Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Play Music by Ear

Learn the basic secrets to play music by ear

In this video, Robert gives you useful tips to learn how to play by ear.

Released on July 9, 2014

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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

Welcome to and I'm your host, Robert Estrin. Today's subject is how to play by ear. Can you actually learn how to play by ear? Or is it something you're born with? These are some very good questions. We're going to cover this and I'm going to show you some tips. No matter what level you're at with playing by ear, this should help you to take it to the next level.

All right. So I do believe that everyone can improve their ears and can improve playing by ear. So if you're somebody who feels that you're tone deaf, believe it or not you can develop your ear. Everyone can develop their ear. Now it doesn't mean that if you're tone deaf you're going to develop into someone who has a perfect pitch who can transcribe Charlie Parker solos but you can definitely improve playing by ear.

So what are some of the things you can do? One of the single most important things you must do to develop your ear is singing. That's right. Because when you sing you absolutely have to hear the pitches as we discussed in other videos. Now when you're singing it goes a little bit deeper. I was very fortunate to study solfeggio. That is sight singing with the syllables, do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, ti, la, sol, fa, mi, re, do. So that quantifies all the pitches in the scale.

Now you can do the same thing even without working for years at sight singing. You can simply try to quantify the pitches within the scale. So I'm going to pick a song that everybody knows. Yellow Submarine and kind of go through and show you what I'm talking about. You know the song, "We all live in a yellow submarine. Yellow submarine, yellow submarine." And it repeats that phrase so I'm going to start with that one phrase. So the first thing you have to do is find that first note. I found the first note for myself so I would sing c major. In this case I have to find the note. "We all live" it's starts on a g there. So now how do you figure out the next notes?

Well, if you think of the scale "Ahhhhhhhhh." If you think of all the notes of the c major scale so when it goes, "da da da da da" now how do you know what that note is? You might know that the first note that changes goes up. Da da da da da da. So you might guess that it's an a and you would be right. But "daaaa." How do you figure that out? Now some people say you figure out the interval and they might just know it's a perfect fifth because they've had years of theory training but suppose you have no idea what that lower note is? Well you go down stepwise through the scale. Da, da, da, da, da, daaa. So you've got g, g, g, g, a. Now you go back down and you want to figure out "daaaa" that note. Daaa, g, a, g, f, e, a...d I should say, g, g, g, g, a, d. See how I did that? G, a, g, f, e, d. By thinking the diatonic notes between, those are the notes of the scale you can figure out any of the intervals. That's what it's really all about. This works perfectly well for all tonal music. Now if you're talking about atonal music we'll have to have another video on that subject but chances are you're not trying to play atonal music by ear.

So I want any of you who have never tried playing anything by ear before to sing your music and try to fill in the scale degrees to figure out when there is a leap. You may be able to hear up or down like if a note goes [piano plays] compared to [piano plays]. So that's the first step is hearing whether something goes up or down and if it skips, sing all the notes of the scale between and you should be able to figure out notes by ear and the more you do it, the more you will develop.

Spend time at your instrument playing by ear. Play with other musicians and you'll be surprised at how your ability playing by ear will grow. Thanks so much for joining me. Robert Estrin here at and
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Tony Lockwood * VSM MEMBER * on July 27, 2017 @1:33 am PST
Thank you, once again, Robert. Excellent video with timely guidance.
I have a question that you might think worthy of being the subject of a video.
I am unable to tap my foot, or listen to a metronome AND play my clarinet at the same time. I seem to be only able to do one or the other. Concentrate on the notes; I lose the rhythm. Concentrate on the rhythm, I lose the notes and play random fingering. Can you help? I think that, secretly, my tutor is pulling his hair out!
Frawn * VSM MEMBER * on July 26, 2017 @3:31 am PST
I sang in various Church choirs from my early childhood and we learned all new music using solfeggio. It's a great advantage for any musician. (A super video - as always!)
Fulvia Bowerman * VSM MEMBER * on July 12, 2014 @5:12 pm PST
This is how my mother started me on the piano, at age 2, with solfeggi. She would have me turn my back to the piano so that I could not see which note she played and I had to sing it and say what it was.
Robert Estrin - host, on July 14, 2014 @12:39 pm PST
That is a great game to help identify pitches - it's great that you started so young!
Bert Lemert on July 10, 2014 @7:48 am PST
Robert...great few videos on intro techniques; keep them coming for us newbies, please.
Benjamin on July 9, 2014 @3:27 am PST
tnx Robert tha was a great piece
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