How to Play Piano by Ear Using Intervals

Lisa Witt  /  Play By Ear / Dec 4

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The ability to listen to a song and play it by ear is a big part of what music is all about!

Being able to recreate a song on the piano using just your ears sounds like a magical ability, but you can learn how to do it! Unless you’re tone-deaf (which you probably aren’t), you don’t need to be born with incredible talent or perfect pitch to play songs by ear.

In fact, just setting aside a few minutes per practice session for ear training goes a long way. And whether you’re a beginner or an expert pianist, you can start training your ears right away.

The secret to ear training? Intervals!

What are intervals?

Intervals are simply the space between two notes.

Intervals are the building blocks of all music. Music happens when one note moves to another, and then another.

Knowing how to recognize intervals will let you understand how melodies and harmonies move. With practice, you can recreate these movements on the piano!

Ear training with intervals

So how do pianists train their ears to recognize intervals?

One trick is to recognize intervals by popular songs that use them. For example:

Interval: Major 2nd (in C major: C to D)
Songs: Happy Birthday, Mary Had a Little Lamb (D to C)

Interval: Major 3rd (C to E)
Songs: When the Saints Go Marching In, “Summertime” by George Gershwin

Interval: Perfect 4th (C to F)
Songs: Wedding March, We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Interval: Perfect 5th (C to G)
Songs: Twinkle Twinkle, Scarborough Fair

Interval: Major 6th (C to A)
Songs: My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Interval: Major 7th (C to B)
Song: “Don’t Know Why” by Norah Jones

Interval: Perfect Octave (C to C)
Song: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz

Here are three ways to practice recognizing intervals by ear:

  1. Pick a random note and practice singing an interval above or below it.
  2. Play intervals on the piano while saying the name of the interval.
  3. Connect your favorite songs to intervals.

Play piano by ear by learning more intervals

Intervals can help you figure out chord progressions too. When one chord moves to another, there’s a distinct interval between them.

We’ve only covered basic major intervals today, but there are more. Explore more intervals and think of songs that use them. If you’re stuck, there are lists online like this and this that can help you find songs for minor intervals, like these:

Interval: Minor 2nd (ie. C to C#)
Songs: Für Elise, theme from Jaws

Interval: Minor 3rd (ie. C to Eb)
Songs: Greensleeves, O Canada

Interval: Minor 6th (ie. C to Ab)
Songs: Theme from Love Story, “Because” by The Beatles

Once you’re familiar with a few intervals, try playing a song by ear!

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for 19 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others.

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