Robert Estrin - piano expert

3 Reasons to Play Music by Ear, Interview with Scott Houston, The Piano Guy

Why is it good to play by ear? Here are 3 reasons for you

In this video, Robert interviews Scott Houston, from The Piano Guy show, with an interesting question: what are 3 reasons to play by ear?

Released on October 16, 2019

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Robert Estrin: Hi, this is Robert Estrin at with a series of videos, reading music versus playing by ear. We have a special guest, Scott Houston, The Piano Guy. Hey, say hello to everybody, Scott.

Scott Houston: Hi Robert. Hi everyone. Thanks for having me on. This ought to be fun chatting about this for a while.

Robert Estrin: It's a real pleasure. A lot of you may know Scott from his many videos and television program on PBS, The Piano Guy, as well as his books, Piano in a Flash. Scott is the perfect person for this series because Scott educates thousands of people all over the world on how to play by ear, and how to play chords and popular styles. Of course, my background is in classical.

Robert Estrin: Today, we're going to have a special show for you, three reasons to play by ear. We're going to cover each one of these for you, and see if there's some nice tips for all of you on both sides, people who play by ear and people who play from the music.

Robert Estrin: The first thing is popular songs. To play popular songs, what is it about playing by ear that you need for popular songs? Well, I'll give you my take first, then we'll hear from Scott.

Robert Estrin: Popular songs oftentimes are first conceived by jamming together and later on, after the record's produced, somebody goes and writes it all in the sheet music. Now, if you've ever tried to decipher the sheet music, oftentimes it just doesn't sound that good because it's not the original. Also consider that oftentimes sheet music is just a piano vocal arrangement where you might have a whole band, so it doesn't always translate well. There's a good place for being able to play by ear to pick something up and make your own arrangement. I was wondering what your thoughts are about that, Scott.

Scott Houston: You nailed it, Robert. That's exactly the point. A lot of times, I think people, all of their training was traditional classical lessons, there's this obligation to think they need to see it written to be able to play it. Even if it's not actually purely playing by ear, when we say, "Oh, I don't need anything. I'm just going to hear it and start playing it," that's pretty rare. But to be able to play from something called a lead sheet and chord symbols that you talked about, that really gives you the freedom to play it stylistically correctly, because it's just exactly like you said. A lot of people aren't aware of this. I hope this is going to be a real aha moment for a lot of the viewers here, that what you read in a traditional piano vocal or in a lot of sheet music, the composer had nothing to do with that. It's not like classical, great repertoire, where we really have original manuscripts to go to.

Scott Houston: In the case of pop tunes, whoever it may be, Taylor Swift, may write a tune. By the time it gets out on a piece of sheet music that you're reading, some staff arranger at some publishing company did that, not Taylor Swift. What Taylor Swift really did was wrote a melody line with some chord changes. That's the DNA of the song.

Scott Houston: With the exception of just a couple of cases where ... I mean, there are some things that are like ... What's a good example here? There's some things like ... Something like that. There's a few things that are really piano written tunes that may have a couple measures that really need to kind of be played verbatim if you want them to sound like the recording. But boy, the other 95% of it, you really just want to be playing background or chords with the melody line. I guess to close this question off, it's really by learning to play with some chords and all, it frees you up to really sound a lot more authentic, not sound ... You will be playing more authentic to what the tune really is rather than trying to read some kind of hack staff arrangers.

Robert Estrin: What makes it even more complicated is that they always try to put the melody line usually ... Occasionally you'll get sheet music that doesn't have the vocal line in it. It just has the accompaniment. Then you're supposed to have a singer and then if you're trying to play a solo piano, it doesn't work at all. Then the opposite is also true if you're actually accompanying a singer, you don't want to double every one of the melody notes that the singer's already singing. So they really don't work very well for a lot of things. I think we kind of are in agreement on this?

Scott Houston: Yeah. That one point may be worth the price of admission for this whole video is the point. This always shocks me, is that when people say, "Hey, you know when you're playing solo style and not accompanying, you want to play every note in the melody line." Then it's 180 degrees opposite. When you're accompanying someone, you don't want to play the melody line because you don't want to step all over the singer, whether it's you singing or you're accompanying for someone else. Yeah. You need to leave the melody line out. That's a hot tip for sure.

Robert Estrin: Beautiful. Now, the next thing we're going to talk about is improvisation. Now, to be able to read music is kind of the antithesis of improvising. Now you had mentioned using a lead sheet, which is a terrific way because after all, pop players, jazz players, country players, rock players, a lot of times will use a lead sheet for the basic chord structure and take off from there. But to give you an extreme example, I've seen classical musicians who can't even play Happy Birthday because they never improvise. It's totally alien to them. I think it's right up your alley for someone like yourself and what you teach to be able to help people to improvise. Well, what do you think about that?

Scott Houston: Well, it is. Playing from a lead sheet and again, learning chord change and learning how to play from chord changes, that's kind of the crawling and walking before you learn to run in the world of improvisation. Improvisation isn't just this wildly free, just play anything you want at any time. For people that have never kind of peered into that world, what improvisation is is creating a melodic line, but you're still playing over the chord changes, Robert. You've got to know the chord changes to a tune or you really can't improvise to it. I think by just doing that, I think it's kind of the foundation you need, learning your chords, learning to play from lead sheets. It's kind of a foundation that then very naturally leads you into starting to improvise in doing that.

