Unfortunately, playing by ear is really hard for a lot of classical musicians. It’s something that they don’t typically learn. They can get by without it. If they do practice ear training, they try to improve their ear by repeating interval drills over and over again.
Is it possible to get a good ear this way? Well, yes. Very few people actually see this type of ear training through to a point that they can play music competently by ear though.
If you want to have an amazing ear, why not follow the lead of people that have amazing ears. Most people with great ears didn’t learn by drilling intervals all day. They learned by doing. They practiced playing by ear or transcribing music.
Relative Pitch vs. Perfect Pitch
Before I can get into how to practice ear training, I need to define the difference between relative and perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize a note, or multiple notes, without a reference pitch.
Someone with perfect pitch could wake up and sing any note they want. They hear a note and they can recognize what the note is and they can play it on their instrument. Studies are beginning to show that students with perfect pitch have it because they learned music from a young age. Perfect pitch is very helpful because people with perfect pitch don’t need much ear training.
They can play by ear naturally without really any practice. Sure they can get better with practice, but the biggest barrier to entry to learning to play by ear, recognizing the notes, is already done for them. It may seem a little unfair, but it’s life.
Relative pitch, unlike perfect pitch, is learned. You have to study it. Relative pitch is the ability to hear distances between notes and recognize them. You can listen to a piece of music and not know the exact notes that are being played, but someone with good relative pitch could still sit at their instrument and play the piece, it would just possibly be in a different key. If someone with good relative pitch knew what the first note was, they could easily play it in the correct key as well.
Relative Pitch is Not Inferior to Perfect Pitch
With perfect pitch the listener knows immediately what notes are that they hear. If you’ve worked on relative pitch before, you may feel like this is impossible for someone with relative pitch. It’s not. With a well trained ear, you can tell what the intervals are that you hear immediately as well, with absolutely no thought. You can hear music and play it immediately on your instrument without mistakes, and you can transcribe music simply in your head.
Any practical skill that can be accomplished with perfect pitch can be accomplished with relative pitch. If you want to know what “note” the fire engine makes as it passes by and you don’t have perfect pitch, you’re out of luck unless you have a reference pitch. But really, who the heck cares?
You could get an app and drill yourself on intervals all day. If you’re consistent, and I mean consistent, then eventually you’ll develop a pretty good ear for intervals. This is the foundation of all ear training. The issue is, this is hard. It can take months of daily practice, sometimes over a year, to get to the point where you can actually use your ear in practical ways.
Interval practice can be helpful, but it doesn’t teach you to play by ear. Playing by ear is a different skill entirely. Why not skip the drills and practice playing by ear to start with? In this way you are learning both your intervals and how to play by ear at the same time.
You should be transcribing music instead of drilling intervals. Transcribing music happens when you write down a piece of music based on hearing it. You don’t have to actually write the music down to transcribe it, the point is to translate sounds you hear into music on your instrument. In order to avoid interval drills and still develop an amazing ear you should practice transcribing music in your head.
Transcribing at Your Instrument
It may seem easier to transcribe music by sitting down at your instrument and pecking out notes. If you play one note and it doesn’t sound right, you just keep messing with notes until you get the right answer. Sure, this will help you to play by ear better, but you’re giving yourself a handicap. Your instrument. You aren’t so much using your ear, as you are using the instrument to guess.
Transcribing in Your Head
Transcribe first in your head and then move over to your instrument to check your answers. Transcribe music the same way you would practice music, in small sections. You don’t have to be at home in front of your instrument to do this. You can be in the car or the gym or anywhere else that you can listen to music. Remember, there’s no need to try to transcribe an entire piece in one go. Just start with the beginning and work through it in your head. Guess what it would look like if you played it on your instrument.
You can repeat one section of music over and over again until you get a good guess. Make sure that music is running through your mind often throughout the day, so when you do finally get a chance to check your answers on your instrument, you’re ready.
Even if you just worked on a few measures throughout the day, that’s fine. Eventually you’ll start to recognize what intervals are in the music. Once you get a handle on the different intervals, you’ll be able to expand that to understand chords.
Understanding the names of intervals and chords is helpful, so you can communicate with other musicians. You should learn the theory behind the intervals and chords for this reason, but interestingly there are plenty of musicians that never learned to read or learned music theory that have fantastic ears and they don’t have perfect pitch. How is this possible?
Just because you don’t have a label for something doesn’t mean you can’t recognize how to play it. Once you transcribe enough music, you’ll be able to tell distances in notes, even if you don’t know the interval’s name.
Learning the theory is helpful, but not required.
Use Simple Music
Don’t try to transcribe a Scriabin Etude as your first piece. Actually, leave out classical music altogether. Start with simple tunes like folk melodies. Christmas music or just about any pop music song can also work very well. The goal should be at first to stay diatonic, or music that stays within one key. If you start trying to transcribe music that is too hard, you’ll fail pretty quickly. It can be hard to do and you’ll just get frustrated.
Use One Key
You don’t have perfect pitch. Just accept it. Your goal should not be to play the music in the correct key. It just doesn’t matter. To make things simple for you, you should try to feel very comfortable with just one key. What’s the easiest key to think of for most people? C of course. No sharps or flats make it simple. On the piano you’re only working on the white keys.
Every piece you transcribe should be in the key of C. Once your ear starts to improve, transcribing in a different key isn’t so hard, because you can hear the intervals. But even then there are minimal use cases for transcribing in different keys. Really one of the only reasons this would matter to you is if you’re playing with other people and they want to use a different key either because of range or what they’re comfortable with.
If you play all of your music in the key of C, you’ll still gain the same amount of enjoyment from them. So make it easier on yourself, transcribe everything in C.
That’s it. You really don’t need any more help than that. You’re now armed with the tools to go out and develop an amazing ear without interval drills. Just like anything else, though, you need to practice daily. This isn’t something you can learn in a week or two.
The great thing about transcribing music vs. interval drills is when you are transcribing music, you get fun music that you are able to play on your instrument as a reward. When doing interval drills you get nothing. Just irritation.
Do you have a good ear? If so, what did you do to develop it? Let us know in the comments! If you don’t have a good ear, let me know what kind of questions you may have and I’ll do my best to answer them.