Have you ever met the kind of person that can sit down at a piano and play songs that they have heard before, or make up a melody as they go along? Many times, these musicians may never have taken formal lessons, studied with a music teacher, or put in a lot of time memorizing all of the songs that they are able to play. These folks are able to play well because they know which of the piano keys to hit to make the combination of sounds that they hear in their head. In fact, some musicians that learn to play by ear never even learn to play music from traditional sheet music. They may have been taught to play by watching their music teacher, or an older relative that knew how to play music on the piano. Maybe they figure out by experimenting on their own with the sounds of the piano keyboard.
Learning to play by ear is not just a neat trick, it can be especially useful. Imagine sitting around the piano when your favorite song comes on the radio. If you could play by ear, you could match the notes on the piano with the notes in the song. Your friends and family would all be impressed as they listened to you play along with a song that they recognized!
One of the ways to tell whether you may be well suited for learning to play the piano by ear is to test your ability to match a pitch that you hear. You can start by having someone play a note on the piano while you have your eyes closed. Then, try to hit the same note that they played, even if it takes you several tries. For this exercise, remember that the lower notes are on the left side of the piano, and the notes get higher as you go move to the right of the piano. At first, have your friend choose notes just from the “black” notes, then from the “white” notes only. Lastly, have them choose from any of the notes on the keyboard and see if you can find the note that they picked. You may find yourself getting really good at this game, and as you improve, it will take you fewer tries to narrow down which of the notes was played. A musician with a really good ear can pick the note out in just one guess! You can also hum or sing a note that is played on the piano. Try to make your sung note sound as much like the note on the piano as possible. Then try the opposite way. Have someone else sing a random note and try to match it by playing one of the notes on the keyboard. The more that you work on these types of skills, the better you will become at matching the sounds that you hear with the notes of the piano.
To learn to play by ear, look for a piano teacher that is familiar teaching through this method. Many times, very young children learn to play by ear before they are old enough to begin learning to read the music. When you begin talking to private piano teachers, from your local university school of music or high school music program, ask them if they are comfortable teaching students to play by ear. Find out if they require that you also learn to read sheet music, and what style of music they expect you to be able to learn to play by ear. Asking the right questions will help you make sure that your piano teacher is a good fit for you.
The same as in learning to play piano in the traditional way, learning to play by ear will take practice in order to improve your skill. The more time you spend practicing, the faster you will notice yourself improving and the better a musician you will become. There are no shortcuts to learning to play a musical instrument. You still must train your hands, fingers, arms, and foot (when you use the pedals) as well as your eyes, your ears, and your brain. All of this time consuming practice will be worth it once you are able to play songs that people can recognize by ear. Another major benefit to learning to play music by ear is that it allows you the freedom to create your own music without being forced to rely on written sheet music written by another musician.
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