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Play Piano By Ear vs Reading Music

Posted by Yoke Wong on 10/28/2011 to Learn To Play Piano

Play Piano By Ear

play piano by earPlaying by ear is the ability to hear a piece of music and play it without looking at sheet music. Reading music, of course, is the ability to “read” musical notes, rhythm and dynamics on sheet music, and play a piece accurately. These abilities may seem incongruent, but they actually require some of the same skills. Both have potential benefits for the pianist, and both should be cultivated.

Although some people seem to be born with the ability to play by ear, most musicians spend time and energy cultivating this skill. To play by ear, one must first have a solid knowledge of notes and piano chords, and where they are found on the keyboard. A pianist then can visualize in his mind where the notes are on the keyboard as he listens to music. As he practices playing those notes by ear, he becomes more proficient. Fumbling around on the keyboard for the notes is a beginning, but is not the same as playing by ear. Pianists usually can hear and play the melody by ear before they can play the harmony.

Playing by ear is a useful tool for playing a popular song, or accompanying someone in a casual sing-along, but this skill alone does not make a complete music education. Even accomplished pianists can rarely play advanced pieces by ear.

Reading Music

A musician who has learned to read music can recognize each written note on the scale, as well as marks for cadence and dynamics. This process happens gradually, just as a young child slowly learns to read. Learning to read music allows a pianist to play any music within his skill level, even if he has never heard the piece. A pianist that can read music also has access to the composer’s original intent in terms of dynamics and tempo. As a pianist’s knowledge of music theory deepens, he can learn to sight read, which is the ability to read and play a piece of music fluidly the first time through.

Both skills are important for the well-rounded pianist. A pianist who can play piano by ear can easily adapt music to another key, for example. Being able to read music allows the pianist to play difficult classical pieces with precision and accuracy. Look for teachers and lesson programs that provide opportunities to master both reading music and playing by ear.



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Nathalie Date 10/27/2011 10:36:50 PM
I learned how to play piano by ear when I started playing contemporary praise and worship songs during church worship services. Before that I was playing piano by reading notes. It was only when I learned how to play chords that I also learned how to play piano by ear. I listen to the song then get the melody, and then look for the chord, then I improvise the harmony so I could create a nice piano accompaniment for the melody. But I think this playing piano by ear is also a gift and not ever
Rose H. Date 10/28/2011 1:22:13 PM
Unfortunately, I still can'y play be ear. I can only play melodies but the chords for it is still confusing. And i agree with Nathalie, I believe playing by ear is a gift.
kingsley Date 11/2/2011 1:03:22 AM
hi wong..i believe that the enviroment in which a pianist operate goes a long way in affecting his mode of play..each way of playing piano has certain advantages over the other,so to be a world class pianist u must learn to supass that enviromental limitation,explore other modes,styles,and types of music outside ur enviroment..there is no limitation in piano playing..as a keyboardist i operate in an enviroment where playing by ear is most appreciated to playing by sight,but im constantly buildin
Eddie Archie Date 11/21/2011 4:49:52 AM
hello Wong, how do i develop and achieve the skills of perfect pitch or how to recognise every key, notes and chords when i hear them. pls i need a reply to aid me. thanks
Lea-Anne Smith Date 11/22/2011 6:00:59 AM
I used to believe you were either born with the gift of playing by ear or you weren't and just had to learn to read the music. My father has the wonderful gift of playing anything by ear having heard it just once, and rarely needs to use music. Because it wasn't inate for myself, I thought I just had to learn to read it. However, at the age of 46 I've had a huge attitude adjustment and came to the conclusiont that it is a learnable skiil. And presto! I'm doing what I thought I'd never be able to
joseph Date 11/25/2011 6:58:32 AM
@Eddie Archie, you really need to have a good ear for this skill. If you can sing and get the correct pitch right away, then you can easily learn how to play piano by ear.
joseph Date 11/25/2011 7:00:03 AM
@Eddie Archie, on the other hand, if you have good music listening skills, you need to learn all kinds of chords and chord theories in order to play piano by ear.
Mary Hall Date 12/13/2011 7:26:18 AM
I am a beginner, just learning to read sheet music and I love the process. I have a great teacher who's teaching me ear training (which is a start toward playing by ear). I don't forsee myself being caught in situations where I'm asked to play something and I'm embarrased because I don't have sheet music. That,seems to be most people's motivation to learn to play by ear. That said, I still think playing by ear is a valuable skill, second only to sight reading.
debi durham Date 4/13/2012 3:30:38 AM
NO, you do not have to know cords and notes to play by ear. When I was 5 years old I started playing piano my dad happened to buy for my sister. I do not know notes nor cords and have never had the need to learn them. If I hear it, I can play it. I have won talent contest over people that took music for 5-6 years, I have played for funerals, weddings, parties, clubs and I today am 59 and I still play everyday not knowing the notes or cords. Im clueless when it comes to the black notes. After 5 t
peter hart Date 8/25/2012 2:19:23 PM
peter hart Date 8/25/2012 2:37:59 PM
Iam 78 years old I started playing when I was six years old I had no knowledge of the chords or keys on a keyboard. If I saw a film with melodic background music I would play it when I got home. Over a lifetime of playing I have ventured without difficulty into other keys but I am still totally ignorant with regard to what chords I am playing and still play every day. I had a further problem which i had to overcome and that is I am left handed which may not seem important to right handed peop
rja Date 10/7/2012
u can do what ever u set your mind to do
Putri Date 1/28/2013
Playing piano by ear is really fun to do. I know both reading music notes and listening by ear. It's a quite fun skill to have. And handy too :)
Ifeoluwa Date 4/23/2013
Here in Nigeria, most musicians learn to play by ear. Very few learn to play by from sheet music. Though this is mostly due to lack of music theory awareness in our environment but few pianists ever take the trouble to learn to sight-read even when they get the chance later in life. So I can tell you for sure that playing by ear is not a gift. It's just another musical skill. If an accomplished pianist, guitarist or drummer can train himself to sight-read here, then it should be easier for someo
Adrianne Date 1/17/2014
It is obviously true that some people can train themselves to play by ear, but for me, I was able to play by ear as a small child. My parent bought me a toy piano and without any musical instruction whatever, I was able to play nursery rhymes and childrens songs. For me, I just touch a few notes and right away could hear where th melody goes. With that I just add chord progressions. I can play any melody correctly within seconds/minutes, also with chords. There is no practicing and listening required, it comes naturally like re-telling a story you once heard. Like many ear players, I tried formal lessons for a couple years but found it frustrating to be limited to pieces I could sight read, when I could play so well by ear. I stopped lessons and continue to play by ear. For me it's like second nature, its easy and i don't even need to think about it. So my view on all this is that ear playing is a natural gift for a few, a learned ability for others, to varying degrees. An impossibility for many. But the best musicians of all usually have the natural gift plus formal learning.
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