I have been playing the piano for 2 years and I have a dream to be able to play pop and some EDM music through my ears without sheets. What I used to do was practicing scales with their cadences and then practicing a few songs from sheets.

Not long ago I started to try and figure out songs by ear without sheets. When trying to figure out a song by ear, I can find the melody and the chords through trial and error but I don't have such a good memory and it is hard for me to memorize it and play long sections. At the moment what I do is play a few seconds of the song on youtube and then figuring it out on my piano and writing it down. Is that "cheating"? Or will this method help me in the long run to be able to play by ear?

8 Answers 8


It is (in general) a very good idea to transcribe music, it will definitely help. Keep it up!

As for memorising songs that you figure out by ear, functional harmony analysis can help memorising: trying to understand why certain chords are used at certain places, analysing a certain sequence of chords, melodies etc.


Yes, transcription is a very useful tool in developing what you want.


Transcribe with the purpose of better understanding songs by ear.

Transcription is a skill which can be practiced many ways. You can indeed do it in a sterile way which does not help with anything but transcription, but you can also do it in a way that helps everything.

Personally, I recommend a test. Pay attention to your own responses while transcribing. If at some point you find yourself grinning and thinking "Oh! That's how they do that!" then you're helping all parts of your musical experience. If you finish the transcription and you find you're so tired of the song you don't want to play it anymore, then maybe let off the transcription a bit and explore other ways of enjoying the music.


Rather than merely finding a few notes randomly, you're far better off finding the key of the piece. That often means that there will be several notes that probably won't feature in what you're trying to play by ear. As a kid, I wasted lots of time looking for the right notes to tunes, but when the penny dropped, and I realised that some of the notes I tried weren't even in that certain key, it made the job better and easier.

What you are doing is still 'playing by ear', just a bit at a time. Certainly write stuff down - that in itself is a valuable skill to practise - and the more you do, the better you'll be at it, and maybe there'll come a time when you can listen to a whole verse, and write it all out immediately, or better still, play it back immediately.

I find that mapping the chord sequence is a great help - after all, the melody usually follows that chord pattern, so it's giving me clues along the way.

  • 1
    I agree that identifying the key is key (pun intended) to successfully transcribing music, as the majority of musicians have relative and not absolute pitch. I am personally a semitone off most of the time unless I know in advance what key the piece is in or have seen some passages therefrom before.
    – Pyromonk
    Nov 29, 2019 at 19:55

For the sake of splitting hairs, playing by ear and memorizing songs are two different things. If you can't remember how the tune goes, you might improvise and "play by ear" whatever comes to mind. YMMV, but transcribing helps me analyze and remember song structures. Sometimes pop songs are hard to memorize, because they're so repetitive and indifferent. It's like DDR architecture; how to remember a particular place when everything looks the same - you draw yourself a map. (Imaginary example, I never went to the DDR)


My mother can’t play by ear, so I started transcribing the songs they wanted her to play. At first, I had to poke around on the keyboard to identify the right notes. But I gradually developed the ability to know the right note just by “playing” the song in my head. Which naturally led to the ability to play the right notes on the keyboard.

Can’t say this would work for everyone, but it ought to work for someone with a better musical aptitude than me. I’m really not a musician!

  • For what it's worth, anyone who can do what you can do is a musician in my book.
    – user45266
    Nov 29, 2019 at 19:09
  • Well, when I played keyboard with a "band," they complained my sense of rhythm was terrible.
    – WGroleau
    Nov 29, 2019 at 19:19
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    Hey, you don't have to be a good musician to be a musician! If you play music, you're a musician to me.
    – user45266
    Nov 29, 2019 at 19:21

Transcribing is an excellent way to train your ear. I would also suggest getting a hold of a Protestant hymnbook and go sit on the sofa and sight sing each part (SATB). Try to read four hymns a day. Better yet, go to church and on each hymn, sight sing a different part. The organ will keep you on pitch. Sing everything. Out loud. We won't listen. You have to get it in you. During the homily you can read notes or run them through your mind's ear, while driving your car, lying in bed, run intervals or melodies through your head whenever you have a silent moment. When you listen to the radio, elevator or mall music, figure out the first few notes of any song you hear. Music is everywhere. Don't listen, study.

I also suggest you use the number system of 1-8 for the scale. It is important to recognize intervals by their number because then, after much practice, you will hear melodies and just know what their pitches are without thought.

By using numbers, you'll be able to sight transpose. Instead of seeing CEG, see 135. Then, play 135 in any key. This will also aid in improvisation because if you hear a lick in your head, you'll just know what the notes are.

So, the hymn, Joy To The World would be: 8765 43 2 1 56 67 78 Now try those numbers in any key. Now get to the point where any note you hear you will just know the intervals. Did you get that fifth?

Do everything away from the piano. It is too easy to cheat.


I recommend Jamming with Friends. In the moment, You'd not have the time flexibility to google up the sheet so you'd listen to one of you friends play the Theme in his guitar and catch that up in the Piano.

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