How To Play Music by Ear as a Professional Pianist

Effective Steps to Playing Music by Ear as a Professional Pianist

Have you ever watched a professional pianist play before? The entire time you watched you were completely mesmerized at his or her piano playing. They played so beautifully. They were so polished, confident and smooth. It was completely effortlessly. Did you also notice how they were playing without any sheet music? Did you wonder to yourself “how is this pianist playing without any music?” This is because they are playing by ear. Yes there are some famous pianists that use sheet music. However, most contemporary piano players play by ear. If you’re an aspiring pianist and would like to play by ear, you may be wondering how to accomplish this. Here are some amazing steps and tips to learning how to play music by ear as a professional pianist.

Legendary singer, songwriter and musician Stevie Wonder is a great example of a professional pianist who can play music by ear effortlessly.

1) Learning all 12 tones

In order to become a professional pianist that plays by ear you have to first understand ear training. Ear training is when you can hear the music and play accurate notes based off what your hear. This also means you can hear the tone/pitch the singer is singing in and follow with the music accurately. The first step to accomplishing this goal is learning all the 12 tones first by ear. This means being able to identify what a single note is being sung or played. If someone is singing a C natural your ear can hear that it’s a C natural, identify it and then play it. However, when identifying single notes you must know the difference between naturals, sharps and flats. This is where your knowledge of music theory comes in. For every natural note there’s a sharp or flat that’s relative to it. For example, C natural has a C sharp (also the same as D flat) and also a C flat (also the same as B natural).  Most sharps and flats are black keys. Most natural notes are white keys. However, that’s not always the case. To learn exactly which notes are natural, sharp and flat visit these 2 links below.

Visual of all 12 tones on a piano. Here the tone names are listed. As you can see the black keys have 2 names. This is because when the black key is to the right of a note it’s a sharp (D#). When the black key is to the left of a note it’s a flat (Db). This is further explained when you read about natural, sharp and flat notes.

Here’s a complete list of all the 12 tones you need to learn by ear.

  • C natural
  • C sharp/ D flat
  • D natural
  • D sharp/ E flat
  • E natural
  • F natural
  • F sharp/ Gflat
  • G natural
  • G sharp/ A flat
  • A natural
  • A sharp/ B flat
  • B natural

The best way to learn these 12 notes by ear is to constantly play each one over and over again. You should play them on an instrument such as a piano or guitar. If you don’t have one listen to these tones via audio. This can be a youtube tutorial video, a cd designed specifically for musicians or a website that helps you learn how to hear music. Don’t try to rush and learn all 12 tones at the same time. Take 1 day to learn C natural. Then another day to learn C sharp/ D flat and so on. Tonedear is a great website that teaches you how to learn music by ear. Here you can list to all the 12 tones together or individually as many times as you need.

3) Learning music intervals

After you have mastered learning all the 12 tones by ear, you should learn intervals. Intervals are the distance in pitch between 2 tones. Meaning how you measure the distance of 1 note to the next. There are several types of intervals. The way they are named depends on how far the notes are from each other and also the quality of the notes. This is why intervals have a 2 part name. For example C note to D note is a 2nd interval. That’s the number distance. But now we have to establish what the quality of that interval is. Interval qualities can be major, minor, perfect, augmented or diminished. In order to grasp this concept you have to read or take a course on music intervals. Below you can read a full course on how music intervals work and watch a youtube video on them. When learning music by ear and listening to intervals, you must be able to hear the distance and the quality of the distance. Each quality has its own distinct feeling to it. Major intervals sound happy. Minor intervals sound sad and serious. Perfect intervals sound resolved with no tension. As a professional pianist you must be able to hear these things in order to play music by ear.

A chart explaining music intervals and how to identify them.

