Play (Almost) Anything By Ear On the Piano
I honestly believe anyone can learn to play by ear. Here are the steps I went through to learn to play by ear. It has worked well for my 6 year old daughter and my 50 year old beginning student.
Halfway through my piano degree, I came to the sad realization that I could not play by ear. I had played a concerto with an orchestra and won competitions but could not play Happy Birthday for a party.
It’s not magic
It’s a skill that gets better with practice. I have put together a huge list of folk tunes that starts out easy and gets progressively harder. You can probably sing a lot of these songs already. If not, go to YouTube.
1. Play the melody
Start by going to the piano, sing the tune slowly and match the note you are singing to a note on the piano with the right hand only. A good place to start would be Row Row Row Your Boat or Mary had a Little Lamb.
Don’t worry about fingering or chords at this point. Play the melody with one finger if you need to. The goal is to get the melody good enough that you can sing with it.
Pentatonic melodies (black keys only)
The black keys are a form of the pentatonic scale. A pentatonic scale is a five note scale, or a collection of five notes. The pentatonic section of the folktune list can all be played on just the black keys.
C, F, and G pentatonic
These melodies can be played on the white keys as well with some tweaking.
Here is C pentatonic:
And for reference here is F and G pentatonic:
Improvisation with pentatonic scale
Using only the black keys you can play a blues improvisation.
Here is an example of a Blues improvisation with just the black keys:
Try it with this backing track.
You could also do this with C, F or G with the above scales.
2. Add a simple left hand
The I and V chords
Start by adding I and V chords to tunes in the I and V chord section of the list. Here are the I and V chords in C major:
Here is an example using London Bridge using I and V chords:
The I, IV, and V chords
And now on to the I, IV, and V chord section of the list
Here is an example playing Camptown Races (which is pentatonic by the way) using I, IV, and V chords:
4. Play in different keys
After you are comfortable playing in the white keys (C major). Try playing the same thing in another key like G (1 sharp) or F (1 flat).
Those steps should get you started. If you can harmonize with the I, IV, and V chords you can play a lot of songs. In the future I will write some other posts to extend these concepts with more chords and fancier ways of playing the right hand. For now, happy practicing.