For as long as there has been the desire to play piano by ear there has also been some reluctance toward it.
The hesitancy being that if one pursues playing by ear then they could not be as qualified a pianist as those who read sheet music. As if reading music and listening to music were two separate paths that never intersected! (Wouldn’t that be insane?)
The truth is that learning by ear is as equally vital a skill as reading sheet music and today both methods of learning are combined to develop the future super-race of well-rounded musicians!
Discover why these piano education experts love learning by ear...
and steal their favourite ear-strengthening exercises!
“Creating a lasting relationship with the instrument.”
It all comes back to why people want to learn to play the piano: most kids and adults want to learn the piano so that they can play their favourite songs. Getting off the page and into the keys is an essential part of creating a lasting relationship with the instrument.
SONG WITH A STARTING HINT
I've found that one of the best ways to learn by ear is to challenge students to figure out part of one of their favourite songs.
I give them a starting pitch, a chord, or something to use at the beginning, and then I demonstrate how the process can be messy and a little hard at first. This is so important!
Students need to know that experimenting and "noodling" around are key components to the learning process. Before you know it, students start returning to lessons having figured out entire pieces by ear.
“Crucial in my self-motivation… also a cool party trick!”
The reason that I'm passionate about helping students play by ear is that if I wasn't able to play by ear, I think I probably would have quit learning and playing piano in my early teens! My ability to play the music I was hearing on radio or at events was crucial in my self-motivation. It was also a pretty cool party trick!
Keep in mind that this was all before you could search for tutorials, chord charts and sheet music on the internet, so the only option was to record songs on tape (yup, I'm that old) and then play it over and over while you tried to work out the notes on the piano.
Looking back, it's probably because the internet wasn't available for music like it is today, that I was forced to turn on my ears! Once I could play the song I was listening to, I could explore, unpack and create my own arrangements. Oh, and it's great fun!
Lots of teachers here in Australia and also in places like the UK that have a heavily exam-focused instrumental education system, leave any kind of aural activity until a few weeks before a student's exam when they suddenly realise that students need to know how to sing intervals and clap back rhythms! Of course we can all agree this is a pretty neglectful way to teach aural skills and it also has no impact on a student's real abilities post exam. Much better is to incorporate it from the very first lessons (which I do as part of my No Book Beginners approach).
I also like encouraging students to sing as much as possible - sing back what I play, sing a melody from a song their learning, sing a song while they accompany themselves with some chords.
BASS LINE BASICS
One of my favourite activities is helping students to hear, sing and play bass lines. This is crucial for an ability to play chords and harmonies by ear. I tend to use dance music for this purpose as it has very strong and repetitive bass lines that are easy to pick out. Interested teachers can check my YouTube for examples.
Tim is an expert in creativity and innovation in music education. He helps music teachers build thriving, modern studios centred around creative, engaging teaching that resonates with today's students.
Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, writes regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences. He also mentors hundreds of teachers through his online professional development community, The Inner Circle.
In 2017, Tim was consultant editor of the Australian Music Examination Board's Piano for Leisure Series 4 exam books and his writing and training courses have been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher and a host of music education journals around the world. He holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.
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“Crucial to feeling free and confident as a musician.”
For me, playing by ear is crucial to feeling free and confident as a musician. Yes, there are many practical benefits such as not needing to look up chord charts or rely on sheet music. But I believe that music-making begins when note-reading ends. Being able to find the notes instinctively lets you focus on bringing expression and emotion to your playing.
Many musicians fall into the trap of feeling like a note-playing robot, only able to play the notes they read or which they have carefully memorised in advance. Learning to play by ear, even to a small and simple extent, moves you into a world of true creativity in music.
Learning to play by ear is also almost always transformational in terms of confidence. When you're only able to read notes and memorise it's easy to feel nervous about forgetting things or losing your place or misreading a note. Playing by ear doesn't mean never making mistakes but it does give you a totally different relationship to the notes you're choosing to play and lets you feel far more relaxed in the moment.
It's also an impressive skill and one which many musicians have assumed would be impossible for them–so learning how to do it and proving to yourself that you are capable of playing by ear can be a huge confidence-booster as well.
Playing by ear is also deeply tied to improvisation - which in its most true and free form is "playing by ear what you imagine in your mind". So developing your ability to hear something and then play it back also unleashes your improvising potential. Improvising is a distinct skill which requires practice (because there's imagination involved too) but taking a play-by-ear approach to improv transforms what can otherwise be a challenging and intimidating skill into a rewarding and enjoyable experience.
