Yes you can.
“Playing by ear” is the phrase that we associate with the task of playing a song on an instrument without reading the music and without having previously learned and memorized the piece. Some people are particularly gifted with this ability. They sit down and whip out a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and then ask what you would like them to play next. They make you very jealous.
There is this strong idea that playing by ear is a skill imparted at birth, like some sort of genetic mutation, and either you have it or you don’t. Not so, my friends. Read on.
If someone gave you a call on your birthday and said, “Hey Happy Birthday, I have a song for you,” and then proceded to sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” what would you think?
Uh….thanks…?….I’ll remember that….on Christmas.
Now, what if they sang the words to “Happy Birthday” but to the tune of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”? Would the change skip your notice? I really don’t think so.
The words are the same. What changed is the music. And you would notice.
When you are at the grocery store and you hear a funky cell phone ring, you think – Oh I love that song! or Oh my word that’s obnoxious! or Yikes that was loud. How about when you hear a ring that is the same as on your own phone. What do you do? Even if it’s coming from across the aisle, you probably check your phone, just in case. Why? Because you notice.
You notice when sounds are different than you expect. You also act accordingly.
New birthday song — you say something about it. ie. Hm, that was really interesting.
Same ring as yours — you reach for your phone.
It follows therefore, that you can do this:
Next time you’re at a piano, close your eyes and play a key. Now, open your eyes and try to find that same note. Did you get it? Try again.
If this seems too simple, stand facing away from the piano and reach behind you to touch the key; it throws of your sense of where the keys are when you try to match it. Of course having someone else help you would also work. Make a game of it.
What do you notice? As you try to find the right matching tone, do you forget what the first note was? It’s easy for the sounds to get all muddled after a few tries. It’s ok. Try again.
Can you tell if your guess was lower (to the left) or higher (to the right) than the original note?
Now do this. Think of a tune. Let’s stick with “Happy Birthday” as an example.
Think of the way it starts. Just the beginning: Hap-py birth-day. stop.
What do you notice? What are your thoughts?
O ick I can’t do this.
I didn’t even start on the right note.
It’s Ok. Match the starting note to the one in your head. (I know, I’m great at being quotable.) Try again.
Oh good, I got it.
Hey, I even got the next note.
Erg, that sounds like a dog jumped on the piano.
Hm…the theme from Jaws?
Wait, that’s it. It sounds like the song.
Keep going. Figure out more.
Be warned that you will probably hit lots of notes that sound strange, and when you start over to try again you may totally forget what the notes were that you just played. That’s Ok.
What matters is this: You were wrong. You can play by ear.