Monday, May 24, 2010

Learning Music By Ear (Article Version)

Here, I will finally try to describe the steps to learning by ear. For some of you, playing by ear just comes automatically, some others need to learn it or train it. Personally, I had to train myself. Hopefully I will accompany this with a video if you are too lazy to read. HA. I will add more and more to it. This blog article is a high priority for me.

I will put a "------" to divide connected sections. I will put a "=====" dividing unrelated sections. At the end of each section, I will put some notes that you should read.

Hi, I'm a Piano

1. Learn the piano note names and be comfortable with the keys.
Piano Note Names:

2. Learn your chords/arpeggio/ and possibly scales.  Simple major and minors are important!
Most pop, rock, non-classical songs have certain chords that repeat. For example, Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" is ""B" "F#" "G#" "E" and then the same thing again.

NOTES: You can Google a lot of these to learn. There are resources everywhere!

Learning The White Notes (By Ear)

3. Have someone who also knows the note names to sit at the piano.
(OR have someone read Steps 3-8 of this article).
It's really cool if you can find someone who also would like to learn. That way, you can test each other.

 The "someone" in this article will be referred to as "he".

4. Tell him to play an "F" and then a "B". You will be paying attention to remember what each sounds like.
For now, make sure you are playing these in the same octave (don't jump to really high notes or really low notes).
-If you think the only reason you are getting the notes is that the "B" is higher than the "F".... play around three octaves. You should get used to it.

5. Now, tell him to play either note. You are going to guess whether it is a "F" or "B"
Did you succeed often? Move on to Step 6.

6. Tell him to add a "D" making it 3 notes total. Make sure he plays it a few times WHILE telling you this is a "D". Now he will quiz you on the three notes at random. You will do your best to guess the note names.
Did you succeed often? Move on to Step 7.

7. Add an "A". Tell him to play it over and over while saying that it is an "A" outloud. Then, he will quiz you on the 4 notes "F" ""B" "D" and "A".
Did you succeed often? Move on to Step 8.

8. Similar pattern for all the white notes. I like to introduce the notes in this order (though you can do whatever you want)  [FBDA] then finish with "C" "E" and "G"
-After learning all the white notes, you can now quiz yourself. Close your eyes, play a note, guess what it is, open your eyes and check!

NOTES: I am/have trained a few friends this way. It CAN work. Just expect to spend a lot of time on it. Having a background in music (if you sing or can play another instrument) does help. Please stay determined and don't stop! Most of you WON'T get this automatically. If you do, let me know! That's always fun to hear.

Learning The Black Notes (By Ear)

9. DON'T immediately start doing what you did with the white notes to the black notes.
FIRST, he will play a note on the MIDDLE of the piano and you will tell him whether or not it is a black note or white note. If you learned your white notes well, if he plays a black note you should notice a small difference! If he plays a white note, tell him what note it is (since you learned this in the previous section).
-This exercise may take awhile!

10. Now, start comparing those white notes to black notes. Have him play a C and a C#. This step should feel just like Step #4. Hopefully you can notice that the C# is a little higher. The C# is almosttt a "C".

11. Work on the notes bit by bit. Similar to how you learned the white notes, ask the person to slowly add more and more notes. This will take a while!

NOTES: Make sure you two switch places so that they can learn too! (if interested) Keep in mind, it may feel like a chore for them.

Learning All 88 Notes (By Ear)

12. If you can get recognize all the notes in the middle of the piano, you should slowly be able to learn both higher and lower notes. Knowing the middle notes will be a reference to the same note even if it is moved and octave down or up.

13. Your helper shouldn't be needed anymore now that you know all the notes by ear.
So, close your eyes, press a note, guess it, and open your eyes!

NOTES: Patience young grasshopper.
Song Information

14. Not all songs are the same difficulty to learn by ear. Ultimately when determining the difficulty of a song by ear is...

a) Catchiness
-Can you hum that tune by only listening to it once? Is it stuck in your head all day long? Pop music is usually catchy which ends up helping A LOT. You may end up just playing it on the piano without really knowing what notes you are supposed to be playing.
*DID YOU KNOW?* Some of the most catchy songs only use a few different notes in the melody?

b) Chord Progression
-Does it use the same chords over and over? If so, you basically learned the left hand by only knowing a few notes. For example, Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" only has 4 chords that repeat throughout (most) of the whole song.

c) Instruments/Singers
 - Usually learning a piano part of a song will be easier than the vocals. This is because you can match your piano note to the heard piano note.

