• Quick & Easy Strategies For Playing By Ear

    in Ear-Training,Playing By Ear

    There are a number of basic and advanced skill sets that, when understood and applied, help a musician to play by ear much easier than someone who is just poking and guessing at the piano.
    I’m sure you know someone who can sit at the piano and in a matter of about SEVEN LONG, FRUSTRATING HOURS, pick out a song (chord-by-chord and note-for-note). While that is characterized as “playing by ear” sure enough, there is definitely a better way to do it… and you don’t necessarily have to be born with a gift to do it.
    Now… don’t get me wrong — some people “get it” a lot quicker than others. There is certainly such a thing as giftedness and it extends way beyond music. Some are gifted in music … others in sports … some in science … others in writing. Then, on the other hand, some people learn and “pick up” on the skills and excel way beyond the gifted. So it goes both ways…
    Enough of my viewpoints. Let’s get to some strategies for playing by ear:

    Learning to find the key center of a song.

    Outside of learning major scales and the various types of chords to go with each major key, learning how to find the key center of a song is perhaps one of the most important skills to have.
    The “key center” is simply the major key of the song. When reading sheet music, it is the key signature. It is also referred to as the tonic or plainly “the key.” In chapter 9 of the 300-pg course, “The Secrets to Playing Piano By Ear,” we discuss theoretical ways to determine the key center. Below, I will explain practical ways to find the key center simply by using your ear.
    To make it plain, the key center is the ONE note that you can press down during the entire song and it will sound appropriate (at least most of the time unless the song modulates to another key or moves into a minor key, etc.).
    If you take the time to listen, your ears will never fail you. If you’re new to this, just start at middle C as you’re listening to a song, and play each note chromatically (one note after the other) until you arrive at a note that flows perfectly with every chord and progression of the song. I promise that you’ll find a match and when you do, there will be no question about it. Just trust your ear! T-R-U-S-T.
    To recap:
    Start at C
    Listen to the song as you continuously press C down by itself (no other notes, just C). If C is not the key center, it will be obvious. You will hear dissonance (a disagreeable sound). The key you’re looking for is the key that sounds better than any other key … the key that matches over the melody, the chords, and the progressions of the song. There will be no doubts about it when you come across the key center of a song. The hardest part is “coming across” it.
    If C is not the key, move on! Since we’re going chromatically, we’ll move to Db (aka “C#”). Do the same thing. Is there total agreement between Db and the song? If so, keep Db in your head and quickly press other notes around it to make sure you’re not mistaking Db for what should be Gb or another “similar” note. Let me explain:
    Most of the time, you’ll hear dissonance, which will immediately alert you that you’re not pressing the right key center. Thus, you’ll move on. But there will also be times when you don’t necessarily hear dissonance but you don’t hear total agreement either. You might be hitting the 5th tone of the actual “key center” or perhaps the 3rd tone. What does the 3rd and 5th tones help to create, anyway? MAJOR AND DOMINANT CHORDS.
    So it is possible for your ear to be hearing a certain note in the key center’s major chord but not the KEY CENTER ITSELF. For example, I may be listening to a song that is in the key of C major. Because I am trying to find the key center, I don’t know that it is C major yet — I’m still trying to figure it out with the method above. Let’s say I came to G and it sounded really good. “Perhaps this is my key center,” I think. “There’s no reason for me to believe this can’t be the key center. It’s not exactly on point but it’s not dissonant either,” I continue.
    You see… G is not the key center but it is the 5th tone in the key of C — the real key center. Because C and G have a very close relationship (they are perfect fifth intervals apart), my ear may be deceived into thinking that G is the key center. The same applies to E in this example because E is the third tone of the C major scale. Both E and G help to complete the C major chord (Cmaj = C + E + G). So it’s no surprise that E and G may mislead a musician in this example. Here’s how to double check once you think you may have found a key center.
    If you think you may have found the correct key center and it matches continuously throughout the song, apply these tests to see if the potential key center passes:
    A) Press the notes directly below and above the key center just to make sure that those keys don’t match the song even better. Sometimes, our ears makes us think one note is the key center when it is actually the NOTE RIGHT ABOVE IT. Notes that are half steps apart (right next to each other) have the strongest likelihood for errors like this.
    B) Remember when I said you may have a tendency to predict the fifth interval tone instead of the key center itself? This happens a lot. So, to make sure you’ve got the key center and not the fifth tone of the key center, you’ll need to press the following notes:

