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I've been picking alot of songs out by ear on my piano. I'm thinking the next stage is to pick/play without looking at the keyboard - that way the eyes are not involved at all. Maybe even wear a blindfold or something.

I think when the eyes are involved then the eyes are trying to look for patterns in the keyboard, or in the scale, like which white/black notes are being played. So even if you're playing by ear to figure out a song, a lot of the actual memorization of a song happens by sight. Because you remember what the patterns look like on the keys as opposed to making a connection between a musical interval and a muscle (ie how much you need to move your hand to get to the sound of an interval).

So wouldn't it be ideal to know how to play by ear by muscle memory only? That way the only thing involved is your ear and muscle memory. Kind of like whistling. I was wondering if other people have tried this and what their experience is.

p.s I'm a programmer by trade, and touch-typing is one of the most important things I know-- been doing it since I was a kid. So shouldn't "touch typing" apply to music as well (?)

  • That is how I practice and IMO it's very important: You need to focus on and understand the music more than the patterns on the keyboard or guitar neck, and be able to play anywhere on your instrument. Note that concert string instruments don't have markers on the neck. I'm a programmer by trade, and touch-typing is one of the most important things I know - Ditto. – Stinkfoot Jul 13 '17 at 0:26
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That's all very well playing by yourself. What about playing with others? Eyes open is important. O.k., you train yourself not to look at the keys, but in an ensemble situation, playing any kind of music from Baroque to rock, there's a lot said with the eyes, and indeed received through them. Cues, dynamics, balance, handing over the tune to another player in jazz, all communicated by eye.

So, yes, learn how to play with eyes shut, but probably more importantly, just not looking at the piano.

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    just not looking at the piano - I think that's the point here. Closing your eyes is just the easiest way to learn to do that. – Stinkfoot Jul 13 '17 at 7:40
  • @Stinkfoot - closing eyes only works when the piece is known. Sightreading, one of my teachers used to hold a sheet of card over my hands. But the OP wants to play by ear, so yes, you're right. – Tim Jul 13 '17 at 7:49
  • closing eyes only works when the piece is known - Not really - see the exchanges above - we're talking about jazz playing - the piece is not "known" - you are improvising, and when doing so, you don't want to have worry about where you're putting your fingers, etc - it should be automatic. So closing your eyes, or using a blindfold to force yourself to learn to play without looking is important. – Stinkfoot Jul 13 '17 at 16:59
  • "whistling" with the piano is what I'd like to achieve. So when you whistle a tune you're not looking at anything. you're simply going from your brain to muscle memory in your lips and you achieve the perfect tone each time. piano should be no different. atleast when you're playing inside a distance of about 3 octaves. – foreyez Jul 13 '17 at 17:20
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My favorite thing to do, once I know a piece well enough by memory, is to play at night in the dark with just enough light to make out the keyboard. Not only does this allow me to exercise my memory of the piece but its amazing how much more focused you are on the sounds coming out of the piano.

For songs I'm just playing by ear, I'll learn the outline of the melody/chords while having -- but not necessarily depending on -- visual access to the piano, and then I'll go into nighttime/darkness mode. I find this gives me the freedom to experiment, improvise, work out new chords or vary arrangements.

  • yes I was doing the lights out thing yesterday. Another thing I find is just watching tv while playing (and not looking at the instrument) works good too. – foreyez Jul 13 '17 at 23:35
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As a classically trained pianist I have learned to pick pieces out by ear but have focused generally on memorization of pieces I learn. Generally the ability to play with eyes closed only appears in a piece once I have fully mastered it. Learning to play by muscle memory would be impressive and would require a great deal of familiarity with the instrument, but would be hard to achieve. I find that sight reading without looking at the keyboard is not overly difficult, but to play by ear in such manner would be far more difficult. There does not seem to be a necessity to learn this skill, but if learned it would be both useful and impressive.

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    There does not seem to be a necessity to learn this skill - IMO that depends on the genre. If you're a jazz player - most of the time not reading - it becomes a very important skill: Your mind is not free to improvise well if you're constantly having to pay attention to your fingers. For that reason, I work hard on this skill - I want my instrument to be an extension of my body - no barrier between my musical thoughts and their expression. – Stinkfoot Jul 13 '17 at 4:39
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    @Stinkfoot amen. should only be a conversation between the ears and the fingers, not the eyes. get rid of the middle man! – foreyez Jul 13 '17 at 5:34
  • I've found that if you practice - familiar pieces and whatever exercises you do - from memory eventually you'll learn how to play a lot of music without looking. Particularly if you're playing consistently on same instrument. If you're switch around, you might to acclimate to each one. I play 4, 5 and 6 string bass -each one has different string spacing, neck width, etc. I try to play/practice on all of them for a good spell in the course of a week's time. After doing that for a couple of months, I was able to play all of them without looking. – Stinkfoot Jul 13 '17 at 17:04
  • @Stinkfoot I think it's also not so much about playing the same song in the same key. For example, if we take "amazing grace". I can randomly select any note on the piano and start with that (so playing amazing grace in the 12 different keys) so you work out the melody from there without looking at the keys at all. What that gives is the ability to just listen for intervals and associate intervals with muscle memory. doing it in different keys really solidifies the understanding. – foreyez Jul 13 '17 at 23:34
  • On first page of the first book I ever read about jazz theory, the author writes: You should be able to immediately play any note or interval anywhere on your instrument. I will be happy when I can do that up to the 12th fret. – Stinkfoot Jul 14 '17 at 0:30
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I don't think there is any importance to it. Have you ever heard of a legendary musician say that it was? Whether or not your eyes are closed, or looking at the instrument, doesn't make a difference.

  • Ray Charles did alright. – badjohn Jul 14 '17 at 20:07
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as a multiple instrument enthusiast I stumbled onto an approach that works great for transitioning away from required watching of my hands to no needing to look...youtube has tons of videos of people performing individual parts to songs, I accompany and primarily watch the other player's cues like mentioned above, I find myself glancing back and forth to eventually just watching the person completely.

  • yeah I've been using this alot too. You just watch a song you want on youtube. Then you go to setting and make it x0.5 (twice as slow) and you can play with them without watching hands. good stuff. – foreyez Jul 15 '17 at 23:18
  • timestretch a track to 108% or so of the original length and preserve pitch, same tuning but slower tempo. – Ben Edwards Jul 15 '17 at 23:20

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