How long it takes a musician to be able to play a song by ear will vary. Some musicians would answer “it depends how good a musician you are” or “it depends if you’re gifted”.

These answers are unhelpful and inaccurate.

Although many great musicians do find it easy to quickly play songs by ear, there are many more who found it difficult and had to practice before they could do it quickly.

For most musicians the two big factors in how long it takes to play a song by ear are:

  1. How complex the song is.
    A simple 3-chord song played on solo guitar will be easier to figure out by ear than a full band arrangement of an avant-garde jazz piece!

  2. How practiced the musician is at playing by ear.
    Playing music by ear is a learnable skill, which depends on a range of listening skills each of which you can improve through ear training. Once you have these core listening skills you must still take the time to practice playing by ear if you want to be good at it.

How You Learn To Play By Ear

When you first begin learning to play by ear you will find it slow-going. It may take you a few minutes to work out even a line or two of the main melody, as you use trial-and-error experimentation and rely on your ears simply to tell you when you’ve got notes right or wrong.

As you train your ears (for things like intervals, chords and progressions) and improve your sense of relative pitch and rhythm, and practice working out music by ear, you will find yourself increasingly getting the notes and chords right rather than wrong.

What began as a slow (and sometimes frustrating) experimental approach can quickly transform into an imperfect but recognisable performance first time. From there it’s simply a matter of continuing to practice so that the imperfect attempt becomes more and more accurate first time.

The Stages Of Playing By Ear

So the stages you can expect to go through are:

  1. The slow experimental approach. This is “working out a song by ear” rather than quite “playing by ear”.
  2. The rough “sketch” performance. When you can more-or-less play a song by ear first time. This is a big leap forwards from stage 1!
  3. The polished performance, first time. A very small number of musicians can jump straight to this stage. For most, it’s the natural eventual achievement after working through stages 1 and 2.

When you know that stage 3 is your goal, it can be hard to be patient, especially when you find yourself in stage 1 for quite some time. However, keep practising and the amount of time you must spend on each song to play it by ear will keep decreasing until you reach stage 2.

At this point the answer to “how long does it take to play a song by ear” is simply: “how long is the song?”!

Similar questions answered on this page:

  • How do you learn to play by ear?
  • Do you need to be gifted to play music by ear?
  • Can you learn to play songs by ear?