Piano sheet music - breaking the chains
September 27, 2008 6:55 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to play piano by ear?

I had 12 years of instruction, and I’m technically competent. I can pick up sheet music and play just about anything. But aside from a handful of songs that I’ve memorized through endless repetition, I can’t play anything without the written music.

My 16 year old son took three years of piano lessons and got frustrated, and just started working it out on his own. Now he can hear anything, sit down and play it. He can transpose on the fly. He can improvise. He’s having a lot more fun on the piano than I am, and I’m jealous.

I suppose I could do what he did and sit down and “work it out”, but that would likely take years. My fingers “know” the chord progressions but I’m weak on theory and have no idea how to translate what’s in my head into notes on the piano. I’m willing to take lessons, but I don’t know anything about teaching methods for playing by ear. I don’t know how to best approach it, what to ask for, what questions to ask, or what methods exist. Any suggestions to get me started?
posted by JParker to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
You need to learn music theory. Go to musictheory.net and work through the lessons there. You can ask me if you have specific questions.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:58 PM on September 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

For most people, learning to sight sing is a great accompaniment to learning written theory that can really help with hearing. Learn solfege and start reading simple melodies by sight. Even if you don't consider yourself a good singer, translating notes on the page into resonance in your body will really help you hear better.

As the maestro (ludwig_van, natch) said above, learning written theory will help a lot too. I'm guessing that you want to learn to play popular music by ear, not Shostakovich. If that's the case, learning how music is put together will help lots.

One quickie tip that might help right away no matter what kind of music you're trying to play: get the bass line first. Then, even if you don't know much about theory at all, you can probably guess what chords go on top without too much trouble, at least for 9/10 of pop music.

Good luck! It's a noble pursuit.
posted by nosila at 7:27 PM on September 27, 2008

I suppose I could do what he did and sit down and “work it out”, but that would likely take years.

Actually, with that kind of attitude, it will never happen.

ludwig_van is right; theory helps. However, just as you practised sight reading and technique, you will need to practise memorisation and transposition and improvisation. There is no royal road to learning, sire.

When I was learning music at school, part of our instruction was taking music dictation. We got to listen to a little snippet once, then there was a small break, and then we heard it a second time. We started with four bars of a simple melody, and worked up to eight bars of four voices. I credit that with really developing my ability to hear complex music and KNOW what was going on.

I don't know whether there are online tests you can use, but there's nothing stopping you from doing your own informal version of this. Pick a recording. Play a snippet. Try to reproduce the tune. Then try to pick out the harmony. Keep going, adding more elements. It will be laborious at first, but in time it will get easier. This is what your son did, and it is what you have to do too.

Actually, why don't you talk to your boy? Sounds like an excellent opportunity for parent-child bonding to me.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:42 PM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Be happy for your son. He has a gift.

Learn music theory, and you will be part of the way there. But I don't know if you can teach the skill your son has. You can read music, understand the structure, appreciate it when you hear it, but you might never get it. Some things are innate.

I can tune a guitar with no reference, I can read sheet music as needed, but I can't play anything worth a damn. Years of practice would make me nothing more than an excellent technical player.
posted by bh at 8:48 PM on September 27, 2008

I've found with other instruments that 'noodling'--playing snatches of tunes, working through scales and getting the intervals in your ears and under your fingers--works well to get to ear-playing.

Try working out simple tunes with standard chord progressions. Things like Christmas songs or other fairly simple melodies that are stuck in your head are good starts. The melody almost always falls in relations to the chord progression, so it's not that hard.

Playing complicated arrangements by ear isn't going to happen without lots of practice and experimentation and working things out.
posted by LucretiusJones at 8:54 PM on September 27, 2008

The best way to learn to play piano by ear is to... play piano by ear. A lot. And to suck at it at first. And to gradually suck less as time goes by. This may be frustrating when you see that it comes so naturally to some (e.g. your son?). But it will come to you gradually if you just do it.

Just sit down and try. Keep trying. Start with melodies -- think of a simple, familiar tune in your head and pick it out with your right hand. Pick it out in your left hand. Now try it in a different key, one you're fairly comfortable with. Now try it in C#. Now try to make it minor.

Improvise a simple melody at the piano. Sing along. Try to have your voice beat your fingers to the note, anticipate what it will sound like until you can hear in your head. Gradually make the melodies more complex, using larger, stranger intervals. If you "predict" the next note wrong, repeat that interval over and over and keep coming back to it until it's familiar.

