Playing the piano by ear - how to get a lot better?
November 30, 2021 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I know I'm capable of learning to play by ear on the piano, but I don't have enough chord knowledge to actually do it. I'd like to start, probably with a mixture of theory, simple sheet music, and practice. Suggestions?

To be really specific, I can easily pick out a melody, but I have problems with the chords. For an example, I was in the hospital once (yeah, that kind) and we had a piano but no music and no internet. I wanted to play Sufjan Steven's version of 'Holy Holy Holy' and it took me about 1.5 hours with a pencil and piece of paper, trying different chords, to come up with a sort of passable version. I'd love to be able to do something like that in 5 minutes instead.

I have limited but fairly lifelong musical education (piano from grade 1 to 7, various band instruments, self-taught guitar). I can read sheet music, but it's hard. I have a passing knowledge of theory. I'm aware of the circle of fifths, but don't really know much about it. Somehow I'm better with guitar; I can hear a song and my hands will know which guitar chords to strum so long as we're sticking to C G D F E A Am and Em.

I can't do this easily on the piano, and I'd like to start practicing, but I'm not sure how to approach that. Do you have suggestions? I think I'm coming at it from this angle because I'm getting old and I find it almost impossible to learn to put both hands together and memorize piano sheet music. I wanted to learn some songs for Christmas, but I've been working on 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' for three Christmases, and I can't get it to be perfect. But if I could just make up my own version of songs starting with the basic chords in the key of C, that would probably work (yes I realize that won't work for the song I just mentioned, since it's complicated and I think it changes keys(?), but for Jingle Bells it's totally doable).

One thing I learned in my daughter's old music class is that 3-note piano chords can have a shape. I remember there were three of them, one being the '1 3 5' shape. I can't remember the rest.
posted by kitcat to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
The other "shapes" a chord can have are commonly referred to as "inversions." So, there are three shapes for that three-note chord: 1-3-5, 3-5-1 and 5-1-3. Using the C major chord as an example, that means you could play C-E-G, E-G-C or G-C-E.
posted by emelenjr at 12:02 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

the other two shapes are inversions of that base chord: 3-5-1 and 5-1-3, or CEG, EGC, GCE.
Rick Beato may not be provide the most accessible approach to theory relating to melody accompanied by chords, but something like the earlier portions of this crash course might be useful, of only for providing the chords that are within a key, generally. might want to skip ahead to about 8:40 for your questions about chords that work in the key of C.

learning songs, i often will take notes on several of those "[songname] chords" search results (which can vary a lot), and then work out something i'm comfortable with. probably hours and hours of that before i've learned something that i would play in the presence of others, if i achieve either of those levels of comfort with said song.
posted by 20 year lurk at 12:06 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, I know what you're saying - didn't know that was called inversions - but I'm thinking of something else. I walked over to the piano and I think it was that you play a C chord, then you shift your 3rd and 5th fingers up a key (C F A - F chord to my guitar brain, so yeah that makes sense) and the next one is that you shift your thumb and 3rd fingers down a key so you have B D G (what is this, an inverted G?). And this works in any key.
posted by kitcat at 12:12 PM on November 30, 2021

Best answer: Do you understand how to shape all the chords (including the minor and ones you are missing on guitar)(as in A-G)? Are you trying to exactly copy a song, or 'play by ear', where you play roughly the same chord at the same time?

