In last week’s post I asked “Can you play by ear?” and explored what we actually mean by “playing by ear” and why you might care about this skill, sometimes assumed to be an all-or-nothing (almost magical) ability.

Despite the common misconceptions, the ability to bring what you hear in your head into the real world isn’t magical. With practice it can become instinctive and effortless, but it is certainly a skill which can be learned. And by any musician, including you!

Today we’ll start exploring how you can develop this skill. Then, because it’s vital to know where you’re starting from, we’ll assess your current ability to play by ear. Finally we’ll look at some tools and techniques you can use to accelerate the learning process.

Before we dive in though, let’s ask the simple question: how do you learn to play by ear?

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, the answer I’d give is a simple one. It’s the same answer you get when asking directions to Carnegie Hall, it’s the same way Olympic gymnasts become world-class performers, and it’s the same way we as humans can improve at pretty much anything we set our mind to:

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The right kind of wrong

I’d wager that every musician who’s played an instrument for more than a few months has, at some point, tried to work out a tune they don’t have the sheet music for. Whether they realise it or not, they have begun their journey to being able to play by ear! Sadly most won’t persist very far, instead just sticking to the sheet music their teacher provides… Little did they know, they’d stumbled onto the secret of being able to play by ear: Do it!

We’re trained as musicians to aim for perfection. Notes not on the sheet music are ‘wrong’ notes. Don’t play them. You’re improving at your instrument when you play fewer wrong notes, and more right notes correctly.

Unfortunately this is totally at odds with how you learn to play by ear!

As you start learning to play by ear, it’s essentially a process of trial-and-error. Or, as my maths teacher used to optimistically say: “trial and improvement”. Your aural skills are good enough to tell whether you’re getting it right or wrong – which is the vital first step! But your skills aren’t yet good enough that you can get it right first time.

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This is a painful place to be.

There’s a wonderful relevant quote from Ira Glass (the host of This American Life), talking about the process of becoming better at creative endeavours:

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.

For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.

A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have.

What does this look like for the musician wanting to play by ear?

An example would be that you pick up your trumpet and try to play a well-known tune. Whether that’s Happy Birthday, Jingle Bells, or Call Me Maybe. You pick a random starting note, and then try to work it out one note at a time. You can tell what’s right and what’s wrong, and you continue to build up more and more right notes, until Hey! You can play through the whole melody correctly!

At this point you’re having fun. You can play it for yourself, around and around, you can start throwing in blues notes and little improvisational flourishes – and guess what? You’ve learned to play this song by ear!

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Or maybe you’re a singer and you want to sing a song you don’t have the sheet music for. You can probably sing the melody straight off (this is because our voice is more directly connected to our mind’s ear than, say, a trumpet is) but you want to accompany yourself on piano or guitar.

You pick a starting chord, guessing it’s probably a major or minor triad. Maybe if you have a recording of the song handy or you have a good sense of absolute pitch you know what pitch it should be sung at, and you can actually get the key right. In any case, you’ve got your starting chord. You play the chord, sing through the first bit of the song, and then….

You know in your mind’s ear there’s a chord change here: You can hear in your mind the way the sound changes.

Fortunately you know about I-IV-V progressions and the four chord trick, and so you start to play around with those other chords relative to the one you started from. Sure enough, you find one that fits.

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Like our trumpet player building up a melody note-by-note, you can gradually work out the right chords to fit the melody you’re singing, until you have the whole chord progression figured out! Again, this is where it becomes real fun, and you can vamp and sing freely, start spicing up the rhythm and trying different arrangements of the chord progression to find the accompaniment that feels rich and natural to you.

Lisa McCormick demonstrates figuring out a song by trial and error on guitar

Check out more great tutorials by Lisa McCormick here

We can work it out

I would call this “working out a song by ear”. You do reach the point of playing the song, and you have done it using your ears alone (kudos!) But generally when people say “play by ear” this isn’t quite what they mean. They mean you can skip the trial-and-error process and essentially nail it first time.

The good news? This isn’t a fundamentally different skill! This isn’t a magical ability.

Playing by ear is simply the natural development of working out songs by ear.

As you practice more with the trial-and-error method, you’ll find yourself making fewer errors – and the whole thing becomes much less of a trial! You can accelerate your progress by specific exercises, like practising interval recognition (for melodies) and chord recognition (for chord progressions), but the bottom line is that the more you practice, the quicker you’ll get.

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At first you pick which notes or chords you’ll try pretty much at random. Then perhaps you use a bit of your music theory knowledge, like choosing notes from the key you’re in, or the chords which are most common (is it that I-IV-V again?!).

As you connect the music theory to your aural skills through repeat practice you’ll find you instinctively reach for the right note or chord more and more reliably… Until one day you find hey, you played that one right first time!

That’s a really exciting and empowering feeling as a musician.

As you work songs out more and more often by ear, and make fewer and fewer mistakes along the way, you’ll gradually become that musician who can play by ear.

We all go through this.

And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.

So here’s a suggestion: each time you practice your instrument, pick a song you like and spend 5 or 10 minutes trying to work it out by ear. Write it down as you figure it out if you like (develop your own sheet music collection from scratch!) but the important thing isn’t the results, so much as the process. Take your time, enjoy the experimentation, make fun music along the way – and learn to play by ear.

To summarise:

  • DO IT!
    The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be able to play by ear.
  • Do it often.
    The more you practice, the shorter the route from “I can’t play that song!” to “Oh, that’s how it goes!” will become.
  • Don’t be afraid to play wrong notes.
    Playing the wrong ones is how you start to find the right ones.
  • Expect to succeed.
    Don’t get discouraged. At first it will take a lot of trial and error. But as long as that’s actually trial and improvement you will get there!

I’ll leave you with the remainder of that Ira Glass quote – and my encouragement to be patient and stick with it:

I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

You can learn to play by ear - it's not magic!

You can learn to play by ear – it’s not magic!

… If you’re not the patient sort, fear not. After we’ve figured out what you can already do, we’ll be taking a look at a few handy ways to accelerate your process. So stay tuned! (Hint: subscribe, using one of the buttons over on the right there…)