15. Now you should learn about how songs are USUALLY made.

a) Intro
-What can I say? It's the start of a song, usually done as an instrumental.

b) Verse
-The singer has begun to sing! This is the part that changes lyrics during the song but keeps the same tune.

c) Pre-Chorus (sometimes)
- Music sometimes gets louder here. These lyrics are usually the same. There is a breath of air and pause before the chorus.

d) Chorus
-This is the spot that most people remember in songs in that it is played the most. When you think of a song's lyrics, you probably think of the chorus (or the first line to the first verse).

e) Bridge
-This is the part that "sounds different" and only happens once. The chords sometimes change here which makes it a pain in the . Therefore, you must spend some extra time here figuring out chords.

f) Outro
- Sometimes this is just a chorus sung with different notes. Sometimes it mirrors the intro.

16. So, what would you need to know to learn a song by ear?
The chords + vocal notes.

NOTES: Raps also have the whole sha-bang defined above. Just since rap is somewhat monotone, it is not that fun to play.
Trying To Play The Song

17. Before attempting ANY song, I advise that you know it really well. (Remember how I said a song is easily to play by ear if it is catchy? Listening to it over and over kinda makes up for a song not being catchy. Are you listening to a catchy song over and over? That's perfect :D )

18. So, what would you need to know to learn a song by ear?
The chords + vocal notes (I know I said this above. It is important to realize this though!)

19. Usually when figuring out a song, I learn the chords first. How does one find the chords?

a) Guess and Check
-This is how I first started. Boy, it took me a while.

b) Listen to it.
-Hopefully you can pick it up if  you learned note recognition well.

c) Google.
- Type in " chords". You will find plenty of results but you must find one that gives you the chords as chords and not guitar tabs. Also, beware of chords in the wrong key. It will sound horrible if you play that while listening to the mp3, which is in a different key.

20. Got the chords down? For the hand, just play that note in octaves! Like if this was Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours" your left hand would go "B" "B" "B" "B"   "B" "B" "B" "B" followed by 8 F#'s , 8 G#'s and 8 E's These are the chords done in a very simple left hand pattern called "8ths". (More left hand patterns are listed further down in this article)

21. Now the easier and fun part, figuring out the vocal notes, AKA the melody, AKA the right hand. I would advise just sitting down and just trying to play it! If that doesn't work, try listening to it while trying to play it. You will know when notes match tones.

NOTES: Before I try playing a song, I  usually repeat it on my iPod or iTunes at least 10 times (I used to do 50). Be one with the music. Puhaha.
Left Hand Patterns (LHP)

21. So now you know the chords AND the vocal notes. What else can you do? You can make what you play more difficult by adding new rhythms and more notes. This is where the chords in Step 2 come in handy. Remember the chord progression in Jason Mraz's "Im Yours"? (You better since I've mentioned it many times xP ) They are "B" "F#" "G" "E". Now, you will play notes that accompany these chord names in different pattersn.

From easiest to hardest some patterns include...
(I will make some sheet music that contains all these LHP)
a) Quarter Notes (Pinky)
- Straight up quarter notes
b) Eighth Notes (Pinky)
- Straight up eight notes
c) Eighth Notes w/ Octave Accents (Pinky+Thumb)
-  3rd and 7th eighth notes as octaves.
- 1st, 4th,  and 7th eight notes as octaves.
d) Simple Arpeggio
- Two note arpeggio
e) Can't really explain the others (will be on sheet music)

NOTES: Experiment with it! Syncopation is very important.

22. Now how do you make up your own patterns? For starters... LEARN ARPEGGIOS (scales help too)
An arpeggio is a broken down chord. You play each note one at a time.

a) Pick ANY note - (let's use C)
b) Skip 3 notes and press the key (E)
c) Skip 2 notes and press the key (G)
d) Notice that this is just a major chord. Skip 3, skip 2.
e) Copy your first note (C- octave up)
f) You now have CEGC which is your C major arppegio (CEbGC would be your C minor arppegio)
g) Play each one at a time going left to right or right to left.

