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How to Play Piano by Ear in 6 Practical Steps

Imagine being able to play your favorite music on the piano, without actually needing any sort of external resource. In fact, the only thing you would need to get going is... your own hearing! To some of you this may sound like a rare gift, which is only reserved for the lucky few. However, as any experienced musician will tell you, that is simply not true. Here's the deal: once you play and listen to enough music, your brain will start to recognize patterns, which it will then be able to effectively reproduce internally and, based on that, on the piano. It's important to keep in mind that the development of your 'music ear' is a long-term journey. Thus, it will most likely take you years to be even remotely capable of analyzing any form of complex chord structures by ear. However, people tend to underestimate their hearing abilities right at the start, which also means they often fail to challenge themselves in any way that would speed up their growth. The reality is, you can begin playing music by ear as early as today.

Please note - the following pages are a small excerpt of my complete digital guidebook on how to become a great pianist. Thus, if you're interested in even more context and other practical tips on how to improve your piano virtuosity, please visit this page. Have fun reading! 🎹

Why you should develop your music ear

You read it correctly: unless you are medically tone deaf (if you have taken an interest in piano playing, trust me, you are not), you can already start using your ear to play the piano. But why would you? If improving the skill of being able to play your favorite music on demand is not enough, allow me to give you some extra reasons.

Reason 1

First off, developing your music ear helps you increase your practice speed when learning new pieces. You see, once you have a good grasp of common music structures and sequences, you will oftentimes be able to correctly estimate what to play next, without necessarily checking your sheets or tutorial first. In short, music will become more predictable to you, which will in turn save you valuable time.

Reason 2

Reason 3

How to develop your music ear

Now that I have hopefully convinced you to train your music ear, you are probably wonde ring how to get started with it. If you are anything like me, you might consider dliving in headfirst, simply practicing through trial and error using actual pieces. Although there is honestly no better way to improve yourself in the long run, I highly recommend checking out some of the ear exercises on first, most notably of which the interval and chord ones. To be specific, I would work on the same exact intervals and chords as mentioned in the previous chapter about music theory. Remember, there is no need to ace these exercises before getting to work on some real pieces. Both methods complement each other perfectly, so apply them accordingly.

Although the mentioned ear exercises are incredibly effective, perhaps you find them a bit boring. In that case, listen carefully. Instead of using standardized exercises, consider compiling your own list of music, which consists of one of your favorite pieces for each interval, and one for each chord. In other words, find parts within your most beloved music in which certain intervals or chords are used. Save those parts in your own edited audio file, that you can then listen to every day. The goal is to associate the specific intervals and chords to catchy sounds that you can easily remember. In light of this, it's important to pick out recognizable parts of the music that you decide to use, so that you won't have a hard time recalling them. Even though it takes some preparation to set up right, if applied well, this exact method will launch your progress through the roof, just like it did for me and my friend 6 years ago. Besides, compared to tediously memorizing all the intervals and chords, getting the chance to analyze and work with your favourite music is a lot of fun! To this day, I still associate specific intervals and chords to the respective pieces I initially used to memorize them with.

Enough of the theory. I will now reward your patience with the good stuff: how do you actually play a piece by ear? The exact steps are as follows.

If you use an acoustic piano, make sure it is tuned properly before attempting to play by ear, unless you want the learning process to be an absolute nightmare.

1. Pick the correct piece

If you have never played the piano by ear before, you should look no further than a pop song with four chords and a distinct melody (check out today's hits for inspiration). Only as you are improving, gradually pick more difficult pieces with increasingly complex chord structures and melody lines. That being said, remember to prioritize picking the pieces that naturally interest you over the pieces that drain you, regardless of their difficulty level. As discussed in chapter 1, this step is key to fuelling your passion and, with that, optimizing your progress.

2. Find the melody

3. Find the bass notes

4. Add chords to the bass notes

5. Compare your interpretation to the actual arrangement

6. (Optional) Give the piece your own twist

The potential of your music ear

A fascinating anecdote that illustrates the potential of your music ear is the story of Ludwig van Beethoven. Although many know the man as a genius, only few realize that he quite almost did the impossible. You see, Beethoven went virtually deaf near the end of his life, which left him completely isolated and depressed. The only thing that kept him going was his passion for music. Despite his deafness, Beethoven never stopped writing and publishing new compositions. In fact, he ended his career with the most ambitious music piece of his time: Symphony No. 9 (out of which the world famous Ode to Joy was born). Was it not for his incredibly well developed ear, Beethoven would have never been able to achieve such a groundbreaking feat. He literally managed to compose music from within his head! Now, Beethoven didn't have a choice, but you do. Use the composer's breathtaking story as inspiration, in case you ever wonder why it's useful to train your ear, or if you ever feel like giving up on it.

AI generated image of Beethoven, as he is conducting the premiere of his final symphony on May 7th 1824, despite having become virtually deaf by then. lt is documented he was way off beat, though accompanied by another conductor. Learn more about it in my video here.

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