Learning to read music is an extremely valuable part of learning to play an instrument. But what about learning to play a song you enjoy listening to on the radio? Sure, there are many resources out there where you can find sheet music arrangements of popular songs by professionals and enthusiasts (Musicnotes.com and Musescore, to name a few). But what if your favorite song doesn’t have an accessible arrangement? What if the arrangement is too hard, too easy, or… just not quite right?
This is where ear training comes in. As part of my lesson curricula, I make it a goal to help each of my piano students learn to recreate songs they love, completely by ear. Depending on the learner’s level, this could mean just playing the melody, or coming up with an entire arrangement! How exactly do you learn to play a song without sheet music?
For my beginner students, intervals are everything. Intervals are the way we measure the space between two notes, and each interval (seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths, etc.) has a specific sound. Before learning a song by ear, it is important to have some idea of what each of these distances sounds and feels like on the piano.
From there, we pick a song and listen only to the melody: the one-note-at-a-time musical line that is at the forefront of the song. The part you can sing!
Start by listening to the very first note of the melody. Then pause the recording. Can you find that note on the