I am stuck in sheet music. I know theory, have average sight reading skill, know chords and their inversions, scales, accidentals, ect.

But if someone took the notes away I couldn't play even familiar pieces. I'm 65 years old and I want to finally learn ear playing, finding chords, improvising...

How to practise? I learned from the internet that first, you find the root of a chord, then scales, then accidentals... How?

What are practical ways to proceed?

I'm slow to learn but motivated to spend rest of the years I have to learn to play without sheets or at least partly without.

  • 1
    What kinds of things do you want to play? Just anything or can you narrow it down? Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 8:58
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    This is funny. I always thought that being able to sightread and in general be a reader so good that you can avoid completely and consistently to resort to memory had to imply a degree of ear training in order to read a bar and having at least some idea of how it will sound. Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 16:59
  • IM so pleased to get repplies. IM year actually Been alone strugling and In spite Of all sometimes enjoying ...;) Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 8:53
  • I play (try to) play differentiaali King's Of which ever sould nice to me. However most evergerrns, peaceful. Toutching lyrics ... Also would like to accomp singing Of common songs ( after I get over The treshold Of openiin my mouth) Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 8:59
  • I am struggling with the same issue. I've been sight reading about 10 years, on a different instrument, and now want to learn piano. But I can not even play the simplest of tunes without the written notes. I find that the hardest part is starting the first note on a key that makes sense. Unless I know where to start, couldn't I find myself needing to play in a key that I rarely use, with many sharps or flats? How should I select that first note? Commented Feb 7, 2023 at 14:04

3 Answers 3


I suggest starting with lead sheets, with melody and chords only.

The term "playing by ear" was always a pejorative when I was young. It meant some kind of illiterate flailing at the instrument, maybe learning rote patterns with no idea of how they worked together musically. (Think of little kids playing "Heart and Soul" with four hands - great fun.)

But what I think you are aiming to do is very different than that, and lead sheets can get you there.

When you take an improvisatory approach to playing - which IS what I think you are aiming for - two powers will help you, and happily those two powers aid in one another's development.

The first power is that of music theory, all the stuff you list in your question about chords and their relationships and scales.

The second is the ability to hear and replicate intervals and melodic passages without the aid of transcripted music.

Using lead sheets, or fake book music to begin will move you along rapidly to not needing any kind of manuscript at all.

Your left hand and the fingers of your right hand not engaged in playing the melody will dance to the tune according to the chord structure that is written above the melody line.

Getting over that hurdle of comfortably comping a melody - with just your sense of rhythm and a chord name to guide you - takes some time. If you sing, it can be advantageous to sing the melody, and occupy your hands with an improvised accompaniment. It is quite literally a dance your fingers perform according to the rhythm you feel.

Once you have mastered playing from a lead sheet, your ability to discard all manuscripts will follow. Playing by ear? Perhaps, but while deploying all your musical knowledge as you do so.

It seems obvious, but for me it was a hard won insight to realize that the music happens under my hands, not on any page. I make the music with my instrument, not because someone else wrote out instructions for me.

The great classical players absorb themselves in their pieces to the extent that they create the sensation in themselves and in their audience of generating the music in the moment it is being played, just like you would expect any jazz player to do.

Good luck and go for it.

  • Pleased to notice help is around ... So long been alone. I've been learning theory bit by bit with applying in practical playing. ( I a bit too inpatient tu long theoretical approaches ;)) I think in ear training might develope the same, got now a pile of fake books which are I terestonf approach to me. The jazzy/ bluesy world is also interesting. However the plentiful chord sets and changes have given me new technical challenges ( theoretically I think I can just manage) . So speeding up finding chords quicker is one learning aim. However hearing better might speed up predicting ... Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 9:14
  • ... But the basics in hearing better I think with right kind of practices finding key signatures, root notes of chords, accidentals are my weak points now on the table. Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 9:20

Here are some suggestions, have a try and let us know how it goes:

Get a feel for the tune

  • CD player / Media player, play a tune that is not too complicated you have never learnt
  • Listen to the whole tune a few times until you can hear in your head what the next melody will be before it plays

Learn in parts - Play a few seconds at a time (a phrase) and just find the root note by ear on the piano

  • Build up the chord until it sounds most similar to the tune
  • Play the next phrase on the CD / Media player and do this again

Test your playing

  • When you think you have got a section to a good standard, listen to the whole thing on the CD / Media player to see if you have any differences and correct them, repeat this
  • Sometimes you will struggle and need to check the sheet music to see if you are correct, if it sounds right and the sheet music is different don't assume you are wrong, the sheet music may be wrong or your piano may just sound better playing the chord in a different arrangement.

Eventually after doing the above for a lot of songs you will find you may not even need to hear the song, you can just do it from memory of what you think the song sounds like. But this takes time and practice.

  • Hi Dave. I think you are now near my situation. As I wrote to my pervious supporter ... ... But the basics in hearing better I think with right kind of practices finding key signatures, root notes of chords, accidentals are my weak points now on the table.. Try to follow your Suggs... Let y know thanks. William Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 9:25

Start simple. Take a familiar tune like "Happy Birthday" and pick a starting note. Lets just pick "G" (this means you will be playing the tune in the key of C Major). Keep trying to play the song, re-starting from the beginning every time until you can get through the entire thing.

At first, this will be difficult. You'll play the first 8 notes, and really struggle to find the 9th but I promise if you keep at it you will succeed. Then, once you master the tune in the key of C, transpose it to another key. If you start "Happy Birthday" on a "D" note, what key will you be playing the song in? Play the whole tune in this new key, and then go back and play it in the key of C.

I was in your same position about ten years ago, and I just kept trying to pick out songs by ear and now I'm pretty good at it. Just do it over and over and over.

  • Hi. You are also right. I'll the to keep it simple. Although changing the key signature without sheet is not simple to me even I'll manage it from sheets. Strange and chilly by so true.. Thank you so much for all of you. Nice to have you around. Winter came back to Finland, william Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 9:30
  • Transposing is a great way of learning to play by ear Commented Apr 1, 2015 at 15:32

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