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What do I need to know and how do I need to practice to start playing by ear/improvising?

I have learned the basics of piano. Basic includes reading notes, major and few of the minor scales and chords.

But I still find it difficult to play "music by ear". How do I improve that skill? Does it require years of practice.

PS: "music by ear" meaning being able to play piano accompaniment for a new song after hearing it a couple of times.

  • Hi John, check out this question and it's answers. music.stackexchange.com/questions/4825/… It would be quite applicable to your situation, despite a different instrument. Be prepared for it to be very slow going. You'll need to start by just picking out individual notes by ear, and you'll need to be practicing pretty frequently, and getting to know your way around the keyboard very well, and quickly. If not, it's still possible, but it'll make learning to play by ear much more difficult. Commented Jan 30, 2012 at 15:12

2 Answers 2


As Josh says, Learning Guitar by hearing will have some helpful advice for you.

To extend it to piano, I think there are two core skills to learn:

Fitting chords to melodies

You can practice this by just playing triads as you hum a tune, or play triads with your left hand while playing the tune with your right.

Many, many tunes - from classical standards to rock, pop etc. - fit the "three chord trick" of the tonic chord, the major 4th and the major 5th. Try to get these chord sequences by ear. You can cheat by looking at a chord sheet to see whether there are other chords in there, but having done that, don't look at the sheet. When you can do three-chord songs, move on to more complicated ones. You'll start to spot common transitions.

Practice in lots of keys too. Try it in each of the white-key-root major keys, at least.

Interesting rhythm patterns

Although it's a good basis, triads being plonked out on the downbeats aren't very musically pleasing. You need to play more interesting patterns.

A simple and classic example is to play up-and-down arpeggios.

Another example is to play a root-chord-fifth-chord oom-pah-oom-pah pattern.

... and many more; copy the ones you like. If boogie-woogie is your thing, there are many books on it.

Listen to music you like, and pay attention to what the backing is doing -- it doesn't matter whether it's piano music or not; think about how you could get a similar feel from a piano accompaniment.

When playing from a score, don't just blindly play the notes. Analyse how the notes on the page correspond to a chord progression, and how you could steal that pattern and apply it to another tune's chord progression.

Try playing "three blind mice" over the triplet-triads accompaniment of Moonlight Sonata!


Yes, playing music by ear requires practice, patience and experiments. It's a very useful skill to have. In fact, Suzuki method encourages learning music by ear. Go check it out. Hope this helps. Good luck!

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