Quick Tips

Tips for Playing Piano By Ear

By Hoffman Academy Team
How do you play the piano by ear? Learn how to play piano by ear with our help.

Playing piano by ear is possible. Learn to play piano by ear with the following recommendations:

Some people seem to be able to sit down at the piano and play any song they’ve heard, just like magic. But it isn’t magic at all! People who can play piano by ear had to learn to do it, and that takes time, effort, and practice. Playing piano by ear is a fantastic skill to have, and you can start today to help your child develop it. Below, you’ll find strategies to share with your child to build the skill of playing by ear. Your young pianist can start ear training as part of playing, with time spent listening to music, to singing, and even experimenting at the piano!

When Should I Start Ear Training?

You can start ear training at any age! Once your child is familiar with how a melody moves (if the notes are going up and down or repeating) you’re ready to practice more ear training. Here are some fun ideas for any age! Start listening to music intentionally as a family – you can show with your hands or body which way the music goes: by moving them up or down.  You can also sing together! Listen to a short section of music and hum it back to one another. You can even try this with instrumental music like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik!

With practice and by following the tips below, you will develop the skills necessary to play piano by ear! Playing piano by ear starts with listening and noticing how the music is changing and the directions that the music moves in. That observation gives you the knowledge you need to play a step or a skip! When you can hear music in your head or sing a tune, you can try to play it on the piano. Experiment with steps and skips on the piano and try starting on different notes. Try playing just a little bit and experiment!

How to Learn Piano by Ear: 4 Ways Parents Can Encourage Playing Piano By Ear

    • Listen to Music: The first step in learning to play by ear is to learn to listen to music. This isn’t just casually listening to music playing in the background, but really focusing on the sound. Find a song that your student really enjoys and play it. Make sure that they are listening and ask them to try answering the following questions: What’s happening in the music? Are the notes repeating? Are the notes moving up or down? What is the rhythm that you hear? After you listen to it once, can you listen again and clap along with it? 
    • Hear it in your Head: Once you’ve heard a piece of music, can you hear it again in your head? With the music off, can you walk through the tune in your mind? This skill is called audiation, and it’s an important step not only in playing by ear, but also in singing, composing, and other music skills.
    • Sing: When you sing you HAVE to sing by ear. There’s no other way! Most children have already developed the ability to learn and sing melodies by ear, and if they can sing by ear, they can learn to play by ear too. Practice listening to a short section of new music, then singing along, then singing alone to strengthen this skill. For a great resource of children’s song collections, check out the Wee Singseries, which include both music books and audio CD’s. These little books make great sight reading practice too.
    • Tap Out Some Tunes: Have your child pick a simple song that they like, one they know well enough to sing, and try playing just a little bit of it on the piano. You can even try some holiday favorites, like “Jingle Bells” or “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.” Most of the time, once they start picking out a tune they like, they won’t want to stop. Keep this fun and no pressure, and if it starts to get frustrating for them, just take a break and the next day encourage them to try again.

Some people ask me how long it takes to learn this skill. Learning to play by ear takes a lot of trial and error and it takes a lot of time and devotion – there is no set amount of time, so be patient and encourage your child to be patient too. As your child continues to learn and grow as a piano student, they’ll be able to play more complex melodies by ear, and will eventually learn how to hear, add chords, accompaniment patterns, and figure out more complex rhythms. If they keep working at this important musical skill, what once seemed impossible or magical can be something that happens whenever they sit down to play. Playing by ear and reading music go hand in hand to open up the entire world of music learning, performance, and enjoyment for your child. Make sure to take some time to develop both of these essential skills.


Happy Playing,
Joseph Hoffman

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