When a Student Can Play By Ear…

play by ear

Sometimes students will come to me for piano lessons with a strong ability to play by ear in place already. It could be that the student has spent time listening to favorite songs on iTunes and picking out those melodies on the piano. Alternatively, a student might hear me play a piece of music she is working on in a lesson and, rather than reading the music, rely on her memory of what the piece sounds like in order to learn it.

It can be difficult to figure out how to approach teaching a student like this piano.

Do we completely ignore theory and technique and musical scores in favor of just learning pop hits by ear?

Do we start from the very beginning and scrap all the pop music in favor of meticulous theory and music-reading?

Students who play by ear likely already have two things working in their favor: passion and curiosity. We don’t want to squelch  those gifts because they are, indeed, gifts. A passionate and curious pianist will be motivated to learn and have the desire to press on.

Here are some ways to approach learning with a student who can play by ear.


Having a musical ear and the ability to play things by ear is truly a benefit. However, I want to be sure that my students are also able to read and understand a musical score. Rather than taking an either/or approach, I look for ways to blend listening activities while also teaching students to read music. I stress the importance of using the sheet music as a tool, but encourage students to use their ear as well. After a student can play the music as written, I might suggest she embellish the melody of a piece. Challenge your student to compose an alternate ending to the score. Incorporate lead sheets into her repertoire so that she develops a strong understanding of chords and also is able to use her creative side in coming up with original accompaniment patterns.


If a student is able to play by ear, I might challenge her to write down the melody she is playing (notate the music). This helps a student to think through the actual notes, rhythm and patterns that are being played. (Print blank sheet music for notation here.)


The challenge with students who depend on their ears more than their eyes when learning music, is that they may not actually take the time to read the score and learn concepts that are being taught in the piece. If I want to be sure that my student is reading the music, we’ll make a game of it. I’ll challenge her to play the music backwards, measure by measure, which requires very careful reading of the notes!


Students who have the ability to play by ear might be ready to move onto more difficult repertoire more quickly. While we want to make sure there aren’t any holes in our student’s learning, we also want to be careful not to keep them playing the same song over and over if there’s a concept she’s struggling with. She’ll quickly become bored!

Remember that most method books (including my online method) have review built into them. You may be able to move onto a new piece of music while still helping your student to understand a concept through review. Finding pieces that don’t sound as “beginner-ish” to a student can be helpful to keep her motivated too. (If you’re a student inside my online program, check out the POPULAR REPERTOIRE bonus module!)


Students who play by ear usually love the chance to be creative and express themselves. So many valuable skills are learned through piano composition, and it’s a great way to keep a musical student motivated.


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