How to Teach Piano Students to Play By Ear

I spend a lot of time reading about piano teaching on the internet.  And I spend a lot of time reading questions from piano teachers asking how they can stop their students from playing by ear… how they can get them to keep their eyes on their music… how they can stop them from adding extra notes/changing the rhythm to their pieces.  But I rarely read anything about how to teach piano students to play by ear.  

Granted, when you are teaching a piece that is to be used for an exam, performance or competition you are not likely to want to be encouraging improv.  And learning to read notation correctly is, of course, imperative.  However, for those students who take piano lessons as a recreational activity (which is probably most piano students) it seems a shame to me that we are searching for ways to squelch a skill that has the potential to add massive amounts of enjoyment, creativity and self-expression to your piano students’ musical experience.

I think it’s because we’re not quite sure how to teach piano students to play by ear…

No Book… Yikes!

As piano teachers we’re very used to teaching from sheet music.  We know where to begin.  We know exactly what it should sound like.  We know how to achieve that end product.  But take away the book… and we lose that security of knowing what is “right”.  

And that’s the best part.

But It’s Not As Loosy Goosy as it Seems

Playing by ear gets a bad rap.  But it doesn’t mean that there is no musical clout to being a “play by ear” pianist.  In fact, if your piano students are able to both read music and play by ear you’ll have a studio full of the most well-rounded and versatile pianists!

Here’s how to go about teaching beginning play-by-ear skills to your piano students.  You don’t need to throw away their method books.  You don’t need to toss note-reading to the breeze.  You just need to follow this step-by-step guide in their lessons and watch the magic happen:

1)  Learn the 4 Magic Chords:  Teach your piano student the I, IV, V and VI chords in the key of C.  Almost every popular song uses these chords in varying arrangements.  Teach them to move easily between these chords, and how to split the chord between hands (LH plays a 5th, right hand plays the root is the easiest).  They can play for hours with just these 4 chords.  They can accompany themselves singing just about any song form the radio using these chords.

I know we’ve referenced this video before, but it makes us giggle, so here it is again (note – for our sensitive readers, there are a few “choice” words in the video) 

2)  Learn to Spice it Up:  Teach your piano student how to add some passing tones between chords, and how to add rhythmic interest to their chording.  Keep it simple – teach them two ways to expand upon broken chords and two ways to expand upon solid chording.  This will serve them well enough to play most of what they want to learn as a beginning “play by ear” pianist.

3)  Keep it simple; keep it in C:  When starting to play by ear take away the sharps and flats and keep it in the key of C.  Choose a melody that your student knows very well – start with something simple like Jingle Bells.  Give them the starting note and ask the (liberating!) question “What do you think comes next?”.  Help them pick their way through the melody line.

4)  Quick Theory Lesson Time:  The next step is adding the LH chording to the RH melody.  Your student does not need a huge theory lesson.  They simply need to know that  a I chord usually starts and ends a song.  After that it’s best to allow your student to experiment using trial and error and the question “Does that sound right?”  You can spend hours teaching the theory behind what they are doing, but playing by ear is just that….using your ears.  So let them!

Teaching students to play the piano by ear is both easy and difficult all at the same time.  It’s easy because it can be as simple as you’d like to make it.  It’s difficult because we’re not used to getting rid of rules and structure.  While your student’s first few attempts at playing by ear may be cringe-worthy, take a step back and appreciate the massive amount of learning that is taking place.  Your piano student’s musical ability will truly blossom through the experience of learning to play with nothing but their ears to guide them.  

Looking for more ways to make your studio stand out from the rest?  Check out our piano teaching guide, and find out why a piano teacher wrote to us saying “I was up until midnight reading this book. I didn’t want to put it down, but my eyes were too tired so I had to. I’m halfway through and can’t wait to finish. This book is great. You gave ideas I hadn’t heard before. I think this is a must have for every piano teacher.”  The best part?  It’s only $9.95.  Why?  Because we sincerely want YOU to succeed!

