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 

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