Tip: Playing by Ear

Let’s go into playing guitar by ear. I’ll base the content on the series found on Maximum Musician, but it will be revised here and there as inspiration strikes.

Just what exactly does it mean to play by ear?

When you hear someone say, “He plays by ear“ it’s often said with awe, in the same way you might say, “His car has 10-wheel drive and he can parallel park it with his eyes closed while balancing a guitar pick on his nose.”

Unfortunately, when you hear such talk, you think that you, or the average person, can’t play by ear. Talk like this gets you to believe that you can’t hear a simple melody and play it on the guitar or other instrument. And if you believe this, you believe a lie, because everyone with hearing, a bit of desire and a pinch of persistence can play by ear.

To play by ear means to listen to something, and then play it on an instrument – apart from your voice. Recognize first that singing a melody you’ve heard is actually a form of playing by ear. We’re going to focus on playing guitar by ear, but singing will help you do this.

And we need to amend the above statement a bit: playing by ear does mean to translate what you hear into what you play. But, what you hear is affected by what you understand about music. You don’t have to have a music degree or even have read music theory books to build an understanding of how chords fit with melodies, what chords can substitute for each other, and other topics. But, at some level, you can acquire this understanding, just by applying your passion to play, and asking questions like “Why does this sound so cool? How can I make more of this type of sound?” And this understanding comes out when you listen to a tune or piece you want to play by ear. So, the same sound hitting your ears and a novice’s ears can sound very different, because your musical knowledge changes your hearing.

The first thing we’ll learn how to play by ear is a simple, familiar melody. Although the melody is simple, it will still be effective for building the skill of playing by ear. Lots of melodies in popular songs are simple. Some are so simple that they’re not any fun to sing without strumming some chords to accompany them.

We’ll learn more about playing by ear next time. Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2008 Darrin Koltow

This first appeared in the Guitar Noise News – July 1, 2007 newsletter. Reprinted with permission.