Play Music by Ear

You really have to practice the coordination between the mind and the fingers, the ideas and the body. You have to find the idea on your horn at the same time it comes into your head. It’s a matter of developing instant touch.

– Art Farmer, Thinking in Jazz

Jim Linwood Beethoven's TrumpetCourtesy of Flickr/Jim Linwood

Learning to play music by ear is the gateway to:

  • Playing melodies and licks you hear in your head
  • Writing original music
  • Learning jazz solos by ear
  • Transcribing music from recordings
  • Writing original arrangements
  • and much more!

To enter the world of creative music, you don’t need to learn a new musical vocabulary. You can begin by playing the music that you already hear.

Step 1: Imagine a Melody

Inner hearing is imagined music. Throughout a lifetime of listening to, singing, and playing music, you have developed a personal repertoire of music in your imagination. This is one of your greatest assets as a creative musician. Do you ever get songs stuck in your head? Do you ever hear licks in your head that you wish you could play on your instrument? These are examples of your inner hearing. Imagined music can evoke the same emotional response as listening through speakers.If this is your first time playing by ear, choose a simple melody you know well, like “Yankee Doodle,” “Happy Birthday,” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Choose a song you can vividly hear in your imagination.

Step 2: Sing the Melody

You don’t need to have any formal vocal training, just work on matching pitches with your voice. Accurately singing a melody confirms that you have internalized it on a deep level.

Step 3: Trial and Error

Sing the first pitch of your melody and find it on your instrument. If you are a wind player, it may help to do this at the piano so you can continue to sing while you search for the pitches. Once you have found the starting pitch, find the rest of the melody on your instrument as you sing. You will probably make lots of mistakes, and this is all part of the process. You will get faster the more you do it.

If you are having trouble with a phrase, listen carefully to the shape of the melody. Do the notes ascend or descend? Are they moving by step or skip? If you are totally stuck, go back to step one and choose a simpler melody.

Step 4: Analyze

  • Can you identify a form or phrases that repeat?
  • What key are you in? The melody may reveal a key signature or end on the tonic (scale degree 1).
  • Identify the scale degrees. For example, the scale degrees for the first phrase of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” are: 1 1 5 5 6 6 5 4 4 3 3 2 2 1.
  • What is the meter?

Step 5: Practice

  • Practice playing the melody until it is performance ready.
  • Put your own personal stamp on the melody by changing the rhythms or adding embellishments (see How to Improvise Variations on a Theme).
  • Use your scale degree analysis to transpose the melody into another key.

Repeat this process with dozens of songs. You will build a foundation to transcribe music from recordings and capture original melodies that pass through your inner hearing.