13 Responses to How to Teach Piano Students to Play By Ear

  1. Ella G. says

    I searched for a LONG time to find something to help my students play popular music in a way that was fun and not tied to the page. The absolute BEST method I’ve found so far is on this site:
    Robin Hall’s method is very easy to follow and my students literally walk out of their first lesson able to play 6 songs (oh, those fabulous 4 chords). After they learn chords fairly well, I play and sing through them just like the guys in the video. They feel like geniuses when I show them what songs they are playing.

    Another great method is on this site: David Sprunger is a great musician and teacher and there are hundreds of videos to help any person learn all there is to know about playing by ear.

    Both gentlemen are really wonderful and answer questions right away.

    After they’ve learned a few chords and scales, I teach them how I hear the key of a song I’ve never played before with no sheet music in front of me. I teach them how to use their scales to find the 1 (I) by humming the note that feels most like home and then humming a scale over the song. If the scale fits, that’s most likely the key of the song. Usually makes them think I have super powers at this point. But they eventually learn that music is not as hard as some make it out to be and they can have the magic power too:)

  2. says


    this is perfect for one of my favorite little students ! she has an incredible ear and does not like to read the notes. ‘memorizes’ everything.
    many thanks for sharing this, i am also going to forward this to her mom!

    • Andrea says

      Thanks for commenting Jamilia! Hoping you can have some fun with your aurally-talented student with these tips. I have always thought it was a shame to discourage those kinds of students who come by the play-by-ear skill naturally – so kudos to you for encouraging her! Obviously you’ll want her to learn to read music too – but if you can foster this natural ability then she’ll probably end up being a very versatile pianist! Happy teaching :)

  3. says

    Play a fifth in the LH and the root in the RH? Is that what you meant? What about the third?

    I teach my students the I IV V7 chords in several keys before adding the vi chord and ii chord–but am having a “duh” moment–why not add the vi chord before progressing to the next key? Expands the possible repertoire of pop songs so much.

    As always, thanks for your thought provoking posts

    • Andrea says

      Hi Alice – sorry, didn’t meant to be confusing. I meant the root chord is played in the RH with a 5th in the LH. This gives it a real “pop” sound. If you play 3-note chords in both hands it ends up sounding a bit “Happy Birthday” as I say to my students :) Yes, the vi chord is a beautiful thing… you can play so many more songs if you add it to the normal i iv v progression that you teach your students. They love the sound of it too!

  4. Joanne says

    “Teach your piano student how to add some passing tones between chords, and how to add rhythmic interest to their chording. Keep it simple – teach them two ways to expand upon broken chords and two ways to expand upon solid chording.”

    Thanks Andrea, you always have such great ideas. Love it if you would elaborate a bit on this please.

    • Andrea says

      Hi Joanne,

      Passing tones between chords can be whatever your ear likes… (for example if you’re moving from a C chord to an Am chord you can have your RH play “G F E” in between those two chords or you could do “E D E” etc.) You can also have these happen in the LH bass line (so if you were moving from an F to a G chord your LH could play “F G” in between those two chords. Your more advanced students can turn these single notes into 3rds for a richer sound.

      Expanding upon broken chords means instead of having 135 135 135 (numbers = scale position) you could do a different pattern like 135353 or you can expand your chord to what I call a pop chord – where your LH plays the root, the 5th and then the root an octave higher. This gives you access to patterns like 158595 etc.

      Expanding upon broken chords is most easily done by varying the rhythm or by getting rid of the 3rd in the chord and adding the 2nd or the 4th instead which gives you a really modern jazzy sound. I like to add this variation as the last chord in the bar as you move to the next one in the progression.

      I’m not sure if this is confusing or not – difficult to describe via typing! :)

  5. Matt says

    I have had students who have never played anything at all by ear start out by writing the words to a song on blue painters tape (sometimes lyric sylables if necessary). I may start them with the first note of the first lyric and maybe the first note of each lyric on the chord changes by marking them with the appropriate slice of tape and let them fill in the blanks. As they learn to ear out simple melodies I slowly remove the crutches, all the way up until they can identify the key of the song and the melody. One of our pianists at church can only play by sight. She literally can’t even play happy birthday unless you can find a 4note hymnal style transcription of it in shape notes…..lolololololol. ????


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