3) Music chords

No matter what type of pianist you aspire to be in order to be great and play by ear you music know chords. Chords are the heart and soul of playing, reading and writing music. It’s the part of music theory that literally make songs. Classical pianists have to know the in’s and out’s of music chords. Pop pianists and any genre of music must know chords in order to play professionally. What are music chords? Chords are any 2 notes or more played at the same time. The most common type of chord is the triad chord. That’s where 3 notes are played together at the same time. Chords are what makes harmony in music. Harmony is what supports the melody and creates the composition itself. This is why chords are so important. However, there’s so much more to chords. You have arpeggios which are broken chords. You have chord progressions which are literally what songs are made of. In order to become a professional pianist and play music by ear you must understand all of this. Once you understand it in theory you must be able to hear it. Like intervals chords have names. Also like intervals chord names have 2 parts to it. The type of chord it is and the quality of the chord. The most famous chord being the C major chord is derived from the C major scale. It’s built on the tonic (1st tone) of the major scale. The “C” is the type of chord it is. The “Major” is the quality of the chord. Like intervals a major chord sound happy. A minor chord sounds sad and so on. Each chord type has a distinct feeling and sound that the music and artist must be able to hear, pick up on and follow. To get a full course on music chords visit these links below. You can also practice hearing chords on the Tonedear website.

A visual of various music chords.

7th chords

Once you understand the basics of music chords, you must then learn how to play and hear 7th chords. 7th chords are basically music chords on an advanced level. However, they’re very popular and common in all music genres. This is especially true for modern day R&B/ Pop music. If your goal is to become a professional contemporary pianist then it’s a guarantee you will play 7th chords. 7th chords are triad chords with an additional note added. This additional note is the 7t

h tone of the scale the chord is built on. However, this 7th note can have various qualities. It can be a major 7th, a minor 7th, a dominant 7th, etc. This then gives the 7th chord it’s quality name. Meaning the 7th chord can be a Major 7th chord or a Dominant 7th chord. To fully grasp this concept please view the various links below. They all explain how 7th chords work.

A visual example of 7th chords played together and also separately (arpeggios).

Hearing instruments

After you have mastered the basics to hearing all the components of music theory, you can now take it to another level. You should focus on hearing instruments. If your goal is to become a professional pianist who can play by ear, then of course you would want to focus on the piano. You have to be able to hear the piano in any song you’re playing. This may sound simple. However, if you’re playing a song or following a song that have several instruments in it, you have to recognize your part. You have to be able to know what part your instrument is playing. Is the piano playing the chords only? Is there a bass guitar playing the bass-line for you? All of these factors are important? Especially if you want to advance and play with a band or orchestra one day. The best way to learn how to hear your instrument in a song is to start off with easy songs. Then take the song bar by bar and try to follow what your instrument is doing for each bar. In the beginning it may be a slow process but it’ll help you gain accuracy. Remember in order to get to this step you must 1st learn the basics of single notes, intervals, chords and 7th chords. These are the steps to what makes a good pianist.

Legendary singer, songwriter and musician Prince is a great example of a professional pianist that can hear the instruments being played in the music and are able to distinguish them.

6) Hearing tempo

After you learned how to hear the music and instruments you must now know how to hear the tempo. The tempo is the speed the music is being played at. This is very important and goes hand and hand with rhythm. If you don’t know the tempo or rhythm of a song you will never be able to follow no matter how good your ear is with pitch. The best way to master learning tempo and rhythm is to constantly do exercises for them. There are countless of tempo and rhythm exercises. There are some for hearing and sight reading in music. Below are just a few sources on where you can learn all about the 2.

A great example of a music rhythm exercises perfect for practicing and learning how to hear tempo and rhythm.

The best way to see great results with these steps are to practice them daily. Of course remember not to get discouraged. Some of these components will be harder than others. Some times you may want to give up. Some times it may feel like you’re not getting anywhere. However, remember great things take time. Remember every master was once a student. The talented artists and musicians ever were once students. They too have put in countless hours to get to the level of mastery they’re on. The most highest paid pianist practice day in and out. It didn’t come to them like magic. Remember by the time you’re looking at them and admiring them you’re seeing the ending results. You have no idea how long it took for them to get to that level. Just continue to practice with the proper technique. One day you’ll look up and see how far you have progressed.

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