Monday, July 29, 2013

The Play By Ear Hoax



Hoax is a big word in playing by ear.  “Yeah, I play a little piano . . . “ doesn’t really mean much in most cases.  We wore out an already worn-out piano in my grandma’s basement playing chopsticks.  My sister Marjorie played Heart and Soul.

To me she was Queen of The Keys.  We were real young.  I didn’t get it.

A lot of people feel that way when they're older but can’t quite put a finger on it.  “How’d you learn to do that?” you ask someone who sounds good to you.  “Picked it up here and there yadda yadda . . .”  they say.  But your vision is easily skewed by someone that may only know that one song, a remnant from lessons past, that they parade around when they get the chance.   It's a good thing.  Everyone loves praise and, getting it when you play is a nice exchange of emotions.  Playing something well will always get applause (no matter how bad it actually might be).  Most of the audience is clueless to what music really is.  With no base, their vision is realllllly skewed.

What you think is great may not be.

At the Christmas show, a woman flowed her passion through playing “Let There Be Peace On Earth” with an arrangement that brought the Teller Elementary School audience to a lively ovation.  After the show I spoke with her and discovered that that was really the only song she knew.  That's typical.  Put someone to the real play-by-ear test and see whether they can play lots of requests.  Most dabblers can’t do that.

The truth about playing by ear is that you don’t just dabble in it.  You understand it.  You understand how to play those 24 chords and, with that strong understanding, that’s where your piano playing begins.   You can concentrate on fingering forever and never understand this crucial fact.

You can’t have songs without chords.  You can’t build chords if you don’t start at the beginning.  Make a decision to learn the basic chords exclusively and you’ll quickly find that “playing by ear” means the same thing as “playing the piano.” 

My thing was “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens.  What’s your anthem?  Get a goal!

Some natural geniuses for music just get it.  They see the facinating math and symmetry of theory and the reoccuring patterns of similarly-fingered keys.  Like 1 and 0 is to computers, the 8 notes of the scale are to music-theorist-mathematicians.  You can get lost (a good thing) down the deep woods of the number 8.  In the end, after years and years of playing, you realize it’s ALL 8!

You don't have to be Beethoven to have a revelation over the number 8.  Musicology is a science of numbers open to interpretation as one sees fit.  Knowing the science and playing by ear are also the same thing.

My ex-brother-in-law was a great guitarist at 16 but didn’t understand what he was doing.  He didn’t know the names of the chords he was playing.  I on the other hand, knew them all and the math of barring to raise the chords on the fretboard.  When he put order to his chaos, everything came together. 

You know whether or not you have talent.  You can either continue to dabble on or, get your play-by-ear house in order and learn those chords. 


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2013 Keyed Up Inc

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Simplicity Versus Anti-Music


One student that took piano lessons from me was self-taught.  He could play by ear with some coordination and rhythm but couldn’t identify the chords.  He had no idea what he was doing.  He’d been playing for years but had stagnated in his own limited box of knowledge.

“Play something.”  I asked

“Let me play you something I wrote.”  he said.

I gave him the nod and off he went.  The first thing that hit me was a shock wave of volume that nearly blew me over.  The sheer madness of no timbre pierced the back of my eyeball as he beat up my piano with the first movement of his symphony.

He started in C and must have modulated to every key by the time he was done, with undisciplined resolution and dissonance.  There were 20 different chords, a dozen or more rhythms and endless measures of nomadic wanderings (of the unwhistling variety).

I was astonished that one could string together so many meaningless notes and chords to create what might almost be defined as anti-music.  If there is such a thing, this truly came close to it.

“What do you think?” he asked, eagerly awaiting my reaction.

I could see he was proud of his work and I didn’t want to deflate his spirit for his obvious love of music.  I told him that it was obvious he had raw talent and desire.  I commended his inquisitive nature to have taught himself what he knew so far.  His proficiency skills were touted as well above average.  But I had to tell him the truth.

“You misunderstand what music is” I began, trying to figure out a delicate way to deliver the message.  “Think of some of the greatest songs in the world; Home On The Range, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, The Star Spangled Banner and any catchy top-40 hit.  What do they all have in common?”

Simplicity.  Good music in 3 minutes is not like a 5 course meal.  Good music (form-wise) has a nice melody, a few good rhythms and a strong foundation in 1-4-5.  A song has a beginning, middle and end and conveys an idea or emotion within a limited, well-thought-out, time frame. The subject is endless but on a foundational level, I think those things at least define the form.

