Is Playing Music By Ear Just for the Gifted?

A Piano in a Flash student recently wrote in saying “….God bless you if you have the gift of both being able to read and play by ear.”

But is it a gift or something else entirely? Scott “The Piano Guy” Houston has a few thoughts on that subject. He says:

“I really honestly don’t think playing by ear is a gift any more than I think being able to read notation is a gift. Or maybe a better way to say it is that if it is a gift, we ALL have it. Learning to play “by ear” is just another way to say that you are a really good “educated guesser” as to what is coming up next in whatever you are trying to play.

It’s a totally learnable skill that at its core, starts with interval training and learning common chord progressions(whether those two things come overtly or just through a lot of playing experience.) The more you play using chord symbols and chord progressions (and free yourself from only being able to read “from the sheet”,) the more your ear just starts to get so familiar with what different jumps from chord to chord sound like that you can start to anticipate what is coming next with more and more accuracy.

It’s not like you just wake up some morning, or get hit by lightning and say “Aha! I can play by ear now!” Instead, it is a slow progression of trial and error where you find yourself mentally “guessing (or maybe better said, anticipating) what the next chord (or melody note) will be with a lot more confidence.

I now can pretty much play by ear (or give me a couple of minutes, and I’ll mentally work through some tune quickly and get it figured out). However, at the age of 56 that is something I have only been able to do the last 20 or so years. I certainly did not have that ability as a kid growing up or even when I was playing professionally in my 20s.

Scott also reminds us that in Course 4 we work extensively on intervalic training, which sets up students for then getting into some of the more overt ear training stuff coming your way in Courses 5 and 6.

Simply put, playing music isn’t for the chosen few. It’s for EVERYONE and we know it’s for YOU, too. Come on, the kids are grown, the career is done and it’s YOUR time now. It’s YOUR turn to play!

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