One of the things I'm working on is playing classical music by ear. I've figured easier things like Canon in D, Prelude in C. But I'm trying to work my way up. I'm wondering if it's possible to play by ear more complex classical pieces by artists like Chopin, Liszt and Rachmaninoff. I don't need it to be 100% perfect, but good enough to sound professional. For example, La Campanella by Liszt has a very simple motif that repeats. Most of the difficulty lies in ornamentation. But I don't need to get every note in its right place, because once I understand the theory I can add my own notes or decide on different inversions of chords, voicings, etc. Yes, I could look up the sheet music for a piece, or look at a Synthesia for it, but to me the fun is in figuring it out myself just by sound and theory and developing my ear. I play mostly pop/rock/folk by ear. But when I look at harmonic analysis videos of classical most of the time the theory behind them isn't too hard.

So I'm wondering who plays classical by ear, is there a famous musician out there that does this, or maybe someone in this forum that can vouch for it? I ask because it's always nice to get some inspiration and I can't find anyone on youtube that does this. Well, except for that subway pianist in the first link.

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    Well, not looking at the score is a bit of an artificial handicap. Unless you're trying to show off that you don't need it, why not use it if you can easily get it? It won't change the value of your interpretation or analysis. – Your Uncle Bob Feb 12 '19 at 4:40
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    @YourUncleBob since when is developing ones ear trying to "show off". And if anything, looking at the score is a bit of an artificial handicap. – foreyez Feb 12 '19 at 6:39
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    Learning by ear works for Mozart and Mendelssohn, and nobody else. Playing a learned piece sans score is an entirely different concept. – Carl Witthoft Feb 12 '19 at 13:33
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    I'd suggest listening really hard, transcribing what you hear and then (the important final step) checking against the published score. This improves your listening skills. But if you rely on your ears alone, you might think you got pretty close, but when you're not playing what's actually written there are lots of people out there who can spot the fakery a mile off. – Brian THOMAS Feb 12 '19 at 13:58
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    @piiperi - Some classical music is popular enough that laymen can recognize mistakes made in them. I've seen YouTube comments pointing out mistakes in renditions of a piano duo transcription of Holst's "Mars" from The Planets and a performance of Henryk Wieniawski's "Scherzo-Tarantelle". (Admittedly, YouTube listeners may filter themselves and listen to music they're already familiar with.) – Dekkadeci Feb 12 '19 at 15:50

I think your question gets to the heart of 'classical' music education and memorized performance versus improvisation.

It also runs contrary to the idea that the score is sacrosanct and I think many will say the idea you are considering is wrong headed. If you try to perform a paraphrase of something like a Beethoven composition, you will undoubtedly be accused of bastardizing it. Personally I think that is unfortunate.

There was an improvisational art, but it died off in the 19th century.

I think you will not find many examples to follow, but the best example I know of playing classical music as a sort of improvised pastiche of actual compositions is this...

  • awesome vid. funny how mozart at 16 takes ideas from some unknown (at 3:08), then beethoven takes ideas from mozart (at 10:00). – foreyez Feb 12 '19 at 19:17
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    also, classical improvisation may have been reduced, but it's not dead. improvisation is essentially how artists acquire their talent. – foreyez Feb 12 '19 at 19:19
  • Something like this is my personal goal too. Improvise in a simple classical style. When I am in good form I can do something like a minuet or a sonatina like exposition, but I'm nowhere near where I want to be. But, also I want good reading skills. I think of this a home entertainment versus concert hall performance. My talent is low, my goals are modest. – Michael Curtis Feb 12 '19 at 19:24
  • never set modest goals! also I've seen your various answers. you know your stuff. – foreyez Feb 12 '19 at 19:36
  • "There was an improvisational art, but it died off in the 19th century." - so ? – user2808054 Feb 13 '19 at 10:33

When you learn a piece by ear, it tends to come out as an approximation. Even people with great ears are usually not going to get every tiny voicing detail exactly correct, or at least it's too difficult to be worth it. In classical music, the performer is tasked with playing the piece exactly the way the composer notated.

Working pieces out by ear is a great exercise, but it wouldn't go over well to perform an approximation of a classical piece. And you don't get any bonus points for learning it in a more laborious way.

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    I disagree with the last paragraph. Most often when you can improvise on classical that means you really understand it. This understanding only comes when you go beyond the dots, and the audience most definitely enjoys it. 44 million views: youtube.com/watch?v=vUxvoieB0fA – foreyez Feb 12 '19 at 14:54
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    @foreyez - Some audiences are more accepting of rearrangements of classical music than others. For every listener who likes "Chopin's Knocked Urn" (a ragtime rearrangement of a Chopin nocturne) or a progressive rock remix of a symphony movement, there's a listener cursing why Liszt just had to add sections to his piano transcription of Saint-Saens's "Danse Macabre". – Dekkadeci Feb 12 '19 at 15:21
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    @foreyez -- "Most often when you can improvise on classical that means you really understand it." This just isn't true. Anyone can noodle on one or two major scales or play around with some arpeggios that fit a piece. Improvising well goes far beyond this. The bottom line is that whether you play by ear, read from a page, or improvise, doing that well takes a lot of work, a lot of experience, and a lot of failures. Each of these modes of playing brings its own perspective. Whether it is appropriate to play a piece in one way or another is between you, the music, and your audience. – ex nihilo Feb 12 '19 at 17:10
  • Could not agree more with this answer. +1 – user45266 Feb 12 '19 at 17:23

Most people probably don't "play" classical music by ear in the sense that they learn a piece entirely by transcribing it. That being said, I think there's a lot to be gained form listening that cannot be expressed in the written music; things like subtle inflections, dynamics and articulations. The score might instruct you to play "cantabile" or whatever, but that doesn't tell you what you need to actually do with your instrument in order to produce that effect. Listening to someone else performing and trying to imitate these subtleties is not a bad way of getting a sense for how a particular style of music should sound (another good way would be to get a knowledgeable teacher).

This is true of a lot of styles in fact, trying to play Jazz or Blues, for example, from a written transcription without having heard any examples of the style beforehand would probably sound nothing like what we're expecting of those genres.

Of course, if you want to perform a piece for someone else, you might want to take a look at the score beforehand, but if your just doing it for fun or as an exercise then I think it's a nice way of developing your ear and getting a sense for how the music sounds. With classical music you generally also have the advantage of being able to check your transcription against a written score. When transcribing popular music, for example, you mostly just have to hope that your ears are good enough, since there often isn't a written version to be found.


I once played ballet classes full time at a private school for two years. Four classes a day, seven days a week. As you may or may not know, ballet class music needs to be 8, 16, 32 bars in length. 8 was the preferred length. Since I didn't want to rifle through dozens of books and, I wanted to keep specific styles and tempos compiled where they could be found easily, I made lead sheets out of everything and just faked them.

I got a lot of mileage out of Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Czerny. There were some lesser works by Bach and Mozart which worked well, too. Even major work can be broken down or be culled to 8 bar increments.

It wasn't exactly playing by ear but I only had to keep a rhythm going in the LH and a clear, strong melody in the right using only melody and a few chord notations.

The principle teacher preferred I kept the repertoire down to about 100 songs as she wanted the students to be able to become one with the music and she felt repetition would facilitate that. It didn't get boring for me for I worked on my transposition chops during this period. Nobody ever noticed that every song was in Ab that day.

BTW, 100 eight bar songs is not a lot.

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