Learning to play an instrument by ear is no secret. Guitar players have been doing it forever. But somehow piano players have been left out. Instead, piano playing has mostly been associated with reading music. While this is a worthwhile venture and opens doors to learn to play any other musical instrument, playing piano by ear is a fabulous, yet-rare talent. You will be hard-pressed to find a teacher who can teach this way, and yet guitar teachers teach how to chord all the time.
The average person who plays the guitar usually started by simply being shown how to play a few chords. The melody line is sung with their singing voice. Once a guitar player has mastered the I, IV and V chords with maybe the II and VI minor, they are set to play 1000’s of songs in any key they desire by simply moving their hand position higher on the guitar strings. Some players will use a capo for this. This is relatively easy because the “feeling” is the same in every key.
However, playing chords on the piano is more difficult than on a guitar, because on a piano you have to deal with an entirely “new” feeling everytime you want to play in a different key. Therefore, it takes a little more diligence and practise to learn the same I, IV and V chords in different key signatures. Creating rhythm on the piano is also more difficult than on the guitar, but with a few bits of knowledge, and some time to practise, you can be well on your way to playing piano by ear!
The very first thing I would suggest is to practise making major chords starting on every note of the piano. This means knowing the first, third and fifth note of a given scale (or key). For instance, in C major these notes are C, E and G. When played together they are called a major chord. Notice that the name of the chord is the first note of the scale. A lot of people who play by ear already know this because it is a familiar sound and it sounds good to them. Here is a trick to finding the first five notes of any major scale….tone, tone, semitone, tone….In C major, this is C, D, E, F, G……in D major this would be D, E, F sharp, G, A. Then you simply play the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes to make a chord. I suggest practising these chords in the right hand above middle C. These chords sound “muddy” when played below middle C, and must be “spread out”. That’s a later topic.
A good next step is learning how to play a minor chord. You can do this by simply lowering the third note. Therefore, C minor becomes C, E flat and G. Easy, right?
Now, practise putting the notes of these chords in a different order. In other words for C major, instead of C, E, G…put the E on the bottom and play E, G and C. You will notice that the “feeling” is different and it will require different fingering. This is called inverting the chord. You can also play the chord with the G on the bottom…G C and E.
There are many more chord types that you can practise. There are diminished chords where the 3rd and 5th note are lowered…C, E flat and G flat; and there are augmented chords where the 5th note is raised…C, E and G#). There are also 3 different types of 7th chords to practise…major 7ths, minor 7ths and dominant 7ths. A major 7th is made by simply adding the 7th note of the major scale to the chord. For instance, C major 7th (Cmaj7) would be C, E, G, and B; and C minor 7th (Cmin7) would be C, E flat, G and B. A C major dominant 7th (C7) is when the 7th note is lowered….C, E, G and B flat. An easy way to make this a 3 note chord is by putting the 7th on the bottom and leaving out the 1st note. For instance, Cmaj7 would be B, E and G. Now, if you add the C (root note (I)) in the left hand, you have a beautiful sounding Cmaj7 chord!
You can find these piano chords in many different music books and online. It can be handy to have when you want to look something up real fast.
There are many more ways to enhance your playing by ear. Learning rhythmic patterns in different time signatures will quickly make your playing sound more complex and interesting. Also, learning how to add suspense and tension to chord progressions adds an entire new dimension to chording. Sure, you can analyze these chords to death from a theory point of view, but that’s not necessary. Instead, by simply learning a few things about “chord embellishment” you will quickly be sounding like a pro. Learning how to “spread out” a chord with different voicings (space between the notes) is another fabulous technique to add to your knowledge of playing piano by ear.
I would love to hear from anyone who has tried to learn the piano by ear. I will try to answer any questions you might have. Thanks for reading! Susan