Playing Piano By Ear

Part 1 - June 7, 2022


Most piano students who sign up for traditional piano lessons are never taught how to play by ear. It's a skill that every piano student should be taught, but for some reason, it's the one thing that's missing from most piano method books.


  • Of course, there's never a shortage of tedious ear training exercises, but when it comes down to actually learning real songs by ear, there's not a single teaching series that puts any real focus on listening to songs and figuring out the notes that make up that song.

What Does It Mean To Learn Songs By Ear?


To be honest, when I was taking lessons as a kid, I didn't even know the ability existed. I thought everyone learned how to play an instrument by learning how to read sheet music.

I don't know exactly when I became aware of the concept of learning songs by ear, but I finally met a self-taught musician in my first year of college who could hear a song on the radio and then after a little bit of trial and error, he'd be able to play the song on the piano.

  • From that moment on, I had to know exactly how this guy taught himself how to play the piano without the help of sheet music.

After all, I spent 13 years learning how to read sheet music, and not once did my piano teacher ever broach the subject of learning songs by ear. Reading sheet music was all I ever knew, and to tell you the truth, I wasn't very good at it.

So when I actually met someone who could learn how to play any song just by listening to it, you can only imagine my reaction. I had to know how he did it!

The Secret Revealed

  • It took my new found friend about an hour to teach me how to learn songs by ear.

Now don't misunderstand, I still had to go home and practice the techniques that he taught me, but to my amazement, there wasn't a whole lot to it. It wasn't that complicated.

Of course, it took me about 6 months to really grasp the whole concept of learning songs without sheet music, but once I got a few songs under my belt, I actually started to enjoy playing the piano.

So what's the big secret?

Alright, I'm going to teach you what he taught me, but I'm pretty sure that you'll be less than amazed. But if you hang in there, I promise to share my experiences with you, so you know exactly what to practice and what to expect in the way of results.

Melody, Chords & Rhythm

When you learn a song by ear, there are only 3 things you have to figure out: the melody, the chords and the rhythm -- and I'm going to teach you how to learn all 3. I'm also going to show you two techniques that I came up with on my own.

One technique that I developed was the use of sheet music. When I first started learning songs by ear, I had no way of checking myself. I mean, what if I learned something and it wasn't correct. How would I know?

  • So here's what I did. For every song that I learned by ear, I bought the sheet music and made 4 copies.

On the first copy I'd white out all of the melody notes, leaving just the lyrics. I kept the lyrics so I knew where to write the letter name of each melody note.

  • On the second copy, I'd white out all of the chord symbols and all of the notes for the left hand, which is usually where the chords are written out in music notation. This took a lot of liquid white out, but it was worth it.

Once that was done, I made one copy of the first copy, where I whited out all of the melody notes, and then I made one copy of the second copy, where I whited out all of the chord symbols and left hand notes.

I did this so I would have an extra copy in case I made a mess with my first attempt -- which was usually the case, especially with the first half dozen songs or so that I learned by ear.

The Challenges

My self-taught musician friend made it look so easy, but when it came time to learn my first song, I ran into a few unexpected challenges.

  • The first challenge was rhythm -- and my sense of rhythm was really bad. And you would think that after 13 years of piano lessons I would have had a great sense of rhythm -- but the hard truth was, I had no sense of rhythm.

After teaching piano for the past 30 years, I've discovered that many piano students don't have any real sense of rhythm. To make a long story short; this rhythm problem is normally associated with reading sheet music, exclusively.

  • Here's a little known fact:  Most piano students never listen to the songs they're trying to learn - and most piano teachers don't put enough focus on this one simple skill of "listening".

Which really doesn't make any sense - because music is a listening art form, and yet, I never listened to any of the songs that I learned while I was taking piano lessons as a kid. Nor was I encouraged to do so.

In any event, my rhythm improved almost instantly. The first song that I attempted to learn by ear was "Hey Jude" by the Beatles.

It was the first time that I actually listened to a song that I was learning how to play -- and even though the song was a little difficult, I noticed a difference in my playing in just the first few days. It was after that first song that I decided to learn shorter, simpler songs. I'll explain why in part 2.



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