How to Play a Melody By Ear: An Overview

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In today’s video, we’re going to look at how to play a melody by ear. We’ll do an overview of what it takes, and I’ll share some suggestions and tips that I’ve learned over the years.

In the last video, we discussed how to improvise chords to pop songs on piano. It overlapped with what we discussed in ‘how to read lead sheets’ video.

Today, I want to talk about another aspect of playing by ear. It’s the art of reading pop music from a sheet of lyrics and chords, where there is no right hand melody part written out. How do you play a melody by ear on piano if it’s not written out?

So say you type in “Taylor Swift Blank Space chords”. You’ll get pages of lyrics, where chords are written over top of the lyrics. How do you decode and arrange that for piano?

Some Caveats

Before we get into this, a couple disclaimers.

Teaching how to play a melody by ear is extremely difficult. Part of the problem is that I’ve never struggled with it – I’ve always had excellent pitch, and I can pick out melodies and translate them to piano quite easily. Because this is a natural skill for me, I’ve never had to learn how to do it – I could just do it.

Secondly, the best I’m able to give you in this video are some ideas on how to develop this skill. It’s not going to be a detailed roadmap.

Figuring out your starting point

Some of you will have the same skill as me – the ability to match a vocal pitch to piano. But some of you won’t. Some people are a little tone-deaf, and have difficulty matching a pitch on the keyboard to a vocal pitch.

If that’s you, that’s what your starting point has to be.

Learning how to match pitch

You have to learn how to match pitch if you ever want to play a melody by ear. The easiest way to start doing this is to use a website like Teoria, or an app that does ear training. Learn how to match pitches and to judge distances on piano, such as 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc.

This is called “ear training”, and it’s something you should be doing every day, along with practicing your pieces. Especially if you struggle with it.

Start simple

Start simple. When you’re training your ears to intervals, don’t try to practice all the intervals at once. Start by trying to differentiate direction – are the notes going up or down? Start with just a couple of options, like seconds and thirds. Once you can easily judge seconds and thirds apart, can you add 4ths to the mix?

Imitation and playbacks

Listen to very short musical excerpts on a site like Teoria, and try to imitate them. To simplify this, select an option that tells you what the first note will be. If you’ve trained your ears to hear intervals and note directions, this should be doable.

If you’re not getting anything right at this stage, go back to the drawing board and do some interval training.

Matching the keyboard to a human voice

Once you can match the sound on your piano to a digital sound, try matching it to the human voice. It’s actually a lot more challenging because the tenor is much different.

In my piano lessons, I’ll do something where I sing a short tune, and the student has to pick out the notes on piano. But if you don’t have a friend to do that for you, I’m sure there are easy pop songs that you could play in a 5-second clip on repeat. That’s basically what I spent my childhood doing.

You can also sing a short (1 or 2 bar) tune yourself, and then match the piano keys to your voice. The problem with this is that you have no way to correct yourself if you’re doing it wrong. If your ear is undeveloped, you might think you’re matching the notes, when in reality, they’re way off.

There might be tools on the internet to help with this as well – if you know of any, share in the comments below.

The benefits of knowing how to sing

This is why, when it comes to ear training, learning how to sing is essential. You don’t have to have a beautiful voice, but if you can follow a tune with your voice, then that’ll be invaluable to do the same on the piano.

If you can’t keep a tune with your voice, you’re going to have an extremely difficult time doing it on the piano.

This is close to crossing into vocal coaching territory, which I am not. I’m sure a professional voice teacher would have lots of great ideas on how to keep a tune with your voice. I can only speak from personal experience.

How to play a melody by ear

I’ve been singing since I was a very small child, and my pitch has always been accurate. As I mentioned earlier, since I’m not coming from the perspective of a tone-deaf person who developed pitch, I’m not as good at teaching it. However, these are some observations I’ve made:

    -When I sing the right pitch – matching my pitch to the song’s – it feels like Tetris.

You know in Tetris, where you’ve got a square-sized opening, and you fit the square in, and the lines disappear? That’s what pitch-matching feels like to me. It feels like blocks fitting into their designated spaces.

    -There’s a certain vibration when pitches match.

The best way to experience it is to feel it. If you have a friend sing a tone, and then you match that tone (with their help), it has a very stable vibration. If your pitch is outside of the correct tone, the vibrations don’t align, and it doesn’t “feel” right. I can literally feel it in my body.

    -Sing constantly.

I don’t know a better way to develop pitch than to sing constantly. That was my method.

    -What do songs sound like when they “ghost” in your head?

We get songs stuck in our head all the time. Are you mainly hearing the rhythms? Can you form a mental sound-picture of any instruments? Can you “see” the lyrics, or actually hear them? If you’re hearing them, what are the tones?

Absolute versus relative pitch

When I have a song in my head, I hear it with “absolute pitch”, which means the song’s ghost-tune I have in my head is the exact same tune of the actual song. Some people hear in “relative pitch”, which means they can hear all the intervals and leaps properly, but aren’t anchored by key.

If you start singing a song and you have good relative pitch, you probably won’t start on the original notes in the song, but it’ll still sound okay. It’s an intermediate step between being tone deaf and having good absolute pitch.

play a melody by ear – memorize the tones

I don’t think I always had good absolute pitch. I do recall a specific instance where I was training my absolute pitch by memorizing the sound of middle C. What I would do is play middle C on the piano, and memorize its imprint. Then I would keep the tone in my head as long as I could. A few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours.

Then I’d test myself. Could I conjure the sound of middle C at random times? I would hear the tone in my head, and then go press it on piano. Eventually I got to the point where I could do this flawlessly. Middle C is forever burned into my brain.

With middle C in my head, I could then hear any other tone on the piano and figure out what it is. I could do this because I know intervals. If someone plays an F, it’s 4 tones away from my reference note, middle C. So I can figure out it’s an F.

This training is fairly advanced, but hearing a song in the right key and having absolute pitch is probably the most useful skill in my toolbelt for playing by ear. Someone can say “play Chandelier by Sia”, and even without listening to the piece afresh, I can “hear” what key it’s in, what the chord changes are, and the structure of the melody.

play a melody by ear and improvise

So with all that said, if you’ve developed those skills and you’re looking at music like this, let’s talk about how to improvise it on piano.

play-a-melody-by-ear

First of all, if the chords say anything like “3rd fret capo”, then don’t use that version on the piano. That basically means all the chords are transposed, so if you play the chords the way they’re written, they won’t be in the right key.

play-a-melody-by-ear

So here we go. I’ve found a chord version that doesn’t use a capo, and glancing through quickly, it looks accurate enough to me.

Improvising Pop Music

I’ll start by figuring out a left hand rhythm.

This intro has a muted sound, so I’m going to keep the left hand very sparse. I’ll just do a rhythmic bass note instead of playing the whole chord. I’ll do 8 repetitions of each chord, because I’ve decided to play eighth notes, and – you guessed it – this song is in 4/4 time.

Now that I hear the first couple chords, I can get the melody tune in my head. If I can’t, I’ll just listen to the beginning of the recording. If you can’t pick out the pitch a capella (without any background music), you have more work to do. Keep doing ear training every day. You’ll get there.

So once I can sing my melody a capella, it’s time to translate that to piano notes.

Conclusion

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this discussion on ear training. I’ve had a lot of requests to do videos on ear training. I really wanted to do an “overview” type video to give you an idea of the path ahead, instead of hyper-focusing on specifics, which we can do more of later if you’d like.

xo,
Allysia

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Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.