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Playing the Piano By Ear in 3 Easy Steps

Kevin Castro  /  Ear Training  /  Feb 9, 2024

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Playing the piano by ear isn’t a magical superpower reserved for the musical geniuses among us. You may think you need perfect pitch, but you don’t. In fact, anyone can learn how to play piano by ear with practice.

In this lesson, we’ll lead you step-by-step through the process of learning a song by ear. We’ll show you the secret (hint: there isn’t one!) and that it’s much easier than you think.

The TL;DR? If you can hum it, you can play it!

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“Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles

Our example song in this lesson is “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles. You can listen to the song here:

This is a great song for beginners because it has very clear and distinct piano chords.

Step 1: Find the key

The first step in figuring out a song by ear is to find the key.

To do this, we’re going to use our ears to find the tonic. The tonic is the home note of a song. Usually, it’s the note the song ends on, and it makes the song feel resolved.

There are several ways we can do this. One way is to try different scales on top of the song we’re figuring out. Play through different scales until you find one that sounds good over the song. This is a trial-and-error process, so take your time!

Eventually, you’ll discover that F major fits over “Sign of the Times.” That means the song is in F major, and F is our tonic!

Tip: If you’re new at this, try as many scales as you can. You’ll discover that some scales sound like they almost fit, but don’t quite. That’s because certain scales are closely related. For example, C major almost works over “Sign of the Times” because it’s right next to F major on the Circle of Fifths.

Step 2: Assemble your diatonic chords

Step 2 is the real secret to how experienced musicians figure out songs so fast. And it’s more to do with theory than really good ears.

We know “Sign of the Times” is in F major, so let’s take a look at the F major scale: F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E. Each of these notes has a chord associated with it called a diatonic chord, and you can find these chords by building triads on top of each note.

We’ll give each of these chords a number, like this:

F major diatonic chords in whole notes on staff with Roman numerals.

Some chords are minor, and we indicate these with lowercase Roman numerals. We haven’t done anything special to these chords—all we’re doing is building triads using F major’s key signature (which is a single B flat).

So, these are your F major diatonic chords. Diatonic chords are chords that are found naturally in a scale, and they are a song’s building blocks!

Most pop songs are centered around the I, V, vi, and IV diatonic chords. The most popular progression in the world is I-V-vi-IV, and you can find this progression in songs like “Let It Be” (The Beatles) and “Someone You Loved” (Lewis Capaldi).

Chord Theory Goes a Long Way: Knowing your chords will help you figure out songs faster. If you need more help with chords, check out these resources:

Step 3: Listen to the bass root movement

Here’s the final step: listen to the bass root movement. This means listening to the lowest note you can hear: the bass. Oftentimes in pop music, this note will tell you what chord is being played.

So, listen to “Sign of the Times” and see if you can pinpoint that lowest note in the first chord. Then, try playing F, C, D, or Bb (the I, V, vi, and IV) and see if one of these notes matches.

You’ll find that F matches the first chord. That means our first chord is F major! (That’s because according to our F major diatonic chords, a triad built on F in F major is an F major chord.)

Continue this process with the rest of the chords. If it sounds like the bass is moving down, try a lower note and chord. If it moves up, try a note or chord that’s higher in pitch.

Eventually, you’ll discover that “Sign of the Times” follows this progression: F-Dm-C-C.

Perfect Pitch: Superpower or Disadvantage? You might be jealous of people who have perfect pitch, which is the ability to identify a note by ear without any reference. Perfect pitch may seem like a superpower, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. As people age, their perfect pitch will start to go off, which can create confusion. Having perfect pitch may also affect one’s ability to determine whether one note is higher than another.

Figuring Out the Melody

Now that you have your chords, there’s one more piece to the puzzle: the melody.

Figuring out the melody is mostly trial and error, but you can still use your theory knowledge to get a head start. Since we know that we’re in F major, think of the notes in the F major scale as the ingredients with which to build your melody.

Hum the melody and try to use your F major notes to play it on the piano. Being able to hum the melody is important; if you can hum it, you can play it! 

If you can hum it, you can play it!

Kevin Castro

More Tips

Playing by ear is a skill you can develop. But it takes practice. Here are more tips to get you going:

  1. Start with an easy song. Some songs are easier to play by ear than others. Pop songs tend to have simple chord progressions and melodies with minimal movement. Avoid jazz and classical pieces as a beginner—they can be quite dense!
  2. Know your song. If you can’t quite hum the melody yet, it means you don’t know the song well enough. Listen to the song a few more times until you can hum it. Playing by ear requires internalizing the music in your body.
  3. Use technology. If you stream a song on YouTube, for example, you can slow a song down by 0.75x, 0.5x, or even 0.25x of the speed. Other software can even isolate instrumental parts!
  4. Sing along. You don’t have to be an amazing singer, but being able to reproduce music with your body improves your ears. If you’ve ever wondered why jazz musicians scat along to their solos, this is why!

Overall, be patient. This is a skill that takes time! But it’s worth the effort. Sooner than later, you’ll be impressing your friends with your impeccable ear.

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Kevin Castro is a graduate of the prestigious MacEwan University with a degree in Jazz and Contemporary Popular Music, and is the Musical Director and touring pianist for JUNO-winning Canadian pop star, JESSIA. As your instructor at Pianote, Kevin is able to break down seemingly complex and intimidating musical concepts into understandable and approachable skills that you can not only learn, but start applying in your own playing. Learn more about Kevin here.

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