How to begin playing by ear (Part 1)

Is it more important to be able to read music or play by ear?  I really don’t know the answer, but I know they are both important.  I am teaching my son who is eight to play the piano and though we focus mostly on reading music, I am already teaching him to play by ear.

One of the things I hate to hear my kids say is “I can’t”.  In most cases they can if they want to badly enough.  When I tell pianists they need to learn to play by ear, the first thing they often say is “I can’t.”  Don’t say that!  Just start practicing.

So how can you start learning?  Here is a simple plan.

  1. Learn to pick out a melody of any simple hymn.
  2. Learn to play the melody in several different keys (preferably all of them).
  3. Pick a key (C is a good choice) and start playing the melody in the right hand.  As you play, experiment with simple triads in the left hand in the octave just below middle C.  In almost every case, either the I, IV, or V chord will work.  In the rare cases where none of those chords work, either
    skip the chord or cheat and look in the hymnal.
  4. Once you know the melody and the supporting chords, you can start improvising a bit.  Play the chord in simple arpeggios in the left hand or move the melody to the left hand and play chords in the right hand.  Or try some inversions in the chords.

To make it easier, let me refresh your memory on the I, IV, and V chords in the key of C.  This is the octave that they will sound best in if you are playing them without any inversion.

Let me pause for a moment and remind you that I am making some assumptions about your current knowledge of theory.  For example, I am assuming that you understand how to identify and play I, IV, and V chords.  If you do not, please find a book or website that you can learn from before continuing this lesson.  Knowing the I, IV, and V chords in each key is absolutely critical to your ability to learn from these lessons.

Some great things will start happening are you start faithfully working through these simple steps.  Don’t overdo it–15 minutes a day is sufficient.  Don’t worry if the sound is not wonderful.  The important thing is that you are starting to crawl.  You will be able to run later.

I am going to cover step 4 in much more detail in the next lesson.  For the time being, just work on steps 1-3.

Practice strategy:
Practice steps 1-3 on “Jesus Loves Me.”  Learn to play it in a minimum of four keys including C and work on step 3 in the key of C.  Then try it in Db.  If you have time, add another song.