Playing by ear

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Playing or learning by ear is the ability of a performing musician to reproduce a piece of music they have heard, without having seen it notated in any form of sheet music.[1] It is considered to be a desirable skill among musical performers, especially for those that play in a musical tradition where notating music is not the norm.[2]

It is a misconception that musicians who play by ear do not have or do not require musical education, or have no theoretical understanding of the music they are playing.[3]

Playing by ear is often also used to refer to the act of more generally making music without the use of musical notation. In this sense it refers to making music using (elements of) improvisation and instant composition.

Many forms of music, such as blues, pop, jazz and many forms of non-western music, throughout the world are fundamentally rooted in the concept of playing by ear, where musical compositions are passed down from generation to generation. In this respect, playing by ear can also be seen as a music-specific example of oral tradition.[4]

The concept of playing by ear has led to the development of the idiom, to play by ear or "play it by ear."


Learning music by ear is done by repeatedly listening to a performance of a piece of music, memorizing it, and then attempting to recreate what one has heard. This requires the use of several related skills such as ear training, musical perception, tonal memory, audiation, music theory, and knowledge of the traditions of the music one is trying to learn.[5] As such, learning to play by ear involves training those skills as well.

To practice playing music by ear, music teachers often have a student listen to short musical examples which the student will have to write out in musical notation, play back on an instrument, sing, or describe using note names or a solfège system. Musicians will also train their playing by ear skills by taking recordings of full songs and pieces, figuring out the notes by ear, and either transcribing or memorizing them.

Audiation is a vital skill for playing music by ear. Edwin Gordon, originator of the term, describes audiation as: “the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present.”[6] It is often described as the ability to hear music in your head. In this sense, audiation is to music what thought is to language.[7]

Learning to play by ear, in the sense of making music without notation, is often compared to learning to speak a language.[8] When sufficiently mastered, playing music by ear should be as comfortable and easy as having a conversation. We speak and react to what we hear, without having to think to deeply about every word we use. The same would be true when playing by ear. A musician can produce a sound at the same time they think of it, without having to consider every separate note they play.

Existence in musical traditions[edit]

In most instances, those traditions where learning music from playing by ear is paramount do not use musical notation in any form. Some examples of this such as by early Blues guitarists and pianists, Romani fiddlers and folk music guitarists.

A group of Hindustani musicians
(c. 1870)

One particularly prominent example is of Indian classical music, where the teaching methods of its two major strands (Hindustani and Carnatic) are almost exclusively oral.[9]

In the West[edit]

Historically, the Western classical music tradition has been based on the process of learning new pieces from musical notation, and hence playing by ear has a lower importance in musical training.

However, many teaching methods in this tradition incorporate playing by ear in some form. Examples include the "ear training" courses that are a standard part of conservatory or college music programs (including use of Solfège), and the Suzuki method, which incorporates a highly developed focus on playing by ear from a very young age.

In the West, learning by ear is also used heavily the genres of folk music, blues, rock, pop, funk, reggae, and jazz. While in modern days most professional musicians in these genres are capable of reading musical notation, playing by ear is widely used for a lot of different reasons. Among those reasons are ease and speed of learning songs, flexibility while improvising and playing variations, and to work around the limitations of western musical notation.

Since western musical notation was developed for classical music, musicians sometimes run into issues when musical expressions are commonly used in the genre they are performing, but not in classical music. Examples of this are percussion instruments in Afro-Cuban music where different strokes and techniques are used to produce different tones and timbres,[10] or improvised music like jazz and classical Indian music, where large parts of the composition consists of guidelines for improvisation. Western musical notation is often ill-suited for these situations, and although adages to musical notation are often invented to try to accommodate for this, playing by ear and oral learning are often preferred because of readability, ease and tradition.

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Play by ear - Idioms by the Free Dictionary". Retrieved 23 September 2018.
  2. ^ "Playing By Ear: How to learn to play notes and chords by ear - Musical U". Musical U. Retrieved 23 September 2018.
  3. ^ Gioia, Ted (1988). The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. Oxford University Press. p. 31. ISBN 9780195053432.
  4. ^ Gioia, Ted (1988). The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. Oxford University Press. p. 33. ISBN 9780195053432.
  5. ^ "Ear Training: The Ultimate Guide". StringKick. 2019-02-14. Retrieved 2021-02-17.
  6. ^ "Audiation". GIML - The Gordon Institute for Music Learning. 2012-05-24. Retrieved 2021-02-17.
  7. ^ Gordon, Edwin (1997). Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns- A Music Learning Theory. GIA Publications. p. 13. ISBN 1579990045.
  8. ^ "Music as a language - Victor Wooten". TED-Ed. Retrieved 2021-02-17.
  9. ^ "ITC Sangeet Research Academy - Indian Oral Tradition". Retrieved 23 September 2018.
  10. ^ "Notation - Afro-Cuban Percussion Workbook". Retrieved 2021-02-17.

External links[edit]