Playing by Ear

Playing by ear is a performance skill, just like any other, and it is the skill that defined music-making for centuries before written notation. Though playing by ear may be more time-consuming for those who are accustomed to reading from the score, it is a very useful skill to develop. Research has shown that it boosts the cognitive mechanism that retains the aural representation of music in our minds. Furthermore, this skill improves even the most foundational performance skills such as the ability to sight-read, improvise, play from memory, and even perform rehearsed music.

Ear-playing works the cognitive skill of representing musical sound mentally; meaning, it works on aural representation. Singing by ear is easier at first to achieve, as you don’t need to connect the mind’s aural representation to motor skills, just to the voice. But the next step is to connect the music heard in the mind to the motor activity of instrumental playing (if that is your field of study). Often, for classical musicians, it is the connection between the music and the instrument that causes the moment of uncertainty, so this etude starts by replicating through voice, and then working from voice to instrument.

Though the ability to ‘play by ear’ may just develop naturally over time, it is worth actively pursuing as it helps foster flexibility in classical musicians, potentially more than improvisation. Improvisation is often lauded as an ‘ideal’ skill for musicians in the changing world of the 21st Century; however, without the ability to comfortably ‘mimic’ music (by ear) then improvisation skills will prove difficult to train. As useful and fascinating as improvisation can be, playing by ear is a more integral and essential step – one that contributes to a musician’s performance ownership and their overall flexibility.


  • Select a short melodic piece you like, perhaps one from a folk tradition.
  • Listen to the melody at least ten times.
  • Now, hear it in your head and then sing it.
  • Listen to and sing the song, until it is fully memorized.
  • Now, imagine, while you sing the tune, that you’re playing it on your instrument.
  • Then try playing it on your instrument.
  • Pick any starting note that seems right to you, without checking the recording again.


Etude taken from: Eve, I (2020). The Same but Differently. Maastricht: Research Centre for Arts, Autonomy & the Public Sphere.

McPherson, G. & Parncutt, R. (2002). The Science & Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning. Oxford University Press.

Musco, A. (2010). Playing by Ear: Is Expert Opinion Supported by Research? Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, No. 184, Spring 2010, p. 49-64, University of Illinois Press.

Woody, R. & Lehmann, A. (2010). Student Musicians’ Ear-Playing Ability as a Function of Vernacular Music Experiences. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58(2), p. 101-115, 2010.

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