If you are trying to do that, then you need to learn the chord shapes first. Inversions aren't actually all that important. They only make your regular shapes, (which can get boring on piano or guitar) sound more fancy. Just learn all the basic chords, and same as guitar, if you are to play a C chord, play a C chord on the piano. Then you can do more interesting things with your fingers transitioning between chords.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:28 PM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: yes, you've got the second inversion of F (the fourth chord for the key of C) and the first inversion of G (the fifth chord for the key of C). works in any key provided you move the fingers right amount. if you moved just the thumb down to a b, you've got Em (3rd inv); if you move just the pinky up to A you've got Am (1st inv).

just glancing at one merry little christmas search result it does look like you're going to need a few more chords than are produced from the notes of the C scale. they shouldn't be too hard to slot in though.

i think there are more knowledgeable and experienced musicians who may explain better than i do, on here, but feel free to memail.
posted by 20 year lurk at 12:29 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also to get better if you can play guitar, play a song like 'Blitzkrieg Bop' by The Ramones which is like A D E A D E A D A (I think). Play those chords on the piano at the same time as The Ramones play them on guitar.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:31 PM on November 30, 2021

I think you're asking about triad chord structure? I'm trying to find a picture or list of them but my Google-fu is failing. They are universal and begun with the root note, and count up by half/whole steps from there. Like major chords are 1- 3- 5, minor is 1- half step down from 3- 5, a 7th chord is1- whole step down from 5- 5. There's a pattern for augmented and diminished chords as well, plus other standard variations (9ths I think? And also some 4 note chords?) Hopefully this makes sense.

It is super useful to learn these because you can start to understand the, um, flavor? Emotional tone? Of the different chord types in any key, which makes it easier to figure out what chord is happening in the music.
posted by ananci at 12:33 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

(...which you can do, starting on the A chord, cycling through the same shapes as with C F and G, above: A-C#-E, A-D-F# (Dmaj), G#-B-E (Emaj)).

yes try to learn all the chords.
posted by 20 year lurk at 12:36 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ooh! I found it! Scroll down to the chart and look at the Chord Formulas.
posted by ananci at 12:37 PM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm an okay guitarist, and a lousy pianist, but I can bang out most things on the piano pretty much by feeling out the melody, and then figuring out the harmony from there (I know this sounds like a "rest of the owl" situation, but stay with me here).

If you're passingly familiar with music theory, you should have at least a vague understanding of the chords in a given key. Since I'm not particularly dexterous, I usually pick things out in C major (A minor) or G major (E minor) on piano, which are easy to understand and play.

In C, you'll play the triads C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim. That's because these are the chords you can make from the notes in the C major scale: C D E F G A B. The vast majority of pop melodies hew very closely to the notes in the chords harmonizing them, so...

So let's say you've picked out a melody, in C, which begins on an E. First off you're going to reach for the C chord. Does it sound right? Good. Play the melody until you can "feel" the chord change. On that next change, where is it? Is it an F? You're probably going to F. Continue on like this until you've completed your melody. (Of course there are situations where a phrase will begin on a note that's not in the chord; this should be at least somewhat apparent by ear, but the vast majority of non-jazz tunes won't really use chords outside of the key).

As for how to play the chords, you've got the right idea with your moveable inversions. Like I said, I'm a lousy pianist, and not very quick, so my right hand wants to move as little as possible (my left hand is banging out octaves and keeping time; sorry).

Let's say I'm playing a progression that goes C - Am - F - G (you've heard this one). I'm probably going to start with a second-inversion C (just because I like the sound of it; G - C - E), then move to a root-position A (A - C - E), then up to a first-inversion F (A - E - F), then to the root-position G (G - B - D; or maybe a G7 or Bdim substituted here).

Try that and feel the way your fingers move. Get used to moving between these shapes. Do I-V-I. Do I-IV-V-I. Get an feel for how you're often holding one note between chords rather than just moving the whole shape around.

The fun is sticking the melody on top -- this is where your inversion choices actually become important. If you want to play the melody, it should (usually) be the highest note in the chord. So if your melody starts on an E over a C chord? You're playing G - C - E. And so on.

In other words: if this is a party trick where you just want to bang out songs, get your fingers used to moving between the usual intervals in one or two keys and just do it. Forget about learning "all the chords" unless you want to play along with records.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:44 PM on November 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

There are lots of piano instructional Youtube channels, and I'm sure there must. be some aimed at people in exactly your position. I'm sorry I don't know which to recommend, but, if you start watching some of them, your recommendations should start to fill up with others, and you might find one that speaks to you. Good luck!

