To those who has played by ear instead of reading music, what were your exercises and practices to improve, especially other genres and improvement of the left hand.

Edit: drop some songs as well that can be used for practice, especially those with a lot of dynamics

  • When I found out the cadence I-IV-V-I for the first time I transposed it in all keys and in all rhythms and times as Waltzes and school songs, accompanied my self to simple songs. Then I found out the I-vi-ii-V progression and did the same. Also the blues pattern and the few songs a knew at that time like O when the saints go marching in, Hang down your head, Tom Dooley, the House of the rising sun etc. Later I started to play Boogie Woogie and Rock'n Roll. Oct 5, 2019 at 18:29

3 Answers 3


Here’s some exercises that have helped me in no particular order:

  1. Try to figure out any random song you come across on youtube. Use the play settings in bottom right corner to adjust playback speed. For example, you can make it twice as slow. Tip: first thing to figure out is what scale it’s in. That way you can worry about a lot less notes when you play it back.

  2. Practice scales. Especially do arpeggios of the diatonic chords from the scales this’ll help when you do your left hand chords. Also practice modes, I personally like the minor modes: phrygian, dorian, and natural minor (aeolian).

  3. Take any song and modulate it to different keys. For example, in major, this will get you familiar with the sound of chords (esp I IV V vi ii) in all keys.

  4. Take a major song and modulate it to C major. Any song in major you can play in C major, same goes for any minor song you can play in A minor. This enables you to more clearly see what types of chords you’re playing with the left hand.

  5. Don’t look at your fingers as you play. This’ll take a lot of practice but I personally feel that it is detrimental to look at your fingers because then you’re not focusing on the sound and muscle memory. Use a blindfold or turn off the lights or just don’t look down. This also helps with recognizing scale degrees and diatonic chords by ear. For instance, you'll start recognizing the sound of I IV V chords being played in songs regardless of key.

  6. Improvise on top of songs you hear. You can also do this with backing tracks. Lastly get a looping device (either software or hardware) that way you can improvise with yourself. For example, play a chord progression and when it’s looping back improvise a melody on top of it. Try this for different keys.

  7. As far as particular songs go. Just make sure you can play any song that is in your head, that you know by heart. If you can whistle it, then you should know how to play it. And when you play it, don’t just play the melody add chords to it. Don’t use tabs, sheet music, etc. when you do this. You should figure all that out by ear and from the particular scale you’re in.

  • @foreyez Hi, I know this is kind of late, but what are the advantages, and uses of practicing, and knowing the different scales/modes? Oct 8, 2019 at 12:36
  • @DanielValle scales are probably the single most important thing in music. every song you hear falls under a scale. in one octave you have 12 notes. a scale is just selecting 7 of those notes and those are the notes the song will use. some songs have different scales than others. for example, one song might be in C major, another song will be in B minor. all that means is that one song is played using one set of seven notes, and another song is played using another set of seven notes. stick to the major scale first though as most songs use the major scale. feel free to ask me anything else.
    – user34288
    Oct 8, 2019 at 17:43

My practice was:

  • Sit down at the piano and reproduce elements of songs in terms of (1) chords, (2) melody, (3) rhythm, until it sounded reasonably close to what I wanted.
  • Improvise changes to the tunes. Chord substitutions, melody improvisation, rhythmic changes. For example, whenever I learned a new variation of a chord that works as a minor chord in a song, say, m7 or m9, I wanted to apply that everywhere. Or that you can play a dim7 chord instead of a dominant seventh - I applied that everywhere. All sorts of tricks. Tritone substitutions, bass inversions, walking bass, comping patterns, modulations, everything had to be applied all over. I had to turn songs upside down and make them something different. The driving motivation was fun and skills.
  • Play everything in different keys. Every time I learned a new trick, I wanted to play it in different keys, because if I could play something only in one key, I felt that I didn't really know the trick.

And I think that was it. The level of how close I could get to the things I was hearing, got better and better together with my ability to play various tricks. When I learned to play something, it was added to the set of things I could distinguish by ear. Playing by ear can be translated to the question: what would I need to do with instrument X to make it sound like that. You need to babble with all sorts of things.

