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Topic Options
#2022460 - 01/27/13 09:53 PM Playing By Ear Help
NoahVail Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 11/20/12
Posts: 7
Hi everyone,

I've been playing piano for a little under a year now, and I'd like to take my learning technique in a different direction.

Does anyone have any tips or tricks for playing music (mostly modern pop, rock, alternative, R&B, etc.) by ear? I've been perusing YouTube for music material to use for practice. I seem to do pretty well up until figuring the key, the melody line isn't too bad either, but I have trouble with harmonizing the whole thing.

Thanks guys.

Edited by NoahVail (01/27/13 09:55 PM)

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#2022665 - 01/28/13 07:37 AM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: NoahVail]
dannac Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/04/07
Posts: 601
Loc: USA
Originally Posted By: NoahVail
Hi everyone,
I seem to do pretty well up until figuring the key.

For the majority of songs, the first and last chord will be the key.

You should learn the chords for all keys around the circle of fifths (or fourths depending how you look at it)

Example the key of C chords or as followed,

C (I) - Dm (ii) - Em (iii) - F (IV) - G (V) - Am (vi) - B (dim)

Usually the most used chords in a song will be the (I) - (IV) - (V)

That's just a start and very basic, but it will allow you to harmonize the majority of songs.

#2022767 - 01/28/13 11:06 AM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: NoahVail]
JamesPlaysPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 06/16/11
Posts: 125
What dannac said smile

I would add that, in case the first/last chord doesn't give you the key, another very strong "probably" is that the very last melody note is usually the same as the key you're in.

By the way, if you need clarification on the roman numeral thing, this might help:


Also: I'd say that much of the development of the ability to play by ear involves developing a vocabulary of sounds within that genre. In other words, if you want to be able to play by ear in a particular style, it helps if you have some shapes/sounds under your fingers that are common within that style. So if you're not doing so already, I'd recommend that you start trying to pick apart the sounds that you like, and see if you can reduce any of them down to a "shape," "lick," or "formula," as the case may be. Even though this amounts to analyzing an individual piece of music, I think the result over time can be an enriched vocabulary, which can then help you to recognize sounds that you hear in music that you're studying by ear, if that makes sense. I bet you could search for something like "R & B licks" (or whatever) and find things you could use.

You mentioned pop in your listing of styles. This can help to quickly get a common pop sound under your fingers:


Hope this helps. Good luck!

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Facebook groups: Jazz Piano Chat • Blues Piano Chat • Pop Piano Chat

#2022809 - 01/28/13 12:22 PM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: JamesPlaysPiano]
Farmerjones Offline
Full Member

Registered: 05/25/12
Posts: 494
Loc: Midwest USA
IMHO hearing the key, then matching, is a skill unto itself.
When i decide to play an old pop., country or traditional standard song, i usually know it well enough to sing it. I do not try find the key. I adopt a key to play the tune. Usually D, C, or G (call me pedstrian). The I, IV, V is usually valid. If he first change doesn't go to the IV, i'll try the V. While it doesn't solve for all, it solves for the many.

I would only try to identify a key to a song, only if i had to play along with somebody else that had settled on a certain key.
view my profile for a link to my YT page.

#2023021 - 01/28/13 07:03 PM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: NoahVail]
RonL Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/10/12
Posts: 181
Playing piano by ear sounds awfully hard - why not use your fingers?

cymbal crash!

Seriously - get some software to help slow down tunes - I use Transcribe all the time to figure stuff out - you can loop and slow things down and it will give notes suggestions.

I spent several happy hours transcribing my piano teacher from my last lesson this past week using Transcribe - it is a great product.

#2023100 - 01/28/13 09:33 PM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: RonL]
dannac Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 10/04/07
Posts: 601
Loc: USA
Nice website with some kool stuff James.

Agree with RonL ... I use Transcribe often.

#2023123 - 01/28/13 10:36 PM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: NoahVail]
LoPresti Offline
1000 Post Club Member

Registered: 12/07/10
Posts: 1304
Loc: New York
Originally Posted By: NoahVail
I've been playing piano for a little under a year now, and I'd like to take my learning technique in a different direction.

Would it be safe to say that your current "learning technique" is to "no avail", NoahVail?

Originally Posted By: NoahVail
Does anyone have any tips or tricks for playing music (mostly modern pop, rock, alternative, R&B, etc.) by ear? I've been perusing YouTube for music material to use for practice . . .

Without knowing how serious you are about learning, with confidence I would offer this:
Learning to play the piano, whether classical repertoire, jazz, pop, rock, rhythm & blues, ragtime; whether from written music or by ear, is a complex and fairly lengthy process. "Tips and Tricks" will not do it, unfortunately. Even to play reasonably well, there are no short-cuts. The best, and surest way to learn to play piano is to find yourself a good teacher, and begin to work on her/his suggestions.

[ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS] Tips and Tricks CAN work well, once an individual has the basics of musicianship, and is playing really solidly. In that scenario, they become additive and meaningful. Prior to having the basics "under one's belt", tips and tricks, software, and any other "shortcuts", are meaningless.

Edited by LoPresti (01/29/13 10:18 AM)
In music, everything one does correctly helps everything else.

#2029865 - 02/09/13 12:26 PM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: NoahVail]
ChazG Offline
Full Member

Registered: 07/07/11
Posts: 63
Hello NoahVail,

In experimenting with playing by ear, I found that you have to learn basic chords. You start with the key of C and learn all 7 chords within that key. Then, learn the next 11 keys of chords. It is good to use the Circle of Fifths to learn all keys. Once you learn your basic chords, you can play the melody with right hand using the chords and apply only the bass note of the chord in your right hand. This can lead you to develop rhythmic patterns.

The majority of songs played by ear use the I, IV, V of every key. It is also good to learn the number system to learn how to play in all keys.

You seem to have a good ear already, if you can figure out the key of a song. For many, it takes practice just to learn this method.

There are also several programs that can be purchased to help learn how to play piano by ear.

I hope this helps as I am still learning how to play by ear myself.

Edited by ChazG (02/09/13 12:28 PM)

#2029988 - 02/09/13 05:08 PM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: NoahVail]
daviel Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/14/07
Posts: 933
Loc: Waxahachie, Texas
While playing by ear, try not to get too technical or theoretical. Just work on playing what you hear. If you hear a chord, pick it out - don't run to a theory book. I would stick to the 'doing'. You can worry about what to call it later [I think Miles Davis said that].
"She loves to limbo, that much is clear. She's got the right dynamic for the New Frontier"

David Loving, Waxahachie, Texas

#2030062 - 02/09/13 08:18 PM Re: Playing By Ear Help [Re: NoahVail]
IPlayPiano Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/08/11
Posts: 105
Lots of good feedback on here. Agreed that the most used chords in pop music are the I, IV, V but I would DEFINITLY add the vi(6) chord.

For starters, practise these chords in these 4 keys. They are the most common, I find. The notes of the chord are in the brackets.

Key of C: C(CEG) F(FAC) G(GBD) Am(ACE)
Key of G: G(GBD) C(CEG) D(DF#A) Em(EGB)
Key of D: D(DF#A) G(GBD) A(AC#E) Bm(BDF#)
Key of E: E(EG#B) A(AC#E) B(BD#F#) C#m(C#EG#)

Now, take a song like "Try" by Pink. That song uses the 4 chords in the key of D. Notice that the D is the I-Chord, the G is the IV-Chord, the A is the V-Chord and the Bm is the vi-chord, which is the 6th chord, which is also very very common in pop music. Good luck!


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