Music is not something that is all over the place.  Most songs have 4 or 5 chords and 3 basic rhythms.  Don’t think too hard.  Stick to the art form and keep it simple.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Oh Shenendoah and Nat King Cole


There's much to be said for simplicity when playing piano by ear.  We like to overthink what we are doing.  Concentrate on the essentials and you too can sound like a million bucks with the right direction.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2012 Keyed Up Inc

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

View From the Master's Scope


To learn to play by ear quickly, how do you get smart ahead of your time?  You learn the insights of the master that points out important concepts that are easy to miss on your own.  You won't get around to thinking about the things I discuss here for another 35 years on your own, if ever.

Yet, I think you can perceive a certain truth to my observations as it comes to teaching yourself to become a more enlightened musician on your own.

Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist. Click here to get the free companion book to this blog. See his other sites at and © 2012 Keyed Up Inc

Thursday, November 29, 2012

One Missing Piece To Go


If you've played the piano for a long time without being able to play by ear, there's good news.  You are just one small missing puzzle piece away from putting it all together.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2012 Keyed Up Inc

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Everything You Need To Know To Play By Ear


Everything?  That’s the plan.  I am in a unique position to teach you.  Maybe you're just like I was.  You feel like you don't really know anything, lost in learning and everywhere you look they want to teach you “Für Elise.”  Where to go?  Right here's a good place for you. 

Maybe you took lessons as far as you could and got discouraged.  You’ve got skills but now what?  Maybe you thought you just don’t have it -whatever that is!!!- to see the light.  But if you could play by ear that would be different.  But again, where to go?  Here.

Maybe you’ve taken lessons far and and are the fastest, most accurate gun in Dodge.  You’ve got twitchy fingers and your advanced knowledge of musicology is acknowledged.  When it comes to dedication and years of practice and pedagogy, scales and knuckle-rappin’, I respectfully bow to your degree.  You know your music, no doubt.  You're up there.  I am but a humble servant. 

I ask you.  “Do you really know your chords?”  The basic 12 major and minor chords and all their inversions?

I’m not asking if you can figure them out, the question is comfort.  Do you know them like the back of your hand?  Do you know them like you know your scales?  Are you in command of the piano this way?

If you say “Yes,” then I say “You know what I know (and probably more)."  We’re going to have a good time here.  Please check in from time to time.

But if you honestly answer “No,” then no matter how good you are (in the way you are good), you’re still lacking in this one area and you need to learn something new.  By following me you’re going to get there fast because it is oh so clear that . . . you’re the fastest gun. 

I never aspired to classical greatness.  I wanted to be a rock star, that’s all.  I didn’t study music in college.  I learned music theory on my own and that kind of ignorance-to-enlightenment experience brought about some unique insights that most people have never thought about before.

I never took a class but one.  My 6th grade teacher Miss Edwards (who was quite old) taught the concept of scales and notation and I paid attention.  Like a lot of good music teachers out there, rest her soul, she’d be pleased to know that she made such an impact.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2011 Keyed Up Inc

Friday, November 23, 2012

My True Story

My name is Joseph Pingel and like many of you, I quit taking lessons after two years.  I found myself at that familiar crossroads of either quitting entirely or teaching myself how to play piano.  I was motivated and made up my mind to do it.

Using my guitar-playing knowledge, I sat at the piano and transferred guitar chords to the keyboard.  After learning 3 chords in 5 minutes, I pounded out a basic rhythm and Voila!   Louie Louie.  That’s when the lights turned on!  My two years of piano lessons were left in the dust and I never looked back.

I was young and had no advanced musical education.  Yet there was something special about what I had learned on my own so quickly.  I knew very little about theory at the time but understood quite clearly that it all began by learning those basic chords.

It seemed so simple, I had to share this information. So at age 16, I wrote a book that focused on how to learn all the basic chords in a month.  It contained very defined exercises specific to fast progress and impressive results.  In my naive approach there was magic.  There was discovery.  Today, I call this level of basic ability "COMMAND." 

What is to follow on this blog is what I hope you will find your road to freedom on the piano.  This is a different kind of site and you will learn things here you have never seen or heard of before.


Joseph Pingel is a pianist, teacher and musicologist.  Click here to get the free companion book to this blog.  See his other sites at and 

© 2012 Keyed Up Inc