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I'm not talented at all but I consider myself very dedicated and with a good ability to learn and memorize new material through my hands (not ears)

I'm playing the piano on my own for 2 years, practicing mainly from sheets. Lately I decided I want to focus on pop genre, the songs I hear on the radio, which I want to be able to cover on my own without sheets one day. (At the moment I'm not even close to the level of players I see on YouTube.)

How can I apply my memorizing skills in order to help me be a better pop player and achieve my goal of playing by ear? I feel like I'm far from there. I haven't found a good way to memorize piano notes or memorize and recognize intervals unfortunately, since those are more related to hearing rather than muscle memory which I'm better at. Will memorizing songs with common patterns help me? Will memorizing many chord progressions, cadences and scales be the best I can do to improve? Should I insist more on intervals recognition?

I have around 1 hour a day for practicing and I want to make the most out of it in order to play by ear one day. I would really love to hear your suggestions for me.

  • My experience is that I have no problems to play easy pop songs just by ear. But for more difficult pieces you need a lot of technical practice that the fingers know what scales or licks they have to play. But I need all: the ear, the muscle memory and the chord progression. – Albrecht Hügli Aug 21 at 5:43
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Muscle memory and playing by ear are very much related. You probably don't want to just memorize songs or chord progressions because that won't help you in the long run. Instead, try to figure out songs by ear. This is the main exercise, but it gets easier with every song you work on because you're making a link with what you hear to where your fingers go.

You need to familiarize yourself with the sounds and develop muscle memory. Before you press a certain note you'll already know what it's supposed to sound like in your head. That way you can play anything you hear instantly or jam alongside with someone as they play. It's the same as whistling and humming. But in order to do this you should build a solid foundation first:

  1. Practice scales / arpeggios. Do this alongside figuring songs out by ear, or you'll just get bored. The reason for practicing scales is mainly just knowing what the pattern is (what black/white notes need to be pressed for that given key). Everything you hear around you on a day-to-day basis is in a different key. You need to get to the point where the patterns of scales and their associated diatonic chords are ingrained in your head. What makes it easy is that all major keys work exactly the same, they're just higher/lower pitches of the same sound of "do re mi fa so la ti do". and minor is just a mode of major, so first learn major and then you just shift it to get to minor. you'll see what I mean later.

  2. Figure out songs by ear. This is the most important part. Start with nursery rhymes / baby songs as those are the easiest. So "row row row your boat" or "twinkle twinkle little star" or whatever other songs you've heard in your childhood, "amazing grace", etc. Don't use sheet music for these. Just try to pick them out by ear. Especially the melody. Once you've found the melody try to figure out what scale you're in based on the practice you did with 1.

  3. Add chords to the nursery rhymes. You'll find that the I IV V chords (primary triads) are the most often used followed by the vi ii and iii chords. (assuming we're talking about a song in the Major key). The roman numerals that I just wrote are the diatonic chords of the scales, if you don't know what those are and how to find them from the scales, do some research. You'll be playing those chords in your left hand, whereas the melody is in your right hand.

  4. Try to play the nursery rhyme in any key. You should eventually be able to play "Row row row your boat" for example, in all 12 major keys both the melody and its chords.

  5. You can transpose any major song to the key of C major to make it easier for you to experiment with what chords sound best. So know how to play all the nursery rhymes in the key of C major for example. You can then practice with songs in minor keys.

The nursery rhymes / practicing scales/arpeggios then becomes the "foundation" of your muscle memory and ear training. Keep adding more and more songs. Just keep a piece of paper with all the songs you've figured out by ear. The more you do this you'll find that you don't even need to keep a piece of paper anymore because you'll be able to play whatever you hear instantly.

You'll then be surprised that pop songs aren't that much harder than nursery rhymes. It's pretty much all the same. You just add chords to melodies in whatever key you're in. By practicing playing songs by ear, the more you'll do it, you'll develop muscle memory to the point where your fingers will go directly to what you are hearing in your head both for melody and harmony.

  • Do you try to figure out the notes just by stating their name in your head? Did that what you meant? – LoveIsHere Aug 21 at 13:52
  • @LoveIsHere I wouldn't worry too much about the note names, rather know what number they are in the scale. every note is numbered 1-7 in the scale, same with chords (usually in roman numerals though). eventually you'll hear those numbers. – foreyez Aug 21 at 14:40
  • Cool advice... Thanks so much! – LoveIsHere Aug 21 at 20:25
  • @LoveIsHere reason why you want to know numbers is because some numbers are more important than others, esp when it comes down to chords. well melody too. you'll find that most songs begin on either the 1,3,5 melody of the scale, and end on the 1. – foreyez Aug 21 at 21:15
  • Yes it sounds very logical and simple!! – LoveIsHere Aug 22 at 7:00
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I try to do exactly what foreyez says. I‘m still working on this. The biggest problem to me seems when I play e.g. pieces by Bach that I‘ve learnt only by muscle memory or ear and I’m making the same mistakes or get completely lost as I didn‘t know what I was playing 60 years ago. Nobody told me then how to analyze the chords or the form.

Today I make a lot of own finger studies for trills or turnarounds, scales and arpeggios.

There are a few points I‘d like to add:

  • Work out the form of a piece or song.

  • Write down the chords on a leadsheet.

  • Make a mind map (motifs and chords, graphic notation)

  • use lyrics of other songs and poems to associate the music to their form (e.g. Ave Maria *)

  • take the motifs or chord progression and improvise on it, play with these elements by reassembling these elements.

  • what I often do is playing one hand full harmony and the other in 8va just to internalize the process of the melody and the chords.

    • or I play both voices in one hand (so I can better see and hear the counterpoint)

    • playing it very slowly like a choral - always minding what I play

The greatest benefits for understanding and memorizing to me is transposing a piece first in C adding Roman numbers and playing it in all kind of keys (circle of fifths)

*) eg. what I did with this little prelude by Bach (WTC 924:

(original):

my version:

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