At some point I started to do the same on the guitar and computer sequencers, which opened my view somewhat. Reproducing something with a sequencer can be a good analytical exercise.

One exercise I did quite mechanically was, play one verse of a song in a key, and for each consecutive verse, do a modulation trick to a different key. Repeat until you've played it in all keys. If the modulation trick moves the key by a whole-step, do a half-step modulation after six keys, so you get all twelve.


To learn piano by ear is one methods among others. People who are born blind in the past could only learn this way.

1. Orientation on the keyboard:

First you have to learn the pattern of the black and white keys and find the octaves. You should do this like you were blind, but of course you can control it with your eyes. Likes this you will also learn the names of the scales and recognize the triads and chords like major, manor, diminished. Listen carefully to the different sound and the impression they evoke.

2.Chord progressions:

Play the chord progression I-IV-V-I in C major: that means the triads of the degrees C, F, G. Play the Bass notes with the left hand and the triads with the right hand. Now you can already play your "1. symphony op 1" in C. Play the same chords in other sequences like I-V-V-I IV-I-V-I etc. By changing the time and rhythm in 3/4 you can play your first Waltz (Opus 2).

You are now already able to accompany yourself singing some songs or a friend playing another instrument.

Look up the Blues pattern: you can play it also with these 3 chords:


(last bar will be G to repeat the whole progression)

Play the same progression using tetrads as minor 7 chords with the r. hand:

by adding to the triads the 7th: C7 = C,E,G,Bb F7 = F,A,C,Eb G7 = G,B,D,F

Learn the Roman number for this progression Ib7, IVb7, V7

One of the most used patterns is the progression I,vi,ii,V (also with the 7) which is C,a7,d7,G7 (note capital letters mean major, a7 = a minor, also written as Am.

Play the progression VI V IV III (or in the parallel minor scale i,VII,VI,v

in C major this will be am, G, F, em

3. Scales and keys - Circle of fifths:

The next you'll have to do is learning the other scales and keys:

Start with G major scale up and F major scale down. You will find out that you always have to add a # or a flat. Play the chords and degrees, the patterns you have learnt in C-major in these other keys.

You will develop yourself the circle of fifths and if not you can look it up. You'll find out that you can use the V7 of G7 also in your songs you've played in
C like e.g.: C,C,F,F,C,C,C,C,F,F,C,C,D7,D7,G7,G7,

You will do these exercises also playing the inversions of all triads in the right hand, and also playing the whole chord accompaniment with the left hand alone.

First only triads in root position, later the Bass note on the first beat and the upper chord tones on the beats 2,3,4 or 2,3, when playing a Waltz.


This means you don't play the full chord at once but like picking on a Guitar or Harp you play each note after the other up and down:

left h.:c,e,g,e or c,g,e,g or l.h.c, r.h. e,g,c,e,g,c,e

In a 6/8 time this will be r.h. e,g,c,g,e etc. together with the root tone in the l.h.

4. Play the songs you know:

Now will be longing to play a song!

(I hope you did long ago - in exercise 1.)

Here are some titles you can start with:

Joyful, joyful (Beethoven Symph. 9)

This old House

O when the saints

Good night ladies

What shall we do with the drunken sailor

Happy birthday

Jingle bells

A groovy kind of love (Phil Collins)

I can feel it in the air tonight

Another day in Paradise

Lady in black

Several songs by Michael Jackson and the Beatles are quite easy to play by chords and singing the melody.

try out also Rock'n roll, Blues and Boogie (Bass-riffs and melody licks)


The house of the rising sun

Silent night

Well - I wish you a merry Christmas and hope you start playing not only by ear! You will have much more success if you are not a musical illiterate! To explain and read these exercises above you need only 5 - 10 minutes but to understand them and being able to apply them might need you months and years! My advice is to learn sight reading and my personal recipe is: reading by writing! This means notate everything I've told you here in numbers (1,3,5), Arabic letters (c,e,g), Roman numbers (I-III-IV-V), writing lead- sheets and drawing the keyboard patterns of new chords you're learn together with the notation in a staff system).

There are lots of good questions here about sight reading and many helpful answers. Look them up and look up all bold written titles (tags) above.

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