Right Hand Additions (RHA)

23. Learn what notes sound good together. This is just like what you did with step 22.


Anonymous said...

When they play in the same octave you can tell which note is which because B is higher than F. Is there a way to fix that?

Iwillbot said...

@Anonymous (May 27)

Knowing that the B is higher than F is a good step. If you do this repeatedly, you will hopefully get to recognize that the F sounds the way it does.

If you fear that you are ONLY learning the notes because of B's higher pitch, go ahead and have that person test you on the different octaves of B and F. Stay in a 3-octave range though!

Anonymous said...

okay, thanks.
I was worried that I was only identifying them correctly because B was higher than F. I'll try what you suggested.

Anonymous said...

Can you suggest anything about how to handle more challanging songs with very diverse notes? I've been playing only pop songs by ear for a good year or so, and I want to challange myself.

Anonymous said...

hey so when are you going to release the LHP thing xD

Iwillbot said...

LHP will come out sometime during the summer. I will be gone for most of the early summer though. Try experimenting around!

khenh said...

I think you have written a good instruction about how to play by air :D , when i have time i will try it :D but i have a question...
is it important to start with learing B and F in the beginning when you are try to learn the notes or you can just take any notes of A, C , D etc. ?:)

Anonymous said...

Awesome ...thanks for this great explanation :)
I hope i will get it soon....i now have another task for my summer hollidays :D

marten (GER)

Ivyy said...

HI! =D do u know anywhere i could get Jay Sean's Down (candlelight remix) ?

Iwillbot said...

It doesn't matter but I tend to think that people find B and F the easiest to tell apart.

@Ivyy Check the links on my first blog post. However, since it is a "remix" I think there is a low chance you will find the "remix" version. PERHAPS the original. I don't know.

play piano guide said...

i think you need a little work and dedication, There are ear training programs available or can be made independently by listening to simple melodies!

Anonymous said...

How do you identfy the chords in a song though? Like, what do you want to listen for?

Anonymous said...

Dear Iwillbot
I am amazed by your skill in piano of playing modern songs rather then learning the same old Bach, Beethoven and Mozart but I disagree on you on the factor that it is possible to teach someone to play by ear, having 9 years of piano experience from the age of 4, I learned that playing a musiacal instrument by ear is a gift that someone can train but not teach

Anonymous said...

This is not a revelant request to this post, but whatever, haha. Anyways, can you make a music sheet/ arrangement for In my Head- Jaosn Derulo please? I LOVE how you play it :D

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
i was wondering if you could send me misery business by the paramore. that would be excellent. your a very talented pianist.

please sent it to

thank you xx

Frank said...

I've learnt a little bit of classical piano and thus can identify all the white notes, however, I can't recognize the black notes yet. My question is, does learning all 88 notes give you the ability to tell what key a song is in? Cos when I hear multiple notes in one key like in a song, including all the sharps and flats, I associate the first note of a scale in that key as being C.

Also, is there a good way to learn to recognize chords by ear, or must I simply learn each and every chord and chord progression so that once I figure out the key I can simply play those chord progressions in that key?

piano guide said...

Everything I need to know about learning music by ear is inside of this article. I read the whole article I find it very interesting and informative as well.

Anonymous said...

I had never taken any abrsm exam and i just learnt a few basics about piano like white and black notes and chord progressions. Thats all i learnt a few years ago. I couldn't afford the expensive fee of formal piano lesson so i stopped. Inspired by David Sides,i decided to self-teach myself to play piano by ear and now i can finally play any song by ear. So,i can say that play by ear is not really a gift but it's something that you can train. Do trust in yourself and be confident. Just keep on telling yourself-YES I CAN!
P.S : Until now,i am just a merely grade 1 piano student.

kso536 said...

I learn by ear... it just comes naturally!

-11 Year Old Pianist,
Kalil Seth Yovel Olsen

kso536 said...

Also e-mail me at
and where do you live the US or somewhere else?

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what to do with my left hand. I can play by ear with my right hand but left is a problem. I can play chords and arpeggios but it just doesn't sound so good. I mean it sounds ok when I'm playing the verse but I kind of need more volume to the chorus if you no what I'm trying to say :D Any tips?

Negi said...

Thanks for great information you write it very clean. I am very lucky to get this tips from you

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