When you’re new to piano (or returning to it after childhood lessons years ago), you’re going to spend some time thinking about the best approach for you. Should you call up your local piano teacher and schedule a trial lesson?
What about signing up for an online learning program? Should you try to figure everything out based on YouTube tutorials? Or should you learn to play by ear?
There’s a lot to think about and many options to consider. While it’s not the most common choice, some people seem to be drawn to the idea of playing by ear. Others are terrified by the idea.
In order to understand whether playing piano by ear is right for you, first you’ll need to understand what it is and how you learn it.
What Does it Mean to Play By Ear?
There are some common myths surrounding ear training. I used to believe them myself, so don’t feel bad if you’ve been confused about what it means to play by ear, too.
First, ear training for piano doesn’t mean you have to memorize the sound of every note on your instrument. While some people do want to achieve this, it’s unnecessary for most of us. Just because you haven’t fully memorized each and every note and its sounds across every octave, doesn’t mean you can’t learn some simpler techniques.
In its simplest form, playing piano by ear means recognizing the difference between higher and lower notes plus different patterns of timing. Let’s break that down… but first:
Are You Tone Deaf?
Occasionally someone emails me and says something like, “I want to learn to play by ear, but I’m tone deaf.” Sometimes they don’t even care about ear training specifically, they just insist that learning how to play piano is too hard, because they’re “tone deaf.” They’ve ruled out the possibility that they can handle even easy piano songs to play on piano.
But here’s the thing. Most people are not tone deaf. In fact, it’s statistically unlikely that any of those (very sincere) people were tone deaf, either.
Get this: Only 4% of people have the condition known as tone deaf. That’s it.
If you’re one of the approximately 4% of the population who are tone deaf, there’s an easy way to tell. Close your eyes, and have someone else play some notes.
Do all the notes sound the same? Or could you hear that there’s a difference? If you did hear it, then congratulations: You are not tone deaf. Now we can move forward without having to worry about that anymore. 😉
Highs and Lows
Since we’ve established that you’re not tone deaf, you can hear the difference between different sounds. Now you need to use that skill and refine it. If you want to play by ear, you’ll have to learn to differentiate between higher and lower notes.
Start with any key on your piano or keyboard. Play with the surrounding notes and try to get a feel for hearing the changes in pitch as you move farther to the left or the right. This isn’t too hard, but it takes practice to become precise.
Because so many people have asked me about how to learn this skill, recently I’ve worked with my friend Steve Lungrin to create some new ear training lessons. If you want to get on the wait list to learn more about this new resource, go ahead and sign up for my free 5-day workbook.
Understanding the ‘Feels’
The next important part of ear training is understanding the “feels” of different songs. The “feels” essentially are different patterns of timing for the notes that you play.
If you’ve ever heard a cover of a popular song that sounded completely different than the original, you’ve probably heard a different “feel” without realizing it. When artists adapt a song, one of the easiest things to change is how they interpret the chords and the timing of how they play on pianos.
There are four main “feels.” While they’re not too difficult to learn if you have a good chord-based foundation in place, it’s hard to explain how the “feels” work with the written word alone. I definitely recommend you get on my course wait list so you can learn these skills the easiest way: through video.
Picking Out the Melody
Something we haven’t mentioned up to this point is melody. I’m not a particularly melody-focused player, so it never was a priority when it came to my resources. But enough people have emailed me about learning melody that I eventually became convinced this is a topic I need to cover in the newest version of my online piano-learning course.
Picking out a melody is something that only comes easily once you’ve trained your ear to hear differences in pitch. Even if you’re not a singer, it’s very helpful to hum or sing the tune of the song as you start to figure out which notes make up that melody line. It’s basically a process of trial and error. But you can get good at it fairly quickly with a bit of practice.
What Kind of Training Do You Need First?
Before you can successfully learn to play piano by ear, you need to have some beginner piano training under your belt. Many people go the traditional route and take lessons from an in-person teacher with plenty of music theory. But that’s not the fastest or simplest way.
The easiest way to prepare for ear training is to build a strong understanding of piano chord-based playing. The chords can act as a great framework for what you learn later. Here at Piano In 21 Days, I am all about helping my students learn chord-based piano techniques as quickly and enjoyably as possible, so I’m a little biased when I say that I think you should get your start with my 21-day online course.
The Chord-Based Foundation
What should a good chord-based foundation look like if you want to learn ear training? Here’s how I teach my students.
First, we start with the keys themselves. The entire length of your piano is filled with repeating sets of same 12 notes.
Once you have all 12 notes memorized, it’s time to learn chords. When I say “learn chords,” I don’t mean memorize them. All you actually need to do for chords is memorize their formulas.
That might sound easier said than done, so if you have your doubts, I understand. But it is possible. Here’s what people have had to say about their progress after learning with me:
“I paid in full for the “Ultimate” package and after one week felt I had my money’s worth. Jacques is a brilliant Teacher and has put together a very clear and easy to follow course. Jacques makes learning the piano interesting and enjoyable. I just love being able to go at my own pace and revisit any lessons as much as I want.
After Day 14 I was able to play lots of songs with two hands and I could not be happier with my progress. I am up to Day 17 and sincerely could not recommend Jacques and his course highly enough. Having never played piano before it is just a joy to have made such progress. I’ve learnt so much and can’t wait to learn more.” – Janelle, Australia
“It sounds too good to be true, but this system really does work. Three weeks in and I’m playing real songs (not chopsticks or Swans on the Lake), current music! I know most of the chords by heart and know how to figure out the ones I don’t know by heart. This is the real deal! (Truth in advertising—I did take piano lessons for a year, so I had a basic understanding of piano, but that was 40 years ago.)” – Nancy, USA
“This is an easy 5 stars review for me! It has truly unlocked the mystery of those 88 keys and provided me with a MASTER KEY to this treasure of simplified lessons…. My progress on the piano is amazing coming from one hand hunt and peck on the keys to using both hands and improvising with various chords.
Also having thrown away the “silly little stickers” and memorizing the keys was a huge step forward though simple with visualization as Jacques pointed out. To accomplish this in just a few weeks is amazing to me without reading notes or sheet music. YES… IT WORKS! (Happy in Oregon) – Lloyd, USA
Making the Song Yours
Okay, so here’s the part where creativity comes in. Up until this point, everything about ear training has been focused on basically copying the original as much as possible. That’s fine, but it’s also kind of boring, don’t you think?
As I’ve mentioned in other posts on piano improvisations, I really enjoy spicing things up with my own personal touches when I play. To me, it only makes sense that you should also do that when you play by ear.
All the improv techniques from my main 21-day course (chord patterns, piano octave switches, arpeggios, and more) can all be incorporated as part of this process. It might sound overwhelming to add in improv over melody and chords, but that’s exactly what my new melody and ear training lessons can teach you. (And believe it or not, you can learn how to do it in just 21 lessons!)
Is Ear Training Right For You?
So, is ear training right for you? It could be, if you:
- Have already learned to play piano with the traditional OR chord-based playing method
- Are willing to take the time to practice differentiating between higher and lower pitches
- Don’t mind trial-and-error processes
- Consider playing melody a top priority of your piano-learning experience
If this sounds like what you’re looking for, remember that you need a solid foundation in the basics before you can begin. My 21-day course paired my new melody and ear training lessons are just about the simplest and best method you can use to learn this new skill!