I'm 23 years old, I've been self-learning to play the piano for 2 years. Im super dedicated and seeking improvement- investing almost 2 hours daily which is most of my free time.

My practice sessions usually involve learning new challenging pieces through sheets.

At the moment I feel kind of clueless about how to achieve my goal which is to be able to pick up songs I love and play them without looking for sheets online. Although there are plenty of sites referring to this, I feel like most of them just try to advertise some courses they offer and I can't tell which one would actually be beneficial. I've also tried to use some free softwares to study some intervals and note recognition but I feel like it's not really working for me.

My question is basically what would be the best way to spend my practice hours to achieve my goal? I know I'm also improving with the way I practice but don't know if that's the best use of my time to be able to eventually play by ear.

Should I stop playing classical pieces and focus on songs? Should I keep on practicing with sheets for a few more years before trying to play by ear? I know it takes a huge amount of practice and requires patience for people like me who are highly motivated but not naturally gifted yet I wanna make sure I do my best to get there.

Will studying piano songs of the same scale (starting from C and progressing to more complex keys) be helpful to improve my play-by-ear goal? Maybe I'll learn some common chord progressions that way? Do you have any other suggestions for me?


Practicing sheets may improve any number of skills, but by itself it won't necessarily give you the ability to "ear" songs. I know this from having met many people who play well from sheets but who couldn't work out a song by ear if their life depended on it!

Reading from a sheet, at its simplest, involves seeing a visual representation of music, and mapping that in your mind to finger positions - possibly through an intermediate association of the finger position with the more abstract concept of a note.

To work out songs by ear, you need to do something different - to be able to associate a sound you hear with the notion of a note/sequence of notes /chord - and then translate that abstract idea to concrete finger positions.

As for how to do this:

  • The most important thing you can do is "just start" - find some kind of body of songs that you find easy to work out by ear (it could even be nursery rhymes to start with) and convince yourself you can do it.

  • Get used to thinking in terms of the more abstract concepts that you will need for support when you are trying to work out a song by ear. You can take your sheet music and try to do a Roman numeral analysis on the works - and then try to associate those chords and progressions with the sounds you are hearing. (What you need to do to 'ear' a song is often just the reverse process - you need to hear a succession of harmonies, associate those with conceptual chords, and then pick out the notes in the right key to match the tune).

  • Focusing on particular styles of music will help, as each style has its own vocabulary of common harmonic motions; What's common in one style might be very unusual in another style. You could try to get some sheet music for some examples of pieces in a certain style, and then use your analyses of those to give you clues as to the chord progressions you're likely to hear in similar works.

  • Finding or creating some improvisation exercises in the style you're interested in will be helpful too; you'll come to a more direct association between the finger motions you're making and the sounds you hear.

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    I like to think of playing by ear as breaking the harmful and unmusical chain of command from eyes to fingers, and replacing it with ears -> mind -> fingers. :) IMO, the right way to read sheet music would be like: eyes -> mind -> inner ear -> mind -> fingers, or something. And to get there one should first learn to play by ear and fuse together the hearing and playing parts as the primary feedback loop. Eyes and looking at notation should belong to a secondary loop. – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 31 '19 at 8:17
  • @piiperi makes sense to me! I've met a lot of people who have taken music lessons who have the "eyes -> fingers" connection in place, but they can only mechanically do that job. It seems a bit sad to me but many of them still seem to enjoy the activity of rendering the music! – topo Reinstate Monica May 31 '19 at 9:57
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    (just a guess) I believe piano sheets are more finger oriented than (say) guitar chords. As a result guitarists tend to be more comfortable improvising (harmonizing). My tovey edition of Beethoven says (hammerklavier finale) : remember it's not two fists but three voices that are uniting😉 – Rusi Jun 1 '19 at 12:53

The first thing to do is to get away from computers and your piano. Ear training is in the head, you need to train your brain, your inner ear, the piano is a crutch that will slow down your training. First, be able to sing a scale (away from the piano) but instead of singing, letters or syllables, sing numbers: 12345678. Now make sure you can pick out the 1, 3, 5, and 8. Again, away from the piano, you are training your brain, it doesn't matter what key you are in. Letters are absolute, numbers can be anything.

Ignore silly tricks like STAR WARS is a fifth. In the heat of the moment you don't have time to think of a song interval. You just have to do it. You need to know what the fifth is without thought. Just listen to the bass or tuba play in any polka band. The root's best friend is the fifth.

Now go lay down on the sofa with a piece of paper and transcribe the song MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB. I'll give you a hint, it starts on the third. Now figure out the numbers and write them down. If you want to check your work, you can play them on the piano later. Again, it doesn't matter what key because we are dealing with numbers, not letters. Start on the third of any key and sing the numbers. It is also vital that YOU SING. That helps to hardwire the intervals into your brain where true muscle memory resides. Singing numbers is also the secret to sight transposing. These are the numbers I plucked out of the air: 3212333 222 355 3212333322321.

Let's try another, ODE TO JOY. It too starts on the third. What a coincidence. Once you transcribe a lot of songs you'll discover that they have everything in common: 334554321123322 334554321123211

Here is an easy one, JOY TO THE WORLD. It starts on the 8: 8765 4321 56 67 78.