    If you’re pressing… Then test it against…
    C F
    C# / Db F# / Gb
    D G
    D# / Eb G# / Ab
    E A
    F A# / Bb
    F# / Gb B
    G C
    G# / Ab C# / Db
    A D
    A# / Bb D# / Eb
    B E

    Keep in mind that as you get better and better, you’ll be able to determine the key center of a song much quicker. When you get really good, you won’t even have to use the tests above because you’ll be 100% confident in your ear. But if you’re using the chart above, it’s pretty simple. If you’re pressing C and you’re pretty confident that C is the key center, then you’re probably correct! Good job! But as one last resort, test it against F (as shown in the chart above). C is the fifth of F. We just want to make sure that we’re not confusing C for the key center when perhaps F might be the correct one. If F doesn’t match, then return back to C, your final answer and key center. GOLDEN RULE: Your ear is always the final judge.

    Also, as you get more advanced, it will only take you a few notes before you figure out the key center of a song.


    As you get closer and closer to the actual key center of the song you’re listening to, it will feel like a roller coaster. As you play each note, you should hear the notes getting closer and closer to the actual key center. By the time you get within two or three notes of the key center, it should even be predictable at this point.

    Let’s say a song that I’m listening to is in the key of G. That means, G is the key center. So, according to the rules above, I’ll start at C like usual. C will obviously sound wrong. Db will sound wrong. When I get to D, it may sound right but not totally (you’ll just have to see what I’m talking about as you sit down to your piano and try this process out because there will be no doubt that you’ve arrived at the key center if you’re listening correctly).

    D sounds closer than the rest because it is the fifth tone of the actual key center. Look at the chart above and notice what D is connected to: ***G***. So as I advised above, if you land on a note that you’re not sure about, use the chart to play the other key, which in actuality may be the key center.

    Now, let’s assume that you skipped by D and didn’t think twice about it being the key center (which is fine because it’s not the key center anyway). You get to Eb, it doesn’t sound right. E doesn’t sound right but you start feeling the roller coaster effect. In other words, you feel the keys getting closer and closer to the key center. You know it’s coming. If you can’t hear this, then you’re not listening closely enough. Just listen.

    So again, E is not correct but it lets you know that the key center is coming. F is not correct but the key center feels closer and closer. F# sounds really really really close and you even go so far as to predict that it is the closest note to the key center you’re going to find — YOU’RE CORRECT because right after F# is G, the correct key center. I know the process above seemed pretty dramatized but this is literally how it is!


    When listening to a song, try humming what you think the last chord of the song would be (… the keynote of the chord that is, because you can’t hum more than one note at a time). Eighty to 90% of the time, the last chord of the song will be the major chord of the key center you’re looking for. For example, if the key center of a song is Ab, then most likely the song is going to end on some type of Ab chord (be it an Abmaj7, Abmaj9, Ab13, Ab add9, etc). In some instances, a song will end on another chord of the scale (like the “6” or “3”) but that won’t be the majority of songs.

    If you find it hard to hum what you’d consider to be the last chord of the song, try humming the first chord of the song. Most songs start on key center as well (majority of songs). Don’t be mislead though — there are a few songs that start on the 2, 3, 6, and other tones of the scale. But again, not every method is 100% foolproof. You’ll still have to let your ear be the final judge.

    Lastly, just think of the note that sounds like it would fit no matter what chord or melody notes are played. Hum this note out loud (YES, hum with your mouth out loud). Imagine a loud soprano singing this note over the entire song — it should match very well.

    Once you are humming what you believe to be the keynote or key center, start at C on your piano and follow the steps above until you arrive at the note that you are humming. All this requires is that your ear match up the note you are singing with ONE note on the piano. There should be a pretty perfect match.

    Be careful of humming the right keynote in the beginning but then lowering the pitch of the note you are humming as you try to match it on the piano. Sometimes this will happen but just try to concentrate on humming the same note, consistently and you’ll be fine.

    I hope you’ve enjoyed and I’ll see you next month! Don’t forget to check your e-mail on Tuesday if you’re interested in the finger rings!

    Next month, we will study “bass line recognition” and how to learn songs by simply determining the bass (or left hand movements) first.


    Chords to study for the next online classroom:

    Well, I hope you enjoyed this newsletter! I’ll be back!

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Hi, I'm Jermaine Griggs, founder of this site. We teach people how to express themselves through the language of music. Just as you talk and listen freely, music can be enjoyed and played in the same way... if you know the rules of the "language!" I started this site at 17 years old in August 2000 and more than a decade later, we've helped literally millions of musicians along the way. Enjoy!

    Comments on this entry are closed.

    Previous post:

    Next post: