• The “80/20 Rule” Of Playing Piano By Ear

    in Chords & Progressions

    The “80/20 Rule” states that 80% of results or rewards will come from 20% of causes or effort. Put another way, 20% of input creates 80% of output. This especially applies to music, where the same chords and progressions repeat themselves over and over.

    Think about it — how many times have you played the same chords or patterns across different songs? Granted, if you don’t understand your scales and number system, you won’t know you’re playing the same chords and patterns because they’ll be disguised in another key.

    For example, a C major chord progression using the chords “C major – F major – G major” is the same thing, relatively, as an Eb major chord progression using “Eb major – Ab major – Bb major.” Knowing the number system allows me to put these two seemingly different chord progression in a single, universal language.

    They are both 1-4-5 chord progression in their respective keys. C major is the 1st degree of C, F major is the 4th degree of C, and G major is the 5th degree of C. Likewise, Eb major is the 1st degree of Eb, Ab major is the 4th degree of Eb, and Bb major is the 5th degree of Eb.

    I mention the “1-4-5” chord progression because it’s one of those few 20% patterns that make up 80% of music. (Surely, the numbers aren’t exactly “80%” and “20%” but the idea is – to put it in another way –  a very small percentage of ingredients are used in a wide variety of recipes.)

    It would be a very good idea to take inventory of all the chords and progressions you play in songs, reduce them down to their numbers (e.g. – “1-4-5, 2-5-1”), and see how many repeat themselves across different tunes and even genres. You’ll definitely see the 80/20 rule at work.


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    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!

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


    { 8 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Dave

    Jermaine, what is the litmus test for knowing when you “know the numbers”? Here’s what I mean.

    To me, the numbers are conceptually easy. Ask me “what is the fourth in the key of G major” and I answer “C”. After considering it. I don’t know, it takes a second or two. That’s not going to be fast enough while improvising during a tune.

    I’ve used your flash cards. I recorded audio flash cards from them, and listen and respond when I’m jogging or commuting. I’m not seeing faster responses, in general.

    What’s a good way to practice ‘learning the numbers’? Is there a drill to do at the keyboard?



    2 Carlinton

    Hi Jermaine!

    I love this post. Many piano players are confused when they are to approach chord progressions especially when using numbers.

    I find it quite easy! Aspiring piano and keyboard players should note that all methods of playing requires practice.



    3 Todd Darden

    Hi, Jermaine this is Todd Darden again. I have been playing for years I can play I have nice chords but I cannot pick up gospel songs quickly and sometimes not at all so I need a (DVD OF HOW TOO DO THIS VERY QUICKLY I AM SO DISCOURAGE AND I DON’T HAVE PATIENCE) everyone says I play nice and I think I do but… Thanks Todd


    4 Todd Darden

    I play the organ for church


    5 princewill

    the secret of harmonising gospel songs


    6 Tshisamphiri

    Hi jAm ur articles a opening my mind everyday . Keep it up thanks


    7 tabletki poronne

    That is a very good tip especially to those fresh to the blogosphere. Simple but very accurate info… Thanks for sharing this one. A must read post!


    8 Adrian

    I do a lot of play by ear. I mainly listen for the base key and go from there.


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