Try picking out some simple tunes with harmony. Pick some old folk songs, children's songs, carols, etc. Things with a lot of I IV and V. You know, "O Susanna" and "Silent Night," etc. Work on these until you're comfortable with your choice of harmonies. Now try picking them out in other keys. Try all twelve.

Find a CD with some simple pop tunes. Preferably piano/vocal. Put the CD player on top of the piano where you can pause easily. Play a song and figure it out. Don't worry about getting every note verbatim, just figure out the chord changes and any crucial melodic figures. Better yet, figure out the bassline and the chord changes. You may have to rewind and pause a lot.

Find some music with tight vocal harmonies. Pick out both (or all) parts. And what the heck, now play it in a few different keys. I think I did this with Simon and Garfunkle's "Sound of Silence" when I was a kid. It seems easy now but at the time it took some effort and my ear got better as a result.

Listen to some choral music. Ignore the melody. Follow the bass line. Then try the tenor part. Then the alto. Play each on the piano. Go to a church? 4-part hymns? Sing a different part on each verse.

etc. etc. etc.

Some of these things might seem impossible at first. It may take you 3 hours to pick out a simple tune. That's fine, do it. It will take you 2.5 hours the next time. Do this a lot and you'll get quicker, more intuitive. You'll pick up on patterns better and your brain will develop little tricks for understanding what you're hearing.

But you've been making music for at least 12 years, your ear knows a lot more than you give it credit for. Now practice makes perfect...
posted by Alabaster at 8:57 PM on September 27, 2008

Theory will inform your playing, but there is only one way to develop your ear, which is that sense that allows you to reproduce tones you hear either in your mind or from another: sit down, choose a song, and reproduce what you hear. The way to really train this ability is to attempt to reduce trial-and-error note-finding as much as possible. Reason with what you hear; look at the keys after you hear a sequence of notes and try, as much as you can, to know what key you will need to press next before you hit it. You will probably be largely unsuccessful at the beginning, and you will find it to be mentally taxing in a way that is on par with walking through waist-deep molasses.

Start with simple melodies. See, after that has become somewhat internalized, if you can't figure out the harmonies (this is where theory will give you a good preliminary framework for your explorations). Gradually up the complexity of the music you replicate, and specifically choose music in the genres you'd like to be able to improvise in.

This process is called transcribing, and it is how every improvisatory musician of legend you've ever heard of learned to make the sounds they do. Nothing is more powerful in terms of inscribing the nooks and crannies of music and its materials onto your intuition, but few learning experiences are more trying. Don't give up, and you'll be able to jam something fierce with your son after a while, especially given the technical basis you've already got with the piano.
posted by invitapriore at 9:01 PM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't think you can learn it. I was born able to play by ear. I taught myself to play the piano (never well) as a child. I hear a song once, and it's mine. My mother, my daughter, and my husband can't do it. Never could. They can/could all play the piano, but they couldn't hear the music in their heads the way I do.

You can learn to play better. You can learn to improvise. It's worth the endeavor. It's not the same thing, though.
posted by clarkstonian at 10:11 PM on September 27, 2008

I don't know if you can either. My uncle can play piano by just sitting at it and tapping around a bit and then he goes full on piano bar style. My Grandmother (same side) does the same thing with a harmonica and accordion. Never had a lesson, doesn't even own one, but can belt out a polka with the best. My Dad can play just about anything he hears on piano or bass guitar. I haven't really ever picked up an instrument, so I have no idea if I can.

None of them are musical in any way. Never played in school or choir or with the family or anything. I have no ides how they do it, they just have a knack I guess.
posted by sanka at 10:18 PM on September 27, 2008

I'm not buying this "innate ability" line.

In my experience people who showed talent when young were also kids who got enough of a kick out of fooling around and who were immune enough to discouragement that they were self-motivated to practise; were kids who didn't get the memo that this stuff is hard. Really liking and enjoying the shreds of ability that you do have and using that as motivation to practise is what underlies a lot of talent.

Part of it is that a kid a) has lower expectations b) generally isn't discouragingly hard on themeselves and c) has the time and opportunity to practise (aka structured screwing-up) that few adults do.

Hence my advice above. JParker's kid didn't just magically transition into a musical genius - he had to "work it out his own".
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:00 PM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone. It seems like there's a fair number of people who think you're "just born with it" and an equally sizable crew that says there's no shortcut, you just have to learn some music theory and then "work it out". I'm inclined to think it's the latter, and that's fine. I just wanted to know if there exists some technique, or process or school of music training that could get me to my goal sooner.

