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What Does Play It By Ear Mean? Why This Is Such A Valuable Skill (2023)

Playing music by ear is a valuable skill for musicians to have. What does play it by ear mean to you? Discover how can you learn and improve this skill.
what does play it by ear mean

The ability to play songs by ear is a highly valued skill among musicians. To play a song by ear means to be able to hear it, and then reproduce what is heard on a particular instrument. The ability to do such a thing requires years of practice and experience, but it can be accomplished with the right methods.

Let’s get into it!

What does play it by ear mean?

Music is a universal language that everyone understands. Whether you love listening to classical music, rock, jazz, country, hip hop, or anything else, the skill of listening actively to a piece of music and being able to reproduce it accurately is a challenging task.

If you’re a beginner at your instrument, you can build these skills through focused practice and determination. To play a song by ear means that you have the ability to identify chords and notes without needing to be at your instrument, and without needing to see the sheet music.

This skill is often associated with young children who are learning to play instruments, as young people have more neuroplasticity, which gives them an advantage in learning skills such as performing music and learning new languages.

It’s also possible to develop this skill later in life, with the right knowledge and enough time. 

Learning to play by ear can be difficult. It requires a lot of “ear training”, which means practicing identifying what particular notes and chords are within the context of a key. 

This doesn’t require “perfect pitch”, which is the ability to identify notes without any reference, but it does require a certain level of “relative pitch”.  

Having “relative pitch” as opposed to “perfect pitch” means the ability to identify notes in relation to other notes.  For instance, if you know the song is in the key of G, and then you hear a major third in the melody, you’ll know that the note you’re hearing is a B.

The ability to play by ear is also an essential skill when improvising solos or melodies.  In jazz and blues particularly, improvisation is a large part of these genres, particularly when performing a solo. 

What Does It Really Mean To “Play By Ear”?

In simple terms, playing by ear is the ability to identify notes and chords without the need for an instrument to aid in this process.  Reproducing the music on your instrument is secondary in this process. 

It’s important to note that this skill is best developed away from your instrument.  You may be able to hear a song and try it out on your instrument by a process of trial and error, but this isn’t truly “playing by ear”.

Perfect Pitch Vs. Relative Pitch

There are two ways in which a musician can play a song by ear; by using perfect pitch or relative pitch.

Having perfect pitch is a rare skill that is usually developed by training from a young age. A person with perfect pitch can easily identify exact notes without much conscious effort.  

A very small percentage of people have perfect pitch, and it is incredibly difficult if not impossible to develop perfect pitch later in life.  

On the other hand, relative pitch is a skill that is equally important and effective as perfect pitch when it comes to playing music by ear.  Relative pitch is the ability to identify notes and chords within the context of a key.  

The knowledge of the key center, for a person with relative pitch, is essential for identifying other chords and notes within a song.  Unlike perfect pitch, relative pitch is a skill that can be learned by any musician, regardless of age. 

Developing Relative Pitch

Relative pitch can be developed by practicing musical scales.  With enough practice, one can learn the unique sound of each degree of a scale. Each degree of a scale has its own “flavor”.

For instance, the sound of a major third versus the sound of a minor third is very different, despite the fact that it is only a half step different. 

With enough practice, a musician can learn the particular “flavor” of any interval, or combination of two notes. For example, if you play the note C on the piano, a musician with relative pitch will be able to sing any other note by relating it to the sound of that C. This skill can also be applied to chord progressions.

When it comes to chord progressions, it is very helpful to learn the Roman numeral system for chord scales.  This assigns every note in a scale with a number, which represents a chord.

Major chords are represented by an uppercase letter, whereas minor chords are represented by a lowercase letter. See below for an example of the chords in a major key.

I ii iii IV V vi vii I

As you can see, in a major key, the first, fourth, and fifth chords are always major. The second, third, and sixth are minor chords, and the seventh is a diminished chord. These chord symbols can be applied to any key center. For example, in the key of C major, these chords would be:

Cmaj Dmin Emin Fmaj Gmaj Amin Bdim Cmaj

When trying to identify chords by ear, it’s a good idea to listen for two things; the root movement and the quality of the chord.

The “root” of the chord is normally the lowest note or in the bass, especially in pop music. Hearing what the bass note is will give you a good idea of what chord it is, relative to the key of the song.  

Having a good understanding of intervals will help you in recognizing how the bass line is moving. For instance, if the bass is moving up a fourth or a perfect fifth, you can recognize it and work out the chord from there. 

The chord quality means whether the chord is a minor, major, diminished, or augmented chord. In most pop songs, they are either minor or major chords. Minor chords are usually characterized by sounding sad, whereas major chords are happy.

This is an oversimplification, but it’s an easy way of understanding what quality different chords have. 

A common chord progression in pop music is the I, V, vi, and IV progressions. Countless pop songs have been made using this very progression but in different keys.  

These types of chord progressions that all come from the same key center are called “diatonic chords”. Most songs in modern pop music have chord progressions that don’t venture out of the key center. 

Because a lot of pop music features simple diatonic harmony, it is much easier to identify the chords in the progression and therefore be able to play it by ear.

Jazz harmony, on the other hand, is much more complex harmonically and features chords with extensions such as major seventh chords, flat 5 chords, sharp 11 chords, augmented chords, etc. 

Related Article: how to 12 Of The Best Tips On How To Memorize A Song (2023)

Playing By Ear Vs. Reading Sheet Music

If you can read music, you may be wondering why you should learn to play music by ear when you can simply read it off a page.  

Playing By Ear Vs Reading Sheet Music

Music is made up of sound, and therefore your main focus should be on what you hear. Although sight-reading is also a useful skill for musicians, it can be somewhat of a distraction from developing your listening and auditing skills. 

Audiation is the ability to “hear” music in your head. Think of visualization, but for sound rather than sight. Audiating is what a musician does when they are recalling a piece of music from memory, or hearing it in their “mind’s ear”, if you will. 

The ability to read music receives a lot of emphasis within musical education, but arguably the skill of playing by ear is far more important when it comes to the practicality of being able to hear music and understand it.  


In conclusion, learning how to play music by ear is an incredibly valuable skill for musicians to learn.  Once one has the ability to recognize chord progressions and sequences of notes in relation to a key, it opens up a world of possibilities in improvisation and composition.

It also changes the way you listen to music and gives you a deeper understanding of the music you hear on a daily basis.  With enough time and practice, you can learn how to play music by ear too. 

Happy Playing!

Passionately invested in the music world for over 20 years, Jake studied music for 14 years at the Royal Conservatory Of Toronto. He has a degree from Champlain College & Bishop’s University in Business & Music. He is the owner of Fly Away Music & Media Studio in Montreal since 2014, with over 500 happy artists recorded, mixed and mastered.

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