How to Play Piano by Ear

Written by: Leslie Carmichael

Playing the piano by ear always seemed like a mysterious gift that only a few talented musicians could ever truly experience. And it is, in many cases, an extraordinary gift to be able to listen to a piece of music and reproduce it on the piano. But playing piano by ear isn’t just a natural talent. It is also a skill that can be learned, practiced, and honed. 

Have you ever wanted to play piano by ear? I believe that you can! Playing the piano by ear is a combination of listening ability, interval recognition, and, of course, playing technique. So let’s talk about it.


How to Play Piano by Ear 

You’ll need a few basic skills to learn to play piano by ear. The good news is that these don’t have to be completely mastered – you can just start where you are and keep working on the skills. Of course, you’ll need a piano to play on, but it doesn’t matter if it is acoustic, digital, or hybrid. Just something that plays the notes will work. 

Understanding Music Basics

Music has a whole bunch of ‘rules’ that we follow. When you understand the structure of how the piece is created, it helps you to be able to recreate other songs because you have a pretty good understanding of what music is supposed to do. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but the better you understand the rules, the easier it is to spot and use the exceptions! 

We call this understanding of the music rules music theory. For example, most pop songs have a similar shape: an introduction, followed by a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, and another chorus. It’s a simple progression that gives a song its shape or form. 

Every piece of music is built on the scale. The bottom note of the scale is called tonic, and it’s the note that the main chord of the song is built on. The fourth note of the scale gives you the bottom note of the IV chord, the fifth note of the scale gives you the bottom note of the V chord, and the sixth note of the scale gives you the bottom note of the vi chord, which is usually minor. That’s probably all the chords you’ll need to know for a basic pop song.

If you don’t know these chords yet, that’s ok - you can learn them! Lisa from Pianote teaches this basic four-chord progression in her video. 

Once you know these basic chords, you can play a whole lot of songs by ear because now you have the fundamental pieces that make up most songs. 

Listening Ability and Interval Recognition

Another aspect you’ll want to work on is your listening ability and interval recognition. We often call this ear training because you’re training yourself to recognize the intervals between two notes. 

Learning intervals will help you figure out the melody of a song you want to play by ear. In the beginning, it takes time to learn, but eventually, you’ll be able to hear an interval and just play it. 

This video, by David Bennet Piano, gives you examples of songs to help you recognize and remember all of the intervals in an octave. 

Piano Technique 

You’ll need to be able to play a little bit of piano to accomplish playing by ear, of course. As long as you can play piano well enough to play the basic chords and the melody, you’re in good shape to play by ear. 

How to Play Piano by Ear 

There are a few steps to follow to play piano by ear. When you first start learning to play by ear, it might feel really hard and choppy. But don’t get frustrated - every time you work out a song by ear, it will get easier and easier. Just follow the steps. 

  1. Listen closely to the song and memorize the melody. 
  2. Find the key. You need to do is find the right key for the song you want to play. It is generally the last note of the chorus, so as you are singing the final note, just play around with the notes on your piano or keyboard until you find the right one! 
  3. Practice singing the melody and figuring out how to play the melody on the piano. If you have the melody memorized, it will be easier.
  4. Find the home chord. This will be a major chord for most pop songs based on the first note of the key, which you already figured out in step 1. 
  5. Figure out the chord progression - for older pop songs, this is often 1, 4, 5, and for newer music, it’s often 1, 5, m6, 4.

Pianote shows this process well:

Listen to the song and make a mental note of where the chord changes in relation to the melody. For example, does the chord change on every phrase? Does it change on certain words or rhythms? 

Next, start singing and playing the chord progression. Try to move the chords in relation to the melody just like you heard it. It may take a little practice to figure this part out, but with patience and practice, you’ll get it. 

  1. Try practicing one small section of the song at a time. Once you get it down, move to the next section. You might want to work a phrase at a time or even a section at a time. 
  2. Put all the pieces together and play your song! 

Tips for Playing Piano by Ear

When you are first learning to play by ear, it helps to choose a simple song you know well so that you can get the process down. It’ll be much easier to learn a song by ear if you know it really well! Then, after you get good at playing songs you know, you can move on to different and harder songs. 

Practice your intervals. The more you know your intervals, the easier it will be to pick out the melody. 

Practice your chords. If you are fumbling for chords, it will be that much harder. But if you practice the chords ahead of time, it will be easier to play them at the right times. 

Practice the melody a lot! The better you know the melody, the faster you will be able to learn to play the song. It may help you to record the melody on your digital piano so you can play along with the recording. You can find out how to record on your digital piano, here.

Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect! If you have the basics down, you can add your own kind of flair to the song without worrying that it is perfectly like the version that the artist sang. 

Final Thoughts on Playing Piano by Ear

Really, there are just a few steps to learning to play piano by ear. But it takes practice! This is a skill that most pianists aren’t born with – they have to learn. So don’t get discouraged if it feels like a slow process in the beginning. It will get easier and faster over time! 

  • Understand music rules and theory 
  • Practice your listening skills and ear training so you can recognize intervals easily. 
  • Listen to the song you want to play and learn it really well. 
  • Find the Key 
  • Practice the melody and play it on the piano
  • Find the home chord
  • Figure out the chord progression using a best guess based on current pop music
  • Practice one section at a time 
  • Play your song by ear 
Written By:
If anyone knows a thing or two about pianos, it's Leslie. Having played piano for the past 25 years and teaching for the past 15 years, she has vast experience compared to most. She loves to share her honest opinions about the brands and manufacturers in the industry. In her free time, Leslie loves to play with her dogs and go on hikes.

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