Learning to play the piano by ear is a skill that can open up new avenues of musical expression and creativity for pianists, regardless of your playing ability. While it may seem daunting or confusing at first to be able to learn a song simply by listening to it, with practice and patience, anyone can improve their ability to learn songs by ear and be able to broadly speaking play along with almost any piece they hear, as they hear it.
In this article, we will explore some tips and techniques that can help you improve your ability to learn piano by ear and the benefits that it can bring to your playing.
Why Is Playing By Ear Helpful?
Being able to play the piano by ear is a unique skill that lends itself to many avenues of piano playing, not only does it dramatically expand your musical horizons being able to simply hear a song and then play along with it, but especially when playing along with others or perhaps composing yourself, the ability to be able to sing or hum along with a tune and replicate it can make learning a piece far easier. Fun fact, Elton John is one such pianist who had an innate ability to play along to tunes and pieces simply by hearing them.
Whilst it may not be possible to learn and memorise a full concerto by ear alone, many pop songs or even jazz improvisations can be learned by ear and played along with to help put your own spin on your playing.
Not only this, being able to play by ear is a great supplement to enhance your listening skills as by enhancing your ability to play by ear, you often find yourself listening to music in far more depth, trying to hear for yourself the subtle difference within the sound.
Start With Simple Songs
When first learning to play piano by ear, it's important to start with simple songs that have a clear melody and structure. This will help you to better understand the relationships between notes and chords, and develop your ability to recognize them in more complex songs.
The best examples of this are not only from incredibly simple compositions such as nursery rhymes that everyone knows, regardless of age, but also most pop songs utilise a four chord repetitive structure with a simplistic melody line over the top, making them incredibly easy to learn by ear.
Once you are comfortable with the easier songs, try your hand at something a little more complex to test your ear to see if and how you can begin to spot various patterns and nuances within the music.
Learn Basic Music Theory
Understanding some elements of music theory is something that makes learning the piano by ear far more achievable and easy to play along with. By learning just a few elements of theory such as chord shapes, scales, timings and key signatures, this will help enhance your ability to identify these components within the songs you are trying to play along with and help you to recognise patterns and progressions in songs.
Even if you would prefer not to learn music theory and just want to experiment with your music, we would still recommend learning how various chords and notes work together.
Practise Active Listening
We have written about active listening extensively in our guide to improving your listening skills, but active listening is an important skill when learning to play piano by ear and is one of the best ways to enhance your skills.
This involves simply listening to music on a far more in depth level than you usually would. Instead, when you next listen to a piece you would like to learn, we would recommend sitting next to your piano and focusing in great detail on the individual notes and chords in a song, and listening for their relationships and patterns.
You might actually be surprised by how quickly you will be able to pick up things like the melody and realise which notes work and which do not.
Play Along With The Recordings
Playing along with recordings is a great way to improve your ability to learn songs by ear as it helps bring your learning together into a fully cohesive way of playing.
By playing along with the song you are trying to learn, not only will this will help you to develop your timing and phrasing, and to identify the notes and chords in a song, but you will begin to notice your mistakes, where you are differing from the piece and how you can begin to fix your playing to sound more like the original.
As with any skill, regular practice is essential for improving your ability to learn piano by ear. Set aside time during your weekly piano practice sessions to practise, and focus on a specific song or technique. Over time, you will notice your ability to learn songs by ear improving, and you will become more confident in your ability to play and create music.
Tools such as piano diaries are fantastic ways to help not only keep accountable to your practice, but also to help you stay motivated and see how far you have progressed.
Finding it hard to create time for your piano practice? Read our guide here!
In conclusion, learning to play piano by ear is a valuable skill that can greatly enhance your musical expression and creativity. By starting with simple songs, learning music theory, practising active listening, playing along with recordings, and practising regularly, you can improve your ability to learn songs by ear and become a more confident and versatile musician.
Remember, learning piano by ear takes time and practice, but with dedication and perseverance, anyone can achieve their musical goals.
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