Scott Houston: I also think there is a point to be made. Your comment, you stole my thunder with the birthday comment. I say that all the time. I used to say that to get everyone's attention sometimes. I'd be in a room with a lot of traditional piano players and I'd say, "Who wants to come up and play Happy Birthday without any music?" It was kind of a moment of truth for everyone.

Robert Estrin: That's right.

Scott Houston: But I say, "That's okay. That's a situation where it's just nothing you've ever been trained to do." To close this one off, I think the value in that is to realize that because it's not black ink on white paper doesn't mean it's not music. The written notation is nothing more than a recording of music. Music is what we play. I mean, it's the sound we make. That's the music. Sheet music is nothing more than a recording of music. I think that's a healthy thing that ... It's really tough sometimes to get people that have had nothing but traditional lessons to accept that, "Oh, I've got to separate the fact that what I'm playing might not be what I'm reading." I think that's a huge important point.

Robert Estrin: Right. I think something that is missed in classical circles is that almost all the great composers were improvisers. But we only have the recordings on the paper because there was no audio recording back then. Then the sanctity of the score is elevated to the point where people don't realize that improvisation has always been a part of classical music.

Robert Estrin: Now moving on to the last of the three points today, the three reasons to play by ear, is instant gratification. Now something I love to do with folks who've never improvised, as a matter of fact, even people who have never played the piano, whether it's a young child or an adult, is I sit them down at the piano. I go on the left hand side of the bench and give them the high notes on the top. A lot of times if there are people around, I'll whisper in their ear so people have no idea what we're doing. It's almost like a party trick. I'll say in their ear, very, very gently, I'll say, "Play only black keys." Because you know what? They all sound good together. You can't hit a wrong one. Then I will tell them, "Play loud and play in this register." Because I don't want them to play ... The very highest notes don't really project so well and almost always, particularly if they don't have any piano background, I'll say, "Play stronger." Because a lot of times they're just barely getting the key down.

Robert Estrin: Once they project a melody, more often than not, something magical happens. Suddenly I give them a little kind of a groove on the bottom and they start taking off, much to their surprise and everyone else's surprise, particularly if they've never played a note in their lives. That's just one example how you can have instant gratification with improvisation.

Robert Estrin: I know you have many techniques for this, Scott. I'd love to hear from you some of the things that you do for people who really have limited or no experience with how you can get instantly good results.

Scott Houston: Well that's right, Robert. The situation, it's an analogy that I use a lot, it's kind of a funny thing, but if you want ... To get somebody excited about wanting ice cream, they have to know what ice cream tastes like. You know what I mean? It's like telling somebody, "Oh, you got to work so hard to get this wonderful treat." They're like, "Well, I don't even know whether it's something I want." For adults, I find that particularly important. Most adults that are taking piano lessons are never going to go do this for a living and they're not doing it as a career. Instead they're saying, "Look, I want to just sit down and have some fun playing piano. I want to sit down behind this piece of furniture I've been dusting for the last 20 years. I want to do some playing."

Scott Houston: For that reason, I just think at the phenomenally faster route to say, "Look, I can teach you three chords in about five minutes." I mean, how hard would it be if for me to say, "Here's a C chord and an F chord and a G chord." I mean, just something simple like that. I won't waste time on this video doing it, but by doing that, you've all of a sudden given somebody the chord changes to probably 70 or 80,000 songs. I'm not suggesting that's all you ever want to do by any means. Everybody says, "Oh, so that's the secret." I say, "No, it's just a great fast way to tell somebody, and to not even tell, to get somebody experiencing." Just like you mentioned with playing up and down black notes and playing pentatonic scales and whatnot. To say, "If you can taste it a little bit, you start understanding why it tastes so darn good." Then that gives you the incentive to want to keep going.

Robert Estrin: There you go. There's a whole lot of reasons to play by ear, and it is incredibly rewarding and fun and playing with other musicians. There's a ton of things. We're going to explore more in some future videos in this series. I want to thank you again. Once again, this is Scott Houston, The Piano Guy. You can read his books, Piano in a Flash. You can see the locators of where you can reach Scott and see his materials.

Robert Estrin: Join us next time here at, your online piano store. Thanks everybody for joining us and thank you, Scott.

Scott Houston: Thanks Robert. It was really fun. I appreciate it.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Graeme Costin * VSM MEMBER * on October 16, 2019 @5:07 am PST
Some years ago, the music director was insistent that we should play the syncopation of the melody line as written. Boy, was that a pain! And then I listened to a recording of the artists who popularised the song and realised that they sang something different from the written syncopation. Released from the clutches of the printed music, we did a better job!
Robert Estrin on October 17, 2019 @2:44 pm PST
That is often the case with sheet music of popular songs. Even if they are notated correctly, they are incredibly difficult to read! Sometimes playing by ear is a more intuitive way of approaching a piece of music.
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