Start Playing by Ear

Learn the truth about what “playing by ear” means and how you can actually learn to do it yourself.

After completing this module: you will understand what exactly it means to play by ear and how you can get started immediately.

Start your musical journey by learning how to play by ear. Explore melody, harmony, rhythm, and more in this insightful training module.

Peek Inside


Module Preview


  1. Introduction
  2. From Here to There
  3. How To Play By Ear
  4. What This Looks Like
  5. We Can Work It Out
  6. How to Start
  7. What Can You Do Already?
  8. Melody
  9. Harmony
  10. Rhythm
  11. Conclusion
  12. Revision Guide

We can all imagine or remember music in our head, and the listening skills we develop as a musician almost always boil down to:

  1. Understanding what we imagine hearing and then
  2. Using that understanding to connect it with the real world – whether that’s bringing it out on our instrument, or recognising it when we hear it in real music.

So “play by ear” really means “play by mind’s ear”! Or to put it a different way:

To recreate what we imagine hearing, in the real world.

Can you bring the music you hear in your head into the real world?

When we hear a pop song, we create a mental model of what we hear. This might be the chords, or the melody, or the drum beat, depending on our instrument of choice and our musical expertise.

When we take that mental model and bring it back out into the real world using our instrument, that’s “playing by ear”.

It’s not all or nothing

Although we often talk about it as an all-or-nothing ability, (the same way we do with the “magical” ability of absolute pitch, or “perfect pitch”), it is actually a broad spectrum of abilities.

Some musicians will find it easy to sing back a tune they’ve just heard – others will struggle.

Some musicians can play the chords to a song they hear on the radio – others have no idea where to even start in doing something like that.

A musician’s ability to play by ear is related to their overall musicianship, and their strengths and weaknesses in playing by ear are often tied to their particular musical focus. But there are plenty of “great musicians” who can barely play by ear at all – and many less capable musicians who are particularly strong on playing by ear!

As you learn about playing by ear in this module, you’ll discover there is actually a whole range of abilities you can gain. This is important to remember, because:

  1. Learning to play by ear is an ongoing process You won’t suddenly be able to do it all overnight – but the more time you spend on it, the stronger and broader your abilities will become.
  2. You don’t need to do it all There are some aspects of playing by ear which will be more or less important to you in your musical life. Focus on those which matter to you – and don’t worry about the rest!

Now that we’re clear on what “playing by ear” really is, we’ll explore different some abilities in playing-by-ear, and start answering those burning questions like “why can’t I play by ear?” and “how do musicians play by ear?”

Member Success

“So much to learn about all three main areas of music…this website breaks the process down into small manageable and interesting pieces.”
“Well , it seems there’s definitely a lot of things to work on! My first ambition is only to be able to get simple melody and chords; typically be able to play by ear a simple song or a simple jazz standard. In any case, it was a pleasant module!”
“I am beginning to be able to pick out songs trial and error… I know I have a long way to go to truly play by ear, but this step is exciting. Thanks!”
“This module was the break through point for me! I’ve been doing drill exercises for so long that I forgot to actually transfer it to real music! Brilliant stuff, thank you! :)

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