• Michael Volz

How to teach piano by ear, a beginning tutorial

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

Assessing Ear competency

Students that show proficiency in using their ear to play the piano will progress faster and have more fun learning by ear. Always have a piece of music that you are reading each week in a lesson book, but spend most of the lesson (80%) teaching them to play by ear if that is their forte.

To assess whether they have a proficiency playing by ear, it could take 1 lesson, or 1 month. Sometimes it is clear just because the parent will say: ‘He has learned a few songs by ear.’ Or: ‘she doesn’t keep her eyes on the music when she plays, she just memorizes it.’ The key is not to make too many assumptions, but just try and see how well they respond to playing by ear, even trying to assign them songs to learn by ear, and asking them if they liked playing by ear more or if they liked playing the music on the page more. As a default, music reading is always a good fallback, as it is important to the parents for the child to learn to read. We’re only using this playing by ear as an option in case it helps them enjoy piano much more. 

One way to assess if they have proficiency in playing by ear, is to have them close their eyes, you the teacher play a key, and see if they can guess which one you played. Don’t be surprised if they have to try it a few times and have you replay it a few times. The younger they are, the more narrow of key range you must give them as an option. For instance, if they are younger, you could tell them you will play one of the white notes from C to G. If they don’t know their musical alphabet yet, you could show them that you’re going to play one of the 5 black keys right by middle C, or even 1 of the 3 black keys. You could repeat this process a few times, and even try play 2 notes in a melody and see if they can play that back. 

What to use

If you feel the student may be able to play something by ear, then you could consider assigning them something to play by ear. You would:

  1. Ask for the family ipad (preferred method) or perhaps the parents smartphone or even the child’s smartphone if they have one

  2. Record a song at their appropriate level, rh and lh separately, then together. I like to label it thus: “twinkle rh”, “Twinkle lh” and twinkle “bh” to do twinkle twinkle little star with the rh, lh, and bh respectively.

  3. Teach them how to use the ipad or phone to practice effectively

For mac products, use the search function to find the “voice memo” app.

This is the icon.

The ipad is easy to use because you can actually see the sound waves, and the student can use that visual to find a particular note or chord they want to figure out, and scrub through the sound a few times until they understand.

Teach them to RELY ON THEIR EARS. The biggest problem I have with students who have gifted ears, is that they will not be diligent and consistently listen to the recording to make sure they have it right. I tell them: when we read music, we rely on our EYES. So we don’t take our eyes off the music. When we learn music by ear, we rely on our EARS, so we don’t try to play it without listening to it many times daily. 

If you press the “edit” button in the top right, you get this:

The red “replace” button is very useful for you. If say, you are recording something that is actually difficult to play, you can replace a mistake. You can also record a little bit of the song, press pause, and then resume recording in order to do it little by little.

The iphone app for voice memo has a few extra steps, but can do the same things. 

Instruct the student to select the recording, press the 3 dots, select “edit Recording,” then you’ll get the 3rd screen. Instruct them NOT TO TOUCH THE REPLACE BUTTON, as that will record over your recording :) Tell them to tap the blue square symbol in the upper right, which will turn on the trim function.

You should now see the 3rd screen on the right. They could actually trim the audio file, but instruct them not to do so. Just have them use the play button and the sound waves to navigate the audio file. 

If using the iphone, this is a WAY better way to do it then just pressing play from the first screen and trying to figure out the song, as the little slider is very difficult to use. 

The student will need to go through the audio file NOTE BY NOTE sometimes. Make sure they understand that they need to go through one note at a time, or perhaps 1 chord at a time. 

If they have android products, have them download an app called "wave editor." 

Instruct the student to only be concerned about the 2 red circled buttons. One will allow to zoom in and out by pinching. The other will allow the student to highlight (you can only highlight, you can't just put the cursor somewhere and play back). Highlighting offers the advantage of listening to the same thing over and over till they find it. You must double tap to get rid of the current highlight. Sometimes when you re-highlight something, you have to press the stop button to kind of reset the app so you can press play again. Instruct them not to touch anything else inside the editor.

Press the back button to get out of screens. You can't rename the file once you name it the first time for some reason.

What to record

If they have proficiency in ear, you would expect their ear songs to be harder than their sight reading songs. But even if not, make sure to focus on the ear if they enjoy it the most. Just learning melodies for the right hand may be a way to start, especially if they are quite young. You could take melodies from things they know: the hymn book, children's song book, or anything else you can think of to record for them that they would enjoy. Be sure to ask and figure out what they like.


You could teach them the I, IV, and V chords, take a week to learn just the chords: how to play, fingering, etc. Then try doing recording a song using those chords.

As you can see, music theory will be taught as a prerequisite to doing harder and harder songs. 

As they become more proficient, you can ask what songs they like: bands, movie music, video games with background music, etc. Perhaps something could be found online. Musescore is a consistent resource at the moment to find amateurs who have written out music (some of it is innacurate, be careful).

If you are unfamiliar with the song, feel free to open YouTube right in the lesson and listen to it with them to confirm you have the right song. See if you can find the music written out on musescore, then you can record the right hand/ left hand separately. Feel free to have the parent order sheet music or even an entire book of songs that the child may like for you to record the music for the child right hand left hand separately. Try different songs, or get a list from the student of songs they'd like to play. You are not expected to do any work outside of lessons. Try to do everything in the lesson as efficiently as possible. 

Try to avoid those youtube piano training videos, as they are not a good way to learn piano:

You can definitely use it as long as the student agrees not to watch it, but only listen to it. However, the right and left hand are not separated. You can use this however if it would help you to do right/left hand separately. But it is inefficient. 

This has been an introductory tutorial on teaching by ear. 

If you find that they are good at playing by ear, and that that is their talent, then their weekly assignment book should look something like this

  • Lesson book

  • note rush (an important app for sight reading that will be discussed later

  • Easy song by ear (something that takes 1 to 3 weeks to learn)

  • Hard song by ear ( something that they choose to learn, something intrinsically valuable to them. E.G.: a song from their favorite band, favorite movie, video game, etc.)

  • Earpeggio (If they don't do this during the week, then do it in the lesson for a bit)

  • music theory (as will be discussed you need to bring up the music theory as you go along and have them do little custom homework assignments that you give them) You can also use a music theory book in addition to doing custom music theory homework.

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