Many piano teachers tend to look down upon efforts to play piano by ear. Yet music is sound, and the better our aural skills the better musicians we become. I believe we should encourage students to learn music by ear by teaching aural skills while continuing to teach reading skills.
Playing piano by ear should not be to the exclusion of learning to read music – nor should reading music come at the expense of ear training. Playing piano largely involves a collection of skills that harmonize and complement one another, and we must learn to “hear with our eyes” and “see with our ears.”
Learning to play piano by ear requires mastering several of these skills. The first is piano scales. Without knowing the notes of each and every major and minor key cold, it will be outright impossible to play by ear fluently. After all, playing piano by ear means that the fingers are guided by the ear, and the individual scale patterns for each key should be known so well that they’re entirely automatic. You shouldn’t have to think of which notes are in which scale – it should be like riding a bike.
Next, you’ll need to master interval recognition. While it’s possible (and indeed necessary) to identify musical intervals outside of their harmonic context, it’s best to do so by scale degrees. This means that you’ll recognize that you’re hearing, say, the first and third notes of a major scale (scale degrees 1 and 3), and that’s how you’ll recognize that the interval is a major third.
A useful exercise at this point is to play melodies by ear. Here’s an essential point, however: never allow yourself to fumble around at the piano until you get the right notes! Instead, always think each scale degree in advance and only press a key when you’re sure you know what it is. You won’t be right all that often at first, but this is a skill that will improve with practice. When you make a mistake, stop, lift your hands from the keyboard and start over from the beginning.
Once you’re able to play melodies by ear it’s time to recognize harmonies by ear. This means knowing all common piano chords in all keys. This is not as daunting as it may seem, since we’re working with scale degrees: once you know all your scales, playing a chord in any key is simple. The individual notes change, but the scale degrees remain constant.
For example, the tonic triad consists of scale degrees 1, 3 and 5. Thus, to play it in any key you’d simply play the first, third and fifth notes of that scale.
The next step is to learn common chord progressions. To do so, start with the simplest, which is V – I (dominant – tonic). Then add the seventh: V7 – I (dominant seventh – tonic). Next, precede the dominant with the subdominant: IV – V – I.
Practice each chord progression in each key before moving on to the next. Eventually you’ll get to the point where you can think harmonies and play them immediately, in any key. That is your goal!
When playing chord progressions, it’s essential to do so with proper voice leading. This means that harmonies are viewed, and heard, in two ways: vertically and horizontally. “Vertical” in this context means that you hear the harmony as such: tonic, dominant, subdominant, supertonic, etc.
“Horizontal,” on the other hand, means that you hear each note in each chord, and you know exactly where it comes from and where it’s going. Hearing horizontally is a difficult skill to acquire but it is essential to good musicianship.
If you already know how to read sheet music and wish to learn to play piano by ear, a very helpful exercise is to transpose melodies, harmonies and even entire pieces into various keys by ear. For ear training purposes, it’s essential to do this with music you have memorized, since transposing music at sight is a different (however related) skill.
You can see that learning to play piano by ear is not at all about merely having some magical talent, it’s about acquiring extensive knowledge of piano theory and sufficient familiarity with the piano keyboard that you can apply that knowledge readily.
In conclusion, all pianists need to be able to play piano by ear. Remember, the ultimate goal of acquiring musical skills is being able to apply them!
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