THREE NOTES WITH FRIENDS
My biggest tip for learning to play by ear is: start simple! The most common mistake that causes musicians to think they can't play by ear is trying to do it all at once. Start small, for example just using the first three notes of the major scale. Get together with a friend and take turns playing a short melody using just those three notes for the other person to try to play back by ear. You can do this solo by recording little examples for yourself, and then listening back through and trying to mimic each one.
Most musicians find that even if "playing by ear" seems hard to them, a simple game or exercise like this actually is totally manageable - and from there you can build up your skills, step by step.
Christopher Sutton is the founder of Musical U, where musicians can discover and develop their natural musicality. Born and raised in London, England, he lives with his wife, daughters, and far too many instruments.
“The great composers did it, so why shouldn’t students be able to?”
For a long time, music education has been divided into two completely separate realms: by ear and by sight. Why?
Why shouldn't students be able to have both?
The great composers whose music we play certainly did and our students should too. We all want to create lifelong musicians – that's our mission as teachers – and the more tools our students have at their disposal, the more likely that is to happen.
DO, RE, MI, I.D.
One of my favourite activities to start developing this in my preschool beginners is do/re/mi I.D.
- Student sits on the floor,
- I play do re mi in any key while we both sing along,
- Then I play one of these three, without singing,
- If it's do they should stay sitting, if it's re they kneel and if it's mi they stand up.
It's very simple but it's effective. As they grow in confidence I'll start to include so and then la to create the pentatonic scale.
This has value beyond purely the ear-training. It also (along with improvisation, movement and games) creates an environment where reading is not the ultimate end-goal.
Reading is important, but so is all this other stuff. I'm so glad that more teachers are embracing taking a holistic approach to music teaching.
Nicola Cantan is a piano teacher, author, blogger and creator of imaginative and engaging teaching resources. She loves getting piano students learning through laughter, and exploring the diverse world of music making; through improvisation, composition and games.
Nicola's Vibrant Music Teaching Library is helping teachers all over the world to include more games and off-bench activities in their lessons, so that their students giggle their way through music theory and make faster progress.
Nicola also runs a popular blog, Colourful Keys, where she shares creative ideas and teaching strategies, and hosts regular training events for piano teachers.
“Though playing by ear comes naturally to some people, it’s a skill that can be learned.”
Playing by ear can unlock so much fun for students right when they first begin learning the piano. Students don't have to wait years to be able to play their favourite songs from the radio! And even though playing by ear comes more naturally to some people, it's a skill that can be learned.
Several years ago, I had two brothers taking lessons from me. The older brother was a natural with playing by ear, and you could tell that he had so much fun at the piano–quickly learning to play awesome songs. I could tell that the younger brother wished he could play like that.
So I started teaching him some techniques, and I can't even begin to tell you how thrilled he was to discover that he could learn this skill too. It was so fun to watch his confidence and skill level grow!
up, down, or stayed the same.
Here's a super simple activity I use with beginners to help them build confidence in their ability to use their ear: I tell students that I'm going to play 3 pitches on the piano. The first 2 pitches will be the same and then they just need to listen for the last pitch and tell me if it went up, down, or stayed the same as the first two notes.
Really easy, and can be turned into a fun game for kids! This is a great first introduction that helps students identify the direction of a series of notes, so that they can learn how to recreate the melody from their favourite song.
Kristin Jensen is a piano teacher, curriculum developer and author of the widely popular Piano Magic system. She loves helping piano teachers enhance their teaching skills and optimize their studios so they can use time efficiently, maximize profit and live a life they love.
Take a look at some of Kristin’s amazing resources here.
“It’s never too late to develop those (ear) skills.”
Growing up I don’t remember getting very much ear training, if at all in my lessons. My husband who also plays the piano, and I have joked that I am a great sight-reader while he is a great “ear” player. There have been many times that I have been envious at his ability and wished that I had a stronger ear.
The great news is it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Developing a musical ear and reading go hand in hand and be a huge gift when learning to play.
The other great news is it’s never too late to develop those skills either! The more you do it, the easier it will be. Simply take 5-10 minutes each day to work on developing your ear. There are many ear training activities, apps and resources that can help.
