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Play by ear – playing piano without reading notes

Play piano by ear - Composer playing piano

Do you rather play by ear or do you prefer to sight-read when playing piano? The piano is a beautifully expressive instrument with two huge benefits. One, you can simply sit down and play. There is no need to spend weeks learning to make a note (think violin or clarinet). Two, it provides both melody and harmony (backing). This means simple playing skills sound impressive. 


Beginners who learn to play by ear have the most to gain:

  • Time to focus on creativity and expression
  • The ability to play any time, anywhere
  • Musical training of your ears
  • An expressive outlet, as balancing as meditation (learn more about the benefits of piano playing for the brain)
  • A head start when you begin to read music

If you would love to sit at the piano and let go, no notes just you, then read on.


Dissonance and resolution

Playing piano without reading notes is learning through experience. There is no wrong, only learning opportunities. Here is something you’ll love to know. Music is basically comprised of dissonance and resolution. If you play a sound you don’t like (a dissonance) playing a note higher or lower in one hand will resolve this dissonance. Let’s try it, you’ll be amazed…



Find C in the left hand (the white note on the left of the pair of black keys). 

Count 8 white keys higher, you will land on D (the white note in the middle of the pair of black notes).

Play these together loudly, you will hear a dissonance.

Next, hold the left hand down and play a note higher or lower in the right hand to resolve your dissonance. 

Isn’t it powerful? The tension between dissonance and resolution creates emotional intensity in music. Now try some different note combinations.

Dive deeper into the science of musical dissonance with this article from the New York Times!


Play by ear: Starting with a melody

The black notes on the piano make a pentatonic scale. Penta, meaning 5, scale meaning, a series of notes. The sound of these notes are pleasing and meditative. Watch Black is Beautiful and Improvisation for inspiration:





Using just the black notes, experiment by playing different patterns to create a right-hand melody. Extend this by adding in the left hand, also only on black notes. Here are a few tips to improve your hand coordination.


Playing piano by ear: Starting with a triad

A triad is made by playing 3 notes at the same time. This is how you build a triad:





Start by finding C in your left hand (the same one you used earlier when experimenting with dissonance).  

Play C with your left hand little finger.

Place your other 3 fingers and thumb on the keyboard, one key per finger. 

Now play the key under your middle finger, E. It is 2  keys higher than the C.

Now play the key under your thumb, G. It is 2 keys higher than E.

Lift your hand and return to these 3 keys. They should make a pleasing sound. This sound is called a C-major triad.

Now place your right hand on the same pattern of notes, your thumb on Middle C (the C which you find in the middle of your keyboard). With your right hand you can play a melody using any of the 5 notes under your fingers. When you are ready, play by ear using both hands together.

To extend this you can move your left-hand pattern up by a step, being sure to move your right hand by the same amount. For more ideas, go to Das Model & Find Chords.


Extending a triad

You may have noticed the pattern when forming a triad: Play a key, skip a key, play a key and so on. Choose any key to start with and use the pattern to create different sounding chords. If you find a triad that sounds nice to your ears, you can extend the pattern to add 2 or 3 more notes to the chord. You will be amazed by the sounds you create.

Playing piano by ear: Experimenting with a rhythm

Now it is time to build on your improvisations. You can do this by experimenting with rhythm in the left hand. Choose a comfortable counting speed and count to 4, playing the left-hand triad on each count, 1, 2, 3, 4. This will give a more upbeat feel to your song. To really feel the beat play louder on 1 and less loud on counts 2, 3, and 4. For a slower piece play your left-hand triad only when you count 1. 

You can also play one key at a time, making an ‘arpeggio’. You’ll create an even richer sound if you press the sustain foot pedal with your right foot.


Creating a narrative, picture or emotion.

Making a connection and moving listeners is why most people love to play piano. Focus on what emotional response you wish to create. The anticipation of a thunderstorm, the peace of a babbling stream, the tension of a horror film, the longing for love. 

Choose either starting point from above, triad or melody. Now experiment with different registers (high or low keys on the piano), pedals, and touch (smooth or detached notes) to find the exact sound to express yourself. 

Watch White Keys and Fingertips which sounds like waves. What else can you evoke through the note patterns you choose?





There is no wrong when playing piano by ear. Let yourself go at the piano and enjoy expressing yourself through the skills you have learned in this post.


Author of this blog post:

Roberta Wolff started piano lessons at the age of five and is still enjoying learning! Currently, she teaches piano pedagogy and performance pedagogy at post graduate level in the UK. Her other work includes running a private teaching practice for students of all ages and abilities and creating learning and practice resources. Roberta loves writing as a means to supporting others on their piano journey.

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