Notice the 1, 3 and 5 are common target intervals.

If you wrote out these songs without cheating, no matter how difficult, you are well on your way to being able to improving your sight reading, transposition, improvisation and just knowing the notes to any song you hear.

Go to your local Protestant church and borrow a hymnbook. Then go back to your sofa and sight sing the melody. Then try out the AT and B parts (SATB), always singing numbers. The beauty of working with a hymnbook is that all the parts are easy and harmonically repetitive and predictable. Often hymns are AABA in form so you get three chances at it.

Go to church on Sunday and on the hymns practice sight singing all four parts to the hymns. If there is a good choir you'll know that you are correct. If the organist plays the actual notes in the book, you'll know that you are correct. The church must have a good old fashioned hymnbook so try Episcopal, Methodist or Presbyterian. Don't waste your time in Roman Catholic or contemporary churches. They tend to sing songs and pass out lead sheets. Leave it to the church to dumb down music.

Again, ear training must be done away from the piano, software or books. Whenever you hear music, listen for the root and fifth then try to figure out the intervals. You can do this watching TV, commercials, listening to the radio, in malls, driving your car, laying in bed or lounging by the pool.

It may be difficult at first but will get easier with time. In a few years you'll be listening to Oscar Peterson and know every note he played.

Also, never EVER hunt and peck. If you are at the piano and you don't know the next note, don't guess. Don't train your brain to make mistakes. You only get once chance at muscle memory. Errors can be forever. Your brain doesn't get a reboot.

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    Some really good points here I think. Learning intervals is massively useful - so it's good you suggested that as a skill to acquire. But singing numbers is like the poor cousin of moveable-Do tonic sol fa. Using numbers you don't have any way to represent any accidentals. For any tune that strays outside the notes of a major scale, numbers are insufficient. – Brian THOMAS May 31 '19 at 12:03

There are a number of books that teach how to play from a lead sheet. A lead sheet is basically just a melody and some chord symbols. If you are able to learn how to handle these, you will be over half way to your goal.

Another thing would be to take melodies or simple chord changes you like and transpose them to different keys. OK to start with short bits. To do this, it helps to have a basic knowledge of music theory.

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  • But isn't playing from a lead sheet reading the dots again? OP is asking about not using music at all. – Tim May 31 '19 at 8:42
  • I was thinking about how a lead sheet doesn't specify any actual notes of the accompaniment. It just gives a chord name, and leaves open how to voice it or what style to use. I figure learning to make choices in that manner would be transferable if you have a melody in your head and want to create an accompaniment. Also, it is a good way to learn about harmony patterns that show up often. But when I was taking harmony in college, one thing that helped (with ear-training classes) was to devote several weeks to just playing basic harmony changes, at every inversion, in every key, on the piano. – Phil Freihofner Jun 2 '19 at 4:06

What you need is basically relative pitch. If you don't have perfect pitch, you won't be able to get it, but relative pitch is as close as it can get and is totally enough.

It's good to play songs you like and want to play from sheet music, because after that you already have a basic understanding of harmony for the songs. You should already know because of that which chords can go with which notes etc.

The next things I can recommend are:

  • Try to transcribe melodies of your favorite songs. Just listen to the melody and replicate it with trial and error step by step. Of course, don't start with the hardest songs. Just start with some simple folk and children songs like Happy Birthday, Jingle Bells etc.
  • There are a lot of free apps for ear interval training. If you learn to recognize intervals by ear and know for example 'ohh this goes up a major 3rd and then down a minor second etc. then the great thing is, that you are already able to play that song in any key, because no matter on which note you'll start the song, the intervals are always the same. Of course, this will take time! Don't get frustrated because you don't recognize all the intervals within a week! Take your time and learn interval for interval. Once you get familiar with one, add another one.

After that you're basically done. You can either play the melody by ear and harmonize the melody with chords that will work from your experience from playing all the sheet music, or you can continue with ear training and identify also chords by ear. Are they minor, major... How far were they apart...?

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Developing a good ear - ear training - seems to be an obvious necessity.

I notice my ear improved from playing piano harmony patterns in all keys. The patterns were initially meant for training my hands, but I can tell that my ear has become much more sensitive.

The chord patterns are mostly diatonic, but sometimes use secondary & borrowed chords, and then I transpose them up/down chromatically to all 12 roots. Depending on the pattern I sometimes contrast parallel or relative major/minor. Usually functional harmony, but sometimes non-functional.

Sing aloud with practice patterns. You can choose bass, treble, or inner voice. I don't think it matters too much, but pay attention to tuning your voice to the piano. One approach is to play block chords on piano and arpeggiate the chords with your voice: play IV6/4 | I and sing LA FA DO FA | SOL MI DO MI. etc.

Of course start working out songs by ear now. Depending on your schedule you could try for a song per day, or a few per week. I say don't overlook what you think are simple songs. Sometimes they aren't so simple when you figure out what they do. If you can't figure everything out, do what you can. You can compare your transcription against published songbooks. A Google search often can find the first page of a song from published songbooks, enough to do some spot checking.

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