Playing By Ear
"Playing By Ear"
One of the most enjoyable and freeing skills a pianist can have is the ability to "play by ear." We are not talking about "hunting and pecking." True "playing by ear" could better be described as "playing by mind" (applied theory). When you hear a piece on the radio or being played by someone else, you actually tell what the melody notes and chords are on the piano. You understand it and you can see it in your mind's eye. Similarly, when you're playing by ear on your own, you could say that you actually "hear" the melody and chords you're going to play... before you even play it.
Here are some of the basics of "playing by ear" that will help guide you in your practice and learning.
4 Elements of Playing by Ear
1) Hear the scale degree number of each note in the RH melody. (See "Scale Degree Exercises" below.)
- Say out loud the scale degree number of each note in the hymns or popular songs. Start hands separate, then play hands together if you can.
2) Hear the LH chord by number (then attach the right letter name chord to it).
- Say out loud the number of each chord you play. Check the hymnal or a chord chart if needed - after you do your very best to figure it out on your own.
3) Embellish the RH. Start by playing RH 2-note chords on the downbeats and any time you change the chord in the LH. For more embellishment, use the "ingredient list" from the "Pattern Practice Plan."
4) Embellish the LH. Play the LH chords with whichever LH variation you want. See next point below.
3 Common (very practical) LH Variations
1) 5th (blocked or broken)
2) Octave with the 5th in the middle (blocked or broken)
3) "Open form" chord (blocked... or broken if you have large hands) (similar to "Chopin" pattern; similar to "Reflecting" pattern - can be played with or without the 2-tone)
Scale Degree Exercises
1) Play and sing starting on the tonic. 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, etc up one octave. Then repeat, but sing the upper note before you play it. Play it to see if you sang it right.
2) Do the same as #1 (play and sing), but shuffle the order of intervals. 1-3, 1-6, 1-2, etc. Repeat, but sing the upper note before you play it. Play it to see if you sang it right.
3) Repeat #1, but go down below the tonic. 1-7, 1-6, 1-5, etc as low as you can sing. Then repeat, but sing the lower note before you play it. Play it to see if you sang it right.
4) Do the same as #3 (play and sing going down), but shuffle the order of intervals. 1-3, 1-6, 1-2, etc. Repeat, but sing the upper note before you play it. Play it to see if you sang it right.
5) Now repeat the process combining the upper and lower scale degrees.
6) Final challenge: See if you can sing any scale degree without playing the tonic or the scale degree. Sing any degree at random without playing. Play each note after you sing it to see if you got it right.
- Here is a list of simple hymns (mostly I, IV and V chords). If you come across others, please let me know and I'll add them to the list!
- Learn to "FREE-STYLE" IMPROVISE before playing hymns or other popular songs (or at least learn it simultaneously). If you're interested in composition, the free-style improv is more valuable because it forces you to create your own melodies and chord progressions.
- Start SIMPLE, then move to complex! Play blocked LH chords before broken. Play 5ths before octaves or open form chords. Master each "step" before taking the next step.
- Practice and master one LH variation at a time. Don't mix them all up.
- Apply the LH variation(s) to ALL the chords in C Major. Improvise on them until you're fluent with all the chords. (Note: for all practical purposes here, the 7th chord is usually not used.)
- Finally, apply the LH variation(s) to hymns or other popular pieces you know. Consider using the list of simple hymns from above if it's helpful. (See the upper-level exercise under "Tips for Sight Reading Using the Hymnal.")
WHAT ABOUT "CHORD CHARTS"?
- Glad you asked. Check out these basic chord charts at hymnchords.net! Give the charts a try! The more you do it, the better you get! Start by playing the melody in your RH, then adding blocked 5ths in your LH. Embellish from there.