Oh and don't let "music theory" mystify you too much - the chord and inversion stuff posted above is enough to carry you through for some time.
posted by thelonius at 1:19 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think this is what you're talking about - say you know the melody, but you want to quickly figure out the chords to it?

I recall this being taught in Grade 7-8 music theory, they work pretty well for improvisation, of course you could write pages on this but these are the "basic" rules, which then get overlaid by many exceptions...

Just think of chords in terms of numbers.

First the Major Chords
Chord I - contains I III V
Chord IV - contains IV VI I
Chord V - contains V VII II

Then the Minor Chords
Chord II - contains II IV VII
Chord III - contains III V VII
Chord VI - contains VI I III

The expectation is that the chord changes on a down beat. At the point of the down beat, say your melody is at a IV. You can tell immediately which chords will be in consonance and which will be in dissonance by seeing which chords contain IV - only Chord IV and Chord II do.

So if you're going for a consonance, then your only options are whether you want it to be major sounding (IV) or minor sounding (II)

If you're going for dissonance, you have more options (the other 4) depending on where the melody goes next. Dissonance is used to create the feeling of tension or suspense / drama, because the melody clashes with the chord, which is (usually) resolved when the melody "moves" to consonance.

In the example above, if you know the melody is going from IV to III, then you look for chords with consonance with III - so you get to pick from I, III, or VI, again depending on whether you want a minor or major chord. On the downbeat you will get a dissonance, which is then "resolved" in the next moment when the melody moves to III and then gets to a delayed harmony.

At its core, you're choosing "how" and "when" the music resolves the tension between dissonance and consonance. These are called cadences (wiki link with audio examples). So this is like playing Chess, you don't have to reinvent the wheel every game, an experienced player relies on "standard" moves that other people have found work really well and then string them together / mix and match.

As you mentioned, chords have inversions (which change the basic rules a bit) and there's heaps more to know as well... but I believe the basics here are well enough to get started.
posted by xdvesper at 2:43 PM on November 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

I know just how you feel! I can figure out a melody pretty easily, but getting the chords is a lot harder.

Some things that have helped me:

First: bass lines. Once you get the melody, see if you can listen for just the bass guitar or bass line. A lot of times that will give you a really good clue to at least a starting point for the chords. It's definitely not always true, but very often, the bass's first note in a measure will be the root of the chord for that measure. And sometimes you get the entire chord - sometimes bass players will play the chord as an arpeggio, which is the chord with the individual notes played separately. For example, on the Beatles' "All My Loving," Paul starts the bass with a descending line starting on F#. So your likely options are F# major or F# minor. Here's where music theory helps - the song overall is in the key of E major *, and the most common chords used in E are

E major (the I chord)
A major (the IV chord)
B major (the V chord)

F# minor (the II or ii chord)
G# minor (the III or iii chord)
C# minor (the VI or vi chord)

So if your first note in the bar is an F#, F# minor would be a good chord to try first.

Then, moving on to the next few bars, Paul plays E - G# - B - G# , and then C# - C# - G# - C# . He's pretty much coming right out and telling you that it's an E major chord followed by a C# minor chord. (We don't get the E that would be part of the C# minor chord, but the C# on the first beat is a really good clue, combined with our knowledge that C# minor is a common chord in the key of E.)

So: listen to bass lines.

* So how do you know what key a song is in? In many cases, the last bar of the chorus will be in the main chord for that key. So when you get to the end of "and I'll send all my loving to you," Paul spells it out for us by playing, descending, E - C# - B - G# - E. The C# isn't part of the E major chord - it's just there to sound good - but the first and last notes of those two bars make it pretty clear that it's an E chord, and the G# says it's major, not minor.

