Playing by Ear – Practising the Piano

I had an email from a reader asking how he could learn to play by ear, so here are some random thoughts on the subject.

When we play by ear we play an existing piece heard before, without using the notes. Mozart is reported to have learned Allegri’s Miserere from one hearing, after which he wrote it out from memory. I am sure there are other similar stories from prodigious musical figures throughout history, but mere mortals can certainly develop the skills to improve our ear and at the same time our understanding of keyboard geography, musical structure and harmony.

Ear training (or aural training as we tend to call it in the UK) is absolutely vital for any musician and, like harmony and theory, shouldn’t be thought of as a separate subject in the context of the weekly lesson. All these areas of music can be integrated into the lesson and during our practice. Examination boards include tests in aural and sight reading for a very good reason – to aid and abet in the process of forming an all-round musician. The more theory you know, the more you appreciate how music is built. You will also be able to decode the information from the printed page more quickly and with deeper understanding, and as a result of this you will have the skills to read at sight, to learn pieces more quickly, efficiently and thoroughly and (not least) to memorise.

I find it sad that many young pianists’ experience of piano playing is restricted to sitting one grade exam after the other, sticking with three pieces and a bunch of scales for the best part of a year. Playing by ear, reading at sight, improvisation and other allied skills are barely covered, if at all. It is hard to fathom is that a supposedly advanced piano student with years of lessons behind them would not be able to get up and play Happy Birthday at a party, or to read at sight simple song accompaniments when called upon to do so.

Playing by ear and the ability to transpose can be integrated very early on in lessons, as games and informal assignments. When I taught beginners I would often get them to try the start of one of their pieces they knew well, but in another key. Before this was possible, they needed to know it well enough so we could dispense with the score and they would just be relying on the ear. We might spend a couple of minutes on this, and then I would get them to try it again next week. There was no expectation that they had to practise it, just the invitation to experiment. If they took to it, fine; if not, I left it! Some of them might come back with a chunk of the piece in another key, played by ear, and I always encouraged this. You don’t have to do this for complete pieces, nor does the playing have to be at speed or perfect in detail – just doing it is enough. Another skill I think it is important to teach youngsters is to improvise, and I am happy to be able to direct you to my colleague Lucinda Mackworth-Young, who has made a special study of improvisation.

Transposition as Ear Training

If you did not have these activities as part of your musical upbringing, it is never too late to catch up. Transposing is a great way to start.

Bach Little Prelude

Take a simple piece you know well and aim to transpose it gradually through all twelve keys. Or learn a very simple piece for the purposes of this exercise but choose good music! The Little Preludes of Bach are pieces that would be satisfying to anyone, such is their musical value. Or take one or two short items from Schumann’s Album for the Young, it’s probably best to begin with something tonal. Make sure you know the piece thoroughly in the original key and can play it fluently from memory before beginning the transposition practice. When you begin work this way, you will most likely find it very challenging and time-consuming. If you persist, it does get easier and it is certainly worth the effort. Remember, it doesn’t have to be done perfectly nor do you have to worry about doing it at full speed – slowly is fine.

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