I've been doing this thing lately where I randomly pick a note on the piano, and use that as the starting note of whatever melody I'm playing, every time I do this I'm in a different key. I find this is great practice for figuring out intervals by ear. I'd rather not look at the piano keys and even attempt to think of the scale.

I'm trying to mimic humming/whistling where you don't need to know the scale in order to play. when was the last time you whistled a tune and thought of a scale? see, it's not required. so I'm thinking the piano should be the same way, where the only skill needed is physical memorization of the sounds of intervals, from any note to any note.

The problem I found isn't the melody, it's the harmony. In order to harmonize my melody without knowing the scale. I usually just play a chord that has the melody note as one of the three notes of chord (1-3-5) and do this visually. So I assume that the the chord has the melody note within it, which I found to be the case most of the time anyway even when knowing the scale. But this isn't really efficient. I'm still thinking of other ways. Another way I found is the melody notes tend to outline the chord they're using just by the physical space they occupy. Another way is to play 2 note chords and opposed to 3 as it lessens the options. I'd like to eventually get to the point where I could do it by ear, and just match the right chord with the melody instantly, but I'm not there yet.

But what other techniques could I use for harmony, without knowing the scale, or is that about it? Any other instruments feel free to answer. this isn't necessarily just a piano thing.

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    An issue you might come across is that the melodies you whistle (or parts of them) already assume an underlying harmonic structure. The point of whistling is that it removes the thinking process. But the melodies I naturally whistle will often be limited to the harmonies I'm already comfortable with. The odds of someone spontaneously whistling the melody to Giant Steps are highly unlikely because most people haven't internalized its highly complex harmony. To compose intuitively and with harmonic complexity, I must first practice complex harmonies so they become second-nature/internalized.
    – jdjazz
    May 27, 2018 at 19:30
  • "So I assume that the chord has the melody note within it" … "the melody notes tend to outline the chord they're using "... Both wrong, unless your intention is to deliberately make very boring music.
    – user19146
    May 28, 2018 at 15:12
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    @alephzero not sure what you mean by "boring" as most songs in existence work this way. see top 50 hooktheory songs hooktheory.com/theorytab/charts/chart/top
    – user34288
    May 28, 2018 at 15:45

4 Answers 4


Unless you use the root note from any particular key, using triads to harmonise leaves you very much stabbing in the dark.

let's say you play a random note - C- as your first note in a tune. That could be harmonised as part of -

Cmaj. Am. Fmaj. Abmaj. Cm. Fm.

Your next note might be D. So harmonies for this could be -

Dmaj. Dm. Gmaj. Gm. Bbmaj. Bm.

And this is where knowing the scale notes in keys is crucial. there will be times when harmonies won't be diatonic, but that's sometimes where modulations occur.

Given the first note C, harmony Cmaj., would make the D note's harmony Dm or G. Possibly Bb. But then the next part of the harmony will spawn another six choices, some of which will be guaranteed to sound good, others guaranteed to sound bad. Of course all the triads here would be taken as diatonic in a certain key.

It's a bit like learning to throw knives blindfolded. It does make sense to be able to do it successfully with eyes open to start with...


I can do this on the violin. I don't need to have practiced a scale to be able to play it, or play in its key, for the most part. But only after years of practice and getting to know what sounds come out of my instrument when I do certain things.

When you sing, your brain thinks in terms of intervals (even if you can't identify them, your brain secretly hears them and is able to accurately convey them with your voice). However, the piano is different because its layout is... asymmetrical. For example, a major sixth is played more or less the same anywhere when humming, or on the violin, although it gets slightly closer together the higher up on the neck you go, but on piano, depending on which major sixth, it may be between two white keys, a white key and a black key, or vise-versa. Playing in different keys requires different physical motions and muscle memory.

That being said I think it can be done. My recommendation is to learn to play songs that you listen to by ear -- easy songs at first. But by doing this, even with lots of trial and error, you will eventually start to make connections between which key you press to get which note, and eventually instead of a recording as a reference, you will be able to use your internal ear/audiation.

Other ear training helps too.

  • So, basically, learning the notes which constitute scales..?
    – Tim
    May 27, 2018 at 19:09
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    @Tim Where do you get that from in my answer? May 28, 2018 at 17:07
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    'I don't need to have practised a scale to be able to play it...' 'but only after years of practice...' Which sort of contradicts itself, but if you've found notes which work well together, isn't that tantamount to knowing (as in have learnt) which notes constitute scales?
    – Tim
    May 28, 2018 at 17:13
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    I understand. I have a 'theory' that even those who don't know 'theory' (or even believe in it !) actually develop their own 'theory' over time playing. If they tend to use the same phrases - and a lot do - then that's because they know something works, so isn't that getting towards having 'theory', even though it may not be fully understood. And I'm saying some know 'theory' without understanding it. It's just their own 'theory', built up after lots of playing. If any of this makes sense!
    – Tim
    May 29, 2018 at 4:53
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    @ Tim- It makes perfect sense to me. I personally learned licks, chops, patterns, arpeggios, embellishments, chords, sight-reading and more before I started studying theory, and I had my understanding of what worked for me. Learning theory really just reaffirmed some of the things I already knew, while helping to fill in the parts I didn't know enough about to see a bigger picture. May 31, 2018 at 5:08

In general (I think there's a journal article with a counterexample but I don't remember where I saw it), one can harmonize any melody just from the notes. The usual procedure would be to put consonances (usually major or minor chords or fifths or octaves if two voices only are wanted) at the beginning and ending notes. Then use good voice-leading to connect the rest of the piece. (It's your choice whether to use medieval-sounding or Rennaissance-sounding or Baroque or something modern as the basis.)

Use dissonances to highlight what you want to be important places (a cadential pattern stands out as the dissonance followed by resolution is easy to hear.)

There may be more than one solution. Pick the one you like.


...I'm trying to mimic humming/whistling where you don't need to know the scale in order to play...it's not required

I think your point is you can improvise melodically, by voice, without knowing about scales.

...I'd like to eventually get to the point where I could do it by ear, and just match the right chord...

Improvising melodically without knowing about scales leads you to expect that you can harmonize without knowing about chords.

In the rest of your description you use phrases like "randomly pick a note", "assume that the the chord has the melody note", or "the melody notes tend to outline the chord" seem to show you don't understand how tones work within a key or how melody and harmony interrelate. Basically, you are working by trial and error.

But this isn't really efficient...But what other techniques could I use for harmony, without knowing the scale, or is that about it?

Trial and error is not efficient. That's right. You are also setting up a sort of false dichotomy between scale and chord. Harmony & melody, chord & scale are really just two sides of the same coin: tonality.

Basically you need to study harmony. Using a harmony textbook is one way to do it, the academic way, which focuses on a "theory" of harmony. If you don't like that for some reason, a keyboard harmonization method book is a more practical way to learn. "Practical" meaning not "convenience" but learning through the example of how players actually harmonize without much discussion of theories for choosing one harmonization over another. You could also learn by carefully studying from great songs. But the burden will be on you to take a collection of songs and through studying them build strategies for harmonization. Let's call that the Beatles Method. The Beatles didn't read music or "know" music theory, but they knew how music worked by building a vast knowledge of songs and reapplying musical devices from those songs into their own. In other words they acquired all the music theory knowledge minus the academic terminology.

Those are three alternatives to trial and error. I think each is valid. Some might suit certain personalities better than others. All require effort.

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