Playing by ear – what it is and what it isn’t!

Playing by ear involves no theoretical thinking. A fluent keyboard musician “tags” instantly recognisable elements of music in real time so you don’t need to stop the flow in order to work anything out. Notes, intervals and chords and other conventional theoretical elements are too dense to recognise in real time.

A common misconception about playing by ear is that someone with that skill can play a piece after just one hearing. Could you recite a 3-minute poem verbatim after listening to it just once? Of course not! Playing by ear is the ability to play any music you can remember. It’s also the ability to play something similar to what we heard, to express the gist of it, even if we can’t recall it perfectly. Of course, most of us can remember music once we’ve heard it a few times, especially if we like it. And then we can hear it playing in our heads. Is it a surprise that this imagined version we hear internally is naturally in the right key, with the right rhythms.

So, being musically fluent means that we can identify and reproduce or “understand” and “say” all elements of musical language that make up all music, in all kinds of styles and genres. It’s not about recalling whole melodies or pieces of music. It’s a skill that involves no decoding, no rehearsal leading to correct execution, and no trial and error. It is instant and spontaneous.

Fluency is built on meaning. We mean words when we speak language fluently, we don’t merely execute them correctly. So assuming you understood or felt the meaning of a three-minute speech, you could tell someone the gist of it and maybe remember a few phrases or words that really struck you, even after just one hearing. So it is with playing music by ear. As long as you understood it fully and clearly noticed and identified the tonal and rhythmic elements as they went by, and felt its message resonating deeply within you, you’ll be able to reproduce the gist of it, even though you won’t remember it note-for-note. And… you’ll remember music precisely much more quickly when you are fluent.