Playing by Ear

….a natural talent, only achieved by the musically gifted?

What is playing by ear?

Playing by ear is the ability to identify and play notes and chords without having to see the printed music. It is a highly desired skill among musicians. Although many assume you need to be born with a natural talent to do it, in fact it’s a skill that you can learn with the right kind of practice.

For instance, the virtuoso musician like Mozart gained fame for his ability to write out in full the Monteverdi Vespers after a single listening. For the average musician that’s only a pipe dream.

Like perfect pitch, playing by ear is often talked about as if it’s some kind of innate gift which only some people possess (and it’s true that some people seem to develop this skill without really trying) but as with all aspects of music, hard work usually beats talent in the end.

How do you play music by ear?

There are two ways people can play music by ear. There’s perfect pitch and relative pitch. Some people are born with Perfect Pitch but everyone else can learn Relative Pitch.

People who can identify exact notes or a chord without any conscious effort have perfect pitch. They can identify notes like F sharp, B flat and C etc. Only a very small percentage of people have perfect pitch. It is something you are born with and cannot learn in later life.

Relative pitch can be learnt by spending lots of time training your ear to recognise the unique sound of scale degrees, the root, the second, the major third, the minor sixth and their unique sound within the context of the key. Although you might not necessarily know what that key might be.

Why should I play by Ear?

Learning music and tunes by ear is vital to developing your inner musical skills that help you do things like improvise, compose, improve your timing and play by ear. The list goes on and on.

Music is sound and the focus should be what you hear and not what you see. So, if you’re only reading the notes, you are distracting yourself from what should be a listening focus. The only reason we have notation is a way of preserving or recording the complex written music of great composers for posterity.

How can I learn to play by ear?

First of all, you need to know the theory and rules of music. Secondly, how they sound in action. You need a 50% balance of the two.

Studying the major and minor scales, their relationship between the 7 steps, the intervals of major and minor intervals within the scale and learning the chords and chord progressions that go along with these.

So, if you haven’t already embarked on some theory and aural classes with us, now is the time to start. You could join our theory classes by Hephizbah via

Where to begin?

Learning the tonic solfa/ solfege (doh, re mi etc) is key to playing by ear and can hugely improve your aural, harmony and theory skills. You can start at any age and level, and not just confined to youngsters. Why not try our Supertonics classes with Emma, email her on

If you want to develop playing by ear skills, nothing beats time spent with your iPhone, iPod or YouTube, wearing out the replay key while working out your favourite tunes. By listening, singing out loud many times you help internalise the tune and therefore one step nearer reproducing it on you instrument. Start simple, with a tune you know really well, maybe one you learnt to sing as a youngster, it might be a nursery rhyme, Lullaby by Brahms, Happy Birthday or God save the Queen. Begin with one note and build up one note at a time until you have it. Keep going back to the recording or sing the song to help your recall. You could join Carl Raven with his Big Band Project. Email him on

Don’t be that musician who can’t play a tune by ear or when asked by friends. ‘How long have you been playing……and you can’t play Happy Birthday!’

Playing music by ear will increase your enjoyment of playing and is where all the fun begins. Remember everyone can do it, and with practice, patience and perseverance you will manage it. As my Dad used to quote “To become truly successful in anything you need 1% talent and 99% perspiration”.