My favourite activity for remembering intervals by ear is to associate them to a familiar piece so they are easier to remember. For example, using “Here Comes the Bride” for the 4th interval. You can download a set of intervals by ear “cheat” cards for free here.
Jennifer Foxx is nationally recognised from her teacher resource blog: MusicEducatorResources.com. She has been interviewed on podcasts, TeachPianoToday.com, TimTopham.com, The Modern Musician Show and the Piano Parent Podcast. She has written articles for Clavier Companion magazine, The Piano Bench Magazine and has reviewed for the American Music Teacher magazine.
Majoring in Elementary Education and minoring in Music Education, Jennifer has taught piano lessons for 30 years. She is dedicated to the success of each of her students. Jennifer's personal mission as a teacher is to provide quality music education to each of her students. In addition to teaching, blogging and presenting, Jennifer enjoys creating and developing music educational resources and curriculum.
“Developing a solid foundation for playing by ear is such an important step.”
I have a confession to make - playing by ear is not one of my superpowers (though I really wish it was!).
I still want my students to benefit from the creativity and practical theory that it offers, so whenever a student arrives at lessons with a request to learn their favourite pop song I'm up for the challenge!
When it comes to inspiration for piano covers YouTube is obviously a goldmine, but developing a solid foundation for playing by ear is such an important step.
games TO ear-train
The ear training games from the monthly subscription Piano Game Club are a favourite in my studio, and a great way to introduce the basics to young students in a super fun and engaging way. Each game focuses on one concept, only takes a couple of minutes to play during lessons, and is super fun!
Bridey Gibson is on a mission to make music lessons even more fun through innovative teaching ideas, play based learning, creative expression, and engaging resources.
Based in Christchurch, New Zealand, she's a music teacher, eternal optimist, and blogger at Pianosaurus Rex.
“Playing by ear is something I've always known was important to include in piano lessons.”
Why? Learning a musical instrument should be a way to enable us to experience music around us. The best skill we can equip ourselves and students with is to be able to sit down and play our instrument without any music in front of us.
There's no reason why I should be nervous to harmonise simple folk tunes around the campfire or play a spontaneous melody of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or Jesus Loves Me when a child requests.
When I first started teaching, there was a problem though - I had NEVER been able to play-by-ear. How in the world could I teach my students to do so?! I was 100% traditionally trained through reading only.
While I had "ear training" courses in school, it still never came easily to me or "clicked" until a few years ago. (Well it's still not easy but it's getting easier). What was the difference? Music Learning Theory.
Learning the principles of this philosophy by Edwin E. Gordon has completely changed the way I approach teaching. I used to think the very first thing I should be able to do to play by ear is to be able to play melodies. I felt like I was hitting in the dark and even when I found the correct pitches, it took awhile to remember how to play the melody by "memory."
Now I realise that it's more about developing our ear for the essential pitches and tonal patterns by which music is constructed as well as the root-tone harmony. One of the first steps is simply awareness of the resting tone which is what guides our understanding of tonality.
I use moveable Do with La-based minor which facilitates audiation in the easiest way as it only requires the alteration of one pitch (Si for harmonic minor). Otherwise, all other tonalities (modes) Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian can be audiated simply based on where the resting tone is - starting on a different pitch of the scale.
My favourite activity for developing student's ear and awareness of the resting tone is quite simple:
I sing patterns and explain that the only thing they sing back to me after I sing my pattern, is the resting tone.
So, if we're in minor tonality they sing the pitch "La". For example, I sing "La-Do-Mi" - student sings "La"; I sing "Mi-Re-Ti" - student sings "La"; I sing "Mi-La-Do" - student sings "La." I always have the student state verbally that "when we hear La as the resting tone we're in minor tonality (with Si instead of So of course, otherwise it's Aeolian).
Don't worry if students are unable to do this at first. Also, don't worry about telling them if they sing the wrong pitch, simply sing back the right pitch and go on.
We even sing the resting tone frequently in the pieces we are playing. Say they play a piece all the way through for you–as soon as they finish, ask them to sing the resting tone, don't let them play anything on the piano!.
Amy Chaplin runs a vibrant studio in Northeast Indiana, shares her passions on PianoPantry.com, and serves as President of Indiana MTA. She holds a piano certification from the Gordon Institute for Music Learning, MM in Piano Pedagogy, and BA in Music Education.