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All You Need to Know to Learn to Play By Ear

Standard methods are stressful & kill potential to play by ear. Not this method.

Marty Nemko
Source: Marty Nemko

William Congreve wrote, "Music has charms to soothe the savage breast."

I'd add a corollary: "Playing music soothes the entire body."

Many people take music lessons and find that it increases stress. The problem is that traditional instruction requires to you laboriously read thousands of squiggles on sheets of paper and reproduce them on a musical instrument with 100% accuracy. Even more stressful, if you want to be able to play without eyes trained on sheet music, you must memorize 100% of those notes. That can be a pretty darn stressful recreation.

And ironically, traditional music instruction short-circuits your ear, forcing you to go from your eye to your fingers, no ear required. That atrophies your musical ear, which is crucial for achieving most would-be piano- or guitar-players' goal: to effortlessly, by ear, play popular songs to entertain themselves, friends, and family.

Learning to play by ear is the opposite: No sheet music, it's all ears, and far less stressful.

Here is what I believe to be the fastest, most pleasurable way to learn to play by ear. You can be a rank beginner, no experience necessary. I use the piano as an example but if you prefer another instrument, for example, guitar, the method will work as well. a six-minute video of me teaching you all you need to know.

At the end of that video, I play something for you. As you'll see, there's a bit of a psychological lesson embedded: I recently developed a hand-condition that has rendered me a seven-fingered pianist. We all face setbacks but can choose to fold or make the best of it. With resilience ever more important in today's challenging times, perhaps listening to my seven-fingered piano playing will inspire a bit of resilience in you.

If you'd appreciate seeing a text version of my play-by-ear method, here it is. I offer more detail than in the video. I encourage you to watch the video and then use this text as your teacher.

The method

1. Put your right hand's index finger on any white note near the middle of the keyboard. Play that note. That will be the first note of Mary Had a Little Lamb. Using trial and error, try to plunk out the rest of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Each time you guess a note, your ear is receiving feedback on whether you guessed right or how much your guess was too high (too far to the right of that first note) or too low (too far to the left.) That's training you to develop your ear, to ever more accurately predict what note to play next.

Keep practicing Mary Had a Little Lamb until you can play it easily. Your ear will keep getting better. Feel free, instead of just using one finger, to change fingers for some of the notes--The goal is for your hand to feel comfortable.

2. Repeat Step 1 with Do-Re-Mi (Doe a Dear from Sound of Music), then Twinkle, Twinkle, California Here I Come, then White Christmas. I've selected those because the intervals between the notes are close, which makes it easier.

3. Repeat Step 1 with Brahms Lullabye, Twinkle Twinkle, and It's a Small World After All. In those three songs, some of the intervals between notes are wider than in Step 2's songs, which makes your trial-and-error a llittle more error-prone but is, pardon the pun, key to learning to play lots of songs by ear.

4. Repeat Step 1 with any three songs whose melodies you can easily hum.

5. Play the first note of your favorite of the songs you taught yourself in Step 4. While you're holding that note down, move your left hand a foot or two to the left and play a note that sounds nice--that's a harmony note. It will probably sound bad. Try different notes until one sounds harmonious.

Then, slowly, keep playing the melody and repeating that harmony note until it no longer sounds good with the melody. Then, using trial and error, change the harmony note until it sounds good. Keep playing the melody while changing the harmony note when your ear tells you to.

6. Repeat Step 5 with all the songs above.

7. For each of the songs above, add a second harmony note. This one will be in your right hand, a few notes below (to the left) of the melody note. Now you're playing a melody with two harmony notes, which should make your playing sound pretty good.

8. With that ear training as foundation, you may soon feel like adding more harmony and rhythm.

9. Now, start listening to pianists playing the songs you've learned and try to copy at least the basics of how they play it. An easy way to find them is to search iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, or Amazon. For starters, pick simple arrangements to copy.

The takeaway

If you have any ear at all, this method should, in months, get you well on the way to achieving most would-be pianists' dream: to play any song you can hum by ear, instantly, relaxedly, for your own pleasure and that of your friends and family.

Few things can be as psychologically healing and stress reducing. Indeed it may soothe your savage breast.

I welcome your comments on how well my method of learning to play by ear is working for you.

I demonstrate in a six-minute video on YouTube.