Second, there's a book called Piano by Ear that I've found really good at walking you through the process of learning to sound out the chords. (The only caveat is that a lot of the folk songs she suggests for practice are better known in the UK, so I didn't know those practice songs sometimes.) Amazon's Look Inside feature will give you a bit of an idea of how the book works.

Third, if you have a good library and it's lending now, see if you can get songbooks for artists you like, and use that to check your progress. Do your best to sound out a song, and then use the songbook to see how close you got, and then keep a notebook of the chords you missed, and see if you can figure out WHY you missed those. Were you pretty close, like it was a G7 and you thought it was just a G? Was it technically an entirely different chord, but you got two of three notes right? (G major is G - B - D ; E minor is E - G - B ; they're really close, which is why they work so well together in some song structures.) The more you learn about how the songwriter's chords differ from what you came up with, the more you'll understand about common chord progressions, and that will help as you keep learning to play by ear.

Finally, there's a great podcast called Strong Songs (which I learned about from a great front-page post about Billy Joel's Scenes from an Italian Restaurant!). He points out all kinds of interesting things musicians do with their chords, and it can really help you get a feel for some of the common ways to use chords and then some of the ways people diverge from those to do something a little more interesting - plus it's just a really fun podcast.

I hope that all helps!
posted by kristi at 1:05 PM on December 3, 2021

Ok what you describe in your "shifting fingers to get different chords" reply is *exactly* where you want to start, because it puts a lot of chords and progressions right underneath your fingers, which makes learning songs a breeze.

You already know the C, F and G chords that all come from simply shifting your fingers in the basic C position (as you describe above). Now instead of shifting two fingers, move all three fingers up one white key. Call this the "D position" and the chord under your fingers is now D minor, same shape as C but each note is one step up. Now if you shift two fingers up from here, what used to be an F chord is now in this new position a G chord (because all fingers are shifted up). And if you shift two fingers down, you get Am. So this second position generates Dm, G (again) and Am chords. Now there's one more chord you need, it's E minor, so keep going... move all three fingers of your Dm position up one white key again and you get Em, it's right there! This position can also generate Am and Bdim (see how?)

And that's it! That's all the chords in the key of C generated from the same chord shape in three different positions (C position, D position, and E position). It's fairly easy to do these movements in the key of C because of how the white keys are laid out on the piano, but the simplicity is deceptive, and translating this approach to other keys will require you to learn other scales on the piano beyond C major (the white keys). The important realization is that when you are shifting fingers, you are not really shifting notes on the piano keyboard, you are actually shifting the notes of an underlying, abstract musical scale (like CDEFGABC). So the bad news is that to play in a different key you need to learn a new scale (one with white and black keys), and every key has different patterns in their positions, and you have to know alll the notes in the scale to figure out which keys to "shift" your fingers to in each case. But the good news is in all cases it will be "shift top two fingers up two notes in the scale" or "shift the bottom two fingers down two notes in the scale", just like you described above. Those abstract rules are consistent across keys, and consistent across instruments as well, and comprise what people usually refer to as "music theory"... and you already know it. Nice work!

Now here's the best part. You can play these chords with your left hand easily, and work out a melody with your right hand (you did learn the scale didn't you?). That's one way to instant arrangements. But here's an even better one. Play the chords with your right hand and play bass notes with your left hand. What bass notes you ask? Just the roots (i.e. the names) of all the chords you are playing in your right hand. So if your right hand plays C-C-F-G in chords in C position (which will generate F in first inversion and G in second inversion), your left hand plays single C, F and G notes an octave (or two octaves!) lower. When you play those F and G inversions (which are called inversions simply because their root note is not the lowest note of the chord), playing the root note extra low on the left hand bass sounds absolutely beautiful. You will be astounded by your own arranging brilliance when you start to play these full, rich chords with lovely voice leading and strong root motion just by following these few steps. I guarantee it!

Also rhythm is important. Good luck!!
posted by grog at 6:59 PM on December 5, 2021

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