Playing by ear

Playing or learning by ear is the ability of a performing musician to reproduce a piece of music they have heard, without having seen it notated in any form of sheet music. It is considered to be a desirable skill among musical performers, especially vital for those who don't have a fundamental musical education and sufficient knowledge of musical notation, and indispensable for illiterate musicians.

Many forms of classical music throughout the world are fundamentally rooted in the concept of playing by ear, where musical compositions are passed down from generation to generation. In this respect, playing by ear can be also seen as a music-specific example of oral tradition. However, there are some examples of musical traditions where greater importance is placed on a tradition of writing down the music, in some form of musical notation.

The concept of playing by ear has led to the development of the idiom, to play by ear or "play it by ear."


Learning music by ear is done by repeatedly listening to other musicians, either their live shows or sound recordings of their songs, and then attempting to recreate what one hears. Audiation involves hearing sounds mentally, although on a different level than just "hearing a song in one's head". The skill of reproducing those sounds involves the ability to mentally hear and recognize rhythms, tell the interval between a note and a reference note in a melody, play a specific interval between a melodic note and root note (typically 1, 3, or 5 intervals below the melodic note), and play the notes of a specific chord based on the a given root note (e.g., notes at 1, 3, and 5 intervals above the root note).

Existence in classical music traditions

In most instances, those traditions where learning music from playing by ear is paramount do not use musical notation in any form. Some examples of this such as by early Blues guitarists and pianists, Romani fiddlers and folk music guitarists.

One particularly prominent example is of Indian classical music, where the teaching methods of its two major strands (Hindustani and Carnatic) are almost exclusively oral.

Western classical music

Historically, the Western classical music tradition has been based on the process of learning new pieces from musical notation, and hence playing by ear has a lower importance in musical training.

However, many teaching methods in this tradition incorporate playing by ear in some form. Examples include the "ear training" courses that are a standard part of conservatory or college music programs (including use of Solfège), and the Suzuki method, which incorporates a highly developed focus on playing by ear from a very young age.

In the West, learning by ear is also associated with the genres of folk music, blues, rock, and jazz.