I’ve known a lot of piano and keyboard players who are unable to play a piece of music unless they have the written notes in front of them. Often such people are frustrated by their inability to play by ear, and are extremely envious of those who can. They usually assume that musicians who play by ear possess some innate musical gift that those with lesser abilities simply lack.
Most people can learn to play by ear, if they are willing to work at it
I’m one who plays a lot by ear. I play for our church, and it’s rare that I need to use the printed music. I’m usually able to listen to a song a few times, then sit down at the keyboard and quickly work out its chord progressions. So, I guess to that extent I do have an innate talent for playing by ear.
On the other hand, people who have less of that inborn aptitude can acquire the ability to play by ear if they are willing to make up for their lack of natural talent with hard work. They can learn how to think through the structure of the piece of music they want to play, and how to translate that understanding into the proper sounds at the keyboard. They can learn to play scales, and learn how various chords relate to one another in a particular key. Such intellectual attainments can make up for some lack of inborn musical ability.
You’ve got to be able to really hear the music
I’m convinced that anyone who is willing to do the hard work of learning scales, chords, intervals, etc, can become proficient at playing by ear – as long as they can actually “hear” the structure of the music they want to play. That ability to really hear the underlying chord progressions of a piece of music is, I think, a necessary foundation for being able to play by ear. If you can’t really hear it, how can you reproduce it?
But it seems to me that most people do have at least that minimal level of innate musical ability. How many times have you heard a song on the radio, then had it running around in your mind for days after that? And it’s not unusual for children to almost drive their parents crazy by singing some tune they’ve heard over and over again. If you have enough musical aptitude to be able to repeat the songs you hear, and enough motivation to actually learn the technical aspects of playing an instrument, you probably have what it takes to learn to play by ear.
Listen to the bass line of the song
My process in learning to play a new song by ear is to listen first to the bass line. That’s my first clue as to what chords are being played. Once I can reproduce that bass line with my left hand, I then work on figuring out the proper chords to sit on top of each bass note. This may require listening to a song over and over and doing some experimentation with the chords in the right hand to make sure that I have the proper one at every point in the song. This is where an intellectual understanding of how scales and chords work together can make up for some lack of natural musical ability.
In playing by ear, the chord progressions of a song are the key. If you can really hear those, and most people can, I think that by hard work you can develop the technical skills to be able to play what you hear without being dependent on a written score.
Ron Franklin is a pastor, writer, radio broadcaster and producer, computer programmer, and musician. Now the founding pastor of Covenant Community Church in Harrisburg, PA, he was an engineer and manager for high-tech companies such as IBM and EDS. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Denver Theological Seminary.