play allows for an adventure into the unknown.

Play is the serious business of childhood. – Jean Piaget (1896–1980), Swiss biologist and psychologist.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

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‘Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs’

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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8 comments on “Playing Music by Ear
  1. Marc Laflamme says:

    Great article and I totally agree with your perspective on this topic. I will add to this though, that most people (and that includes many musicians) don’t understand that a music score is actually a sound recording and should be treated as such. Reading is more efficient when you hear what’s on the page. Also, about the Oscar Peterson technique you refer to. I don’t know if you have a jazz musician’s training but all serious jazz improvisers include singing what they want to play and play what they sing in their training. One last thing comes to mind, I also think that comping chords derives directly from Baroque basso continuo because according to writings of the time, this was something that was done by ear and experience. The basso continuo was written in short hand with chord symbols and some notation which is a very simillar technique to today’s lead sheets used in jazz and popular music. Hopefully more musicians will join us in supporting this approach which to me is the only way to make music artistic. I wish you a lot of great music and teaching ahead.

  2. Dan Starr says:

    This is the right idea! Professionals need to learn this. To answer your question, from my perspective most teachers are addicted to music already written and notated, mostly the works of the 19th century.

    • Marilene Machado says:

      estou de acordo com Dan Starr.Muitos professores não conseguem tocar sem ler a partitura.Só conseguem depois de memorizá-la.O treinamento do ouvido , começando com pequenas frases musicais a serem harmonizadas pelos alunos, proporciona um maior interesse no aprendizado do instrumento, além de abrir uma nova perspectiva de expressão musical..

  3. I am often frustrated by my inability to reliably play by ear, but with occasional forays from the orchestra to a jazz combo, I am getting better. When I first started playing jazz I would stick to the melody on the lead sheet. The bass play called me “Melody Mike.” Given my improvement he now calls me “Mostly Melody Mike!”

    One correction. Louis Armstrong could indeed read music. He had extensive formal training thanks to his juvenile incarceration. He often pretended he could not read music because many jazz musicians of his day looked down on those who did.

  4. fireandair says:

    I was one of those piano students who was discouraged from playing by ear as a child. I took fairly demanding lessons for 8 years, and the end result was someone who had been rigorously trained for nearly a decade who was nonetheless totally mute on my device unless someone else told me what to say. In hindsight, the preposterousness of this seems so obvious that I can’t believe it was and still is considered normal.

    And then the classical world wonders why Baroque music (which depends for its lifeblood on improvisation and vamping) seems “boring.” It also mourns the end of the age of the great composers. Incredible. How on Earth do people think the great composers wrote their music? They sat down, listened to what was going on in their heads, and plinked it out on their own without sheet music in front of them telling them what sounds to make, of course. The culture does its level best to kill that kind of creativity off, and then innocently wonders where it got to. *sigh*

    Thankfully, things are improving, and the culture of classical music is starting to recover from the rigidity of this outlook. But it still amazes me how many of the ills of that culture are directly attributable to its fear of an empty music desk.

    I still remember being 4 years old and captivated by this big, loud black machine that had all the notes on the front like a typewriter, the keys of which like that device could be hit in any order. It wasn’t until I turned 44 that I finally realized that mental image. I haven’t had anyone else’s music on my piano since then, and that was the first time in my life I finally felt like a real musician.

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