How to play by ear

One of the most valuable skills I have learned over the years is the ability to play worship by ear. The benefits are endless, least of all because you no longer need to flick through music folders or have a music stand in front of you. The fact of the matter is, that with music in front of you to concentrate on, it restricts your ability to free yourself to worship as well. Some have made arguments against this, saying that having music in front of you means your mind is doing less work as it doesn’t have to remember the music. But the reality is that playing by ear isn’t actually remembering music, but listening to it.
I have compiled a few steps which I have found most helpful when learning this skill.

1. Get rid of the music.

This goes by the adage that the best way to learn to swim is to throw you in the deep end. [pullquote]By getting rid of the music, you force yourself to play by ear.[/pullquote] Initially you might find this daunting, but try it with just a few songs in a set first. Then try it with a whole set as you build confidence playing by ear. Another angle you could take would be to memorise a song first (choose an easy one like Mighty to Save, or How Great is Our God) and play it without music. Whilst this isn’t technically playing by ear, but playing by memory, it will get you into the habit of playing without the music in front of you.
Often it can only take one song in one practise, if only to show yourself that you can actually play a song without the music. And hey, if you don’t try it, how will you know that you can or not!?

2. Know the chords.

Okay – time for some music theory. But it’s a life saver. Know the chords that are likely to be in a song in any given key. A lot of songs fall within a select few keys. It works on the following principle:

(1) Root. (2) Minor. (3) Minor. (4) Major. (5) Major. (6)Relative Minor. (7) Dim7

This may or may not make sense to you, but the likely chords you’ll come across are: (1), (4), (5), (6). And sometimes (2).

So for example, in the key of C you would have:
(1) C. (2) Dm. (3) Em. (4) F. (5) G. (6) Am. (7)Bdim7
with those in bold the most likely chords you’ll come across in the key of C.

The following are a quick reference guide (1, 4, 5, and relative minor) for common keys: Learning these will serve you well when it comes to playing by ear.
A:    A,  D, E,   F#m
C:    C,   F, G,   Am
D:   D,  G, A,   Bm
E:    E,   A, B,   C#m
G:    G,  C, D,   Em

Note: Any strange chords that occur out of these (Such as the Esus in God He Reigns (Key of G) pre-chorus) you begin to learn as part of that song the more you play them.

3. Listen.

This almost goes without saying. But its amazing how many musicians don’t do it. [pullquote]Listen to where the song is going, anticipate the sound and match the chord to it. It requires you to learn what the chords sound like and match them to that anticipation.[/pullquote] To help with this, I tend to cheat. I will endeavor to play any song in C or G. Any song out of these keys, I use a capo on my guitar to set it to be in either C or G (this also helps for Tip #2). This is so the chords remain the same, and my brain can link the sound to the chord to the anticipation. Sometimes there isn’t a change in chord, but a change in bass note, so part of this anticipation is knowing the song or the common practices in music using bass notes (Such as the progression from G -> D/F# -> Em.). These bass notes can make a big difference in the sound.

4. Loops

As pointed out by my good friend Kenny, throughout most Christian songs (and some secular ones), there is a loop. This would be where chords repeat themselves. Such songs include “How Great is our God” – Chris Tomlin, “You Won’t Relent” – Jesus Culture, “Our God” – Chris Tomlin. Once you find the loop, it becomes very easy to play along, almost without having to think.
The loops often include similar chord progressions.
For instance, How Great is our God is: G(1)    D/F#(5)    Em(6)     C(4)      D(5)    G(1)
If we take a look at You Won’t Relent in G:    Am(2)     G(1)     D(5)     Em(6)
And Our God in G is as follows:    Em(6)       C(4)      G(1)       D(5)
We can see that these follow a similar pattern (actually for most of the song).

4. Practise.

Practise makes perfect. The more you practise, the better you’ll get at listening for the chord. I’ve found the best way to practise is to try playing along to a CD, or if you want a real challenge, the radio (as you don’t know what the next song will be). Begin by working out the key of the song (I use bass notes and pentatonic scales to determine this initially) and then begin by using the root chord and finding the rest of the chords. As the song plays, you’ll begin to find the loop of the song and then be able to build from this into other songs. Just last week, I was listening to Mumford and Sons “Winter Winds” and found it really easy to pick up.

5. Different Keys

This one is from my sister, who was essentially taught to play by ear rather than by music by her first worship leader. Practise playing songs in different keys. This goes against what I do, in that I use a capo when faced with different keys, allowing me to play the same chord shapes no matter what key the song is in. But it still requires you to listen to the chords. By practising in different keys, it forces you to think about the intervals more than just repeating the chords. And don’t just pick the easy ones (D, G, A) – challenge yourself from time to time by playing in Ab or C# (for piano; ‘difficult’ keys will be different for different instruments, such as Eb or F for guitar).

6. Know the Song

Listen to the song on CD, on YouTube, or any other way you can get to know a song. Don’t look at music, or poorly typed out chords. Just listen to the song. Know how each part sounds, how the verse goes, how that transitions to the chorus, and how the bridge goes. Knowing the song will help you to anticipate of where the chord changes are, what sound comes up next, and in all, helps you to become familiar with the song so you can explore it musically.

7. Listen

I know I mentioned this one before, but really, it is the most important. Listen to the song. [pullquote]Listen to the other musicians. Anticipate which sound (and therefore chord) is coming next.[/pullquote] Listen, listen, listen.

So I encourage you, give it a shot. Get your feet wet. Use a mid-week practise, or even in your own time at home, to give it a go with a song. You’ll find more often than not that you’ll get it mostly right. You may find it slightly frustrating to begin with, but things can only get better with time. The more often you do it, the more trained your ear will become, and the easier it all becomes.

Go on. Do it.