I have no qualms about tackling it head on. I do sing, and can sight read reasonably well (I don't have perfect pitch, but I can hit the major intervals and I know when I'm on or off key). I love tinkering at the piano. I guess I just have to get disciplined about it and chart out my own course.

There were a bunch of helpful suggestions already listed. Thanks.
posted by JParker at 11:06 PM on September 27, 2008

You can learn it. I know, I did. I always have a guitar and keyboard near my computer chair, and I love to noodle around on them, either improvising over top of the songs I listen to or playing the melodies note-for-note.

Of course when I started out I was terrible at this. Gradually I made fewer and fewer mistakes picking out notes. I could tell that I was improving, because I could "hear" wider and wider intervals. At first I could do major and minor seconds but would get lost with thirds. Then I could pick out thirds. Then fourths, fifths, and sixths. And then non-enharmonic notes, notes not in the current key. And so on.

It just takes a lot of time and practice. The best way to learn how to play music by ear is to try and fail. Over time you will do better and better. It can definitely be learned.
posted by Khalad at 12:24 AM on September 28, 2008

I agree with invitapriore that although knowing music theory might help, I don't necessarily think learning it is going to get you where you want to go. You need to train your ears.

I can play most songs by ear on guitar and although I suck on piano, it's because I have no style when I play piano. That is, I can usually figure out the chords pretty quickly to a song on the piano but can't really embellish the melody when I play. Since you're an accomplished player, I think once you're able to easily figure out and hear the chords to a song in your head, you'll be able to add your own style to it.

I also don't know much about music theory. I've tried to learn it on many occasions but ultimately just got frustrated. So although I know some basic stuff (like differences between major and minor, how to augment or diminish a chord) I really do not know music theory well.

Forget lines and dots for a while. Learn how to play chords on the piano including their inversions. Then pick up a book of your favourite songs that just list the chords to a song. Or search for chords of your favourite songs on the internet and play those. Eventually, you'll start to hear which chords naturally work together and that will make transcribing songs on your own easier later. Once you are able to quickly determine the chords to any song, then you could work on adding in melodic embellishments along with your own personal playing style.
posted by gfrobe at 3:06 AM on September 28, 2008

You can learn it. That's the consensus; that's my experience. But the way you work it out is not through music theory. You already know the basic theory, instinctively, in the same way that you can tell when a musician makes a mistake. Your problem is just learning how to transfer what you already know to the piano keyboard. You can sing "happy birthday to you" without music, can't you? Then you have what it takes. Try playing it on the piano, and continue along the lines that Alabaster and Invitipriore suggested.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 4:37 AM on September 28, 2008

Thanks everyone. It seems like there's a fair number of people who think you're "just born with it"

These people have no idea what they're talking about. Of course you can learn it.

I agree with invitapriore that although knowing music theory might help, I don't necessarily think learning it is going to get you where you want to go. You need to train your ears.

Understanding theory entails training your ears. When you take the music theory AP test in high school, you're asked to sight sing as well as take melodic and harmonic dictation.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:37 AM on September 28, 2008

It's occurred to me that your request for a teaching method for this is a request for a total, prescriptive program of actions. In other words, another form of notation.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 2:49 AM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

A long while back, in cassette tape days, there was a guy named Sudnow who had a play-by-ear method. It integrated music theory with intuitive playing skills and he claimed great results. Checking now, there is a website, which I did not explore, but I do own the tapes and found the info very useful.

Sudnow Method
posted by FauxScot at 6:43 AM on September 29, 2008

It's occurred to me that your request for a teaching method for this is a request for a total, prescriptive program of actions

Not so much, although I'd take a look at it. I just want to "get there" in the most efficient manner possible. I don't mind doing the work - I plan on enjoying it! - but I don't want to just sit down and start trying to figure it out if someone has already developed a better approach.

Thanks, FauxScot, for the Sudnow link. It looks like it's all online and downloadable now, and for $100 it sounds like he's attempting to give you just enough music theory (learning to play by ear through "playing by chord patterns") to jump in and start playing. I can skip the whole "dots on the piano keys" part and accelerate the program.

As a pianist I think ludwig_van is right, and learning some theory is a key to success in this little venture. Sudnow's materials might be worth it just for the fact that it's targeted to piano with a goal of learning to play by ear.
posted by JParker at 10:53 AM on September 29, 2008

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