So you want to learn how to play piano by ear? Perfect – it’s one of the best skills you can develop.
It allows you to just sit down at a piano and improvise music, or quickly pick up your favorite songs by listening to them.
But it’s not easy. Thankfully in this post, we’ll give you some tips on being able to play by ear in no time. (Scratch that, it’s a lie.. It’s gonna take some time…)
Let’s get right into it…
Start With the Fundamentals
Unfortunately, there’s no getting around it – you have to learn music theory basics.
But it doesn’t have to be boring, and it doesn’t have to take long. Read our guide and you’ll understand everything you need to know in less than an hour.
You need to know the following:
- Time/rhythm in music
- Piano notes, intervals and scales
- Basic piano chords (and advanced ones too!)
- Common chord progressions + diatonic harmony
You need to be familiar with these basics so that you can easily pick up on chords/progressions/intervals you hear in your favorite songs. Or if you’re improvising you need to know your way around the “streets” of music.
Focus on the Number System
You have to learn about the number system in music (commonly called the “Nashville number system”) – it’s an intuitive way to learn how music moves.
We’ve got a guide in our basic music theory section that goes over this.
It’ll show you how to quickly move from chord to chord when you’re playing. It’ll also help you understand that most music uses the same patterns/progressions over and over again.
And that’ll make it easier to pick up your favorite songs quickly.
Practice – A Lot
Unfortunately, again, there’s no getting around this one. You NEED to practice a lot. To the point where you’ve memorized scales, chords and progressions.
You need to rely on “muscle memory” so your movements in the moment are fluid and make sense.
The only way to achieve that is practice. So set out to practice every single day – for a minimum of 30 minutes, but preferably 90 minutes (if you have the time).
You should get to the point where if I ask you to play a I – IV – VI – V in the key of D minor, you can do it right away.
Here’s a guide on how to practice piano.
Memorize the Building Blocks
In addition to practice, there’s a bit of memorizing you’ll need to do. The best way to do this is with flash cards.
You need to memorize your scales. Yup… it sucks. But it’s effective. So get to it. All the major and minor scales at the very least.
You should be able to instantly answer if I ask, for example, what the 6th tone of Gb major is.
It’ll take some time, but once you’re good to go with all 24 major/minor scales, you’ll be an unstoppable beast.
Use Active Listening
Now that you’re doing good with the fundamentals and you’ve memorized your scales, you can move on to the next step.
When you’re listening to your favorite music, don’t just listen passively in the background like most people.
You’re a musician, not “most people.” You need to use active listening.
Pay attention to what’s happening in the song – what is the underlying chord progression being used to build the harmony? What note intervals are being used in the melody?
It’s a great idea to be at the piano while you’re doing this listening. Try to find the chords by playing the song and playing around on the piano at the same time. Do the same to the melody.
Slowly piece together what’s going on. Over time and with practice, you’ll be able to simply listen to something and be able to play it without too much effort.
But it will take time to get there – keep practicing.
Start Getting More Complex
The fact of the matter is, a lot of the music you listen to won’t be using basic triads throughout the entire song (and often not in root position, either). Some might even be written in a specific mode, not in the basic major/minor scale.
So, you should slowly start incorporating the following into your playing/practice:
- Extended chords, suspended chords, etc.
- Piano modes and advanced scales
- Chord inversions and advanced voicings
The most important thing to do is practice a lot. Playing by ear is all about being able to move around the piano quickly and smoothly, knowing how harmony and melody works.
You don’t need to study a ton to get there, you just need to practice a lot.
The Best Way to Learn to Play Piano By Ear
The best way to play piano by ear fast, is to use a structured piano lesson program that focuses on this type of playing.
The problem with traditional piano tutors and lessons are that they’re so focused on traditional music theory and reading sheet music. That doesn’t help you much if you want to be able to play piano by ear.
Definitely check it out if you want to fast track your progress and be able to play by ear faster.
But if you follow the tips in this article, you’ll be able to play piano by ear effectively – it just may take a bit longer (and a lot more willpower/determination!).
It’s totally worth it, being able to sit down at a piano and bust out the latest song you’ve been listening to, or coming up with your own song on the spot is an amazing skill to have. So don’t let it overwhelm you and take it one step at a time. Be consistent with your practice and playing piano by ear will become second nature to you. Good luck!
Here’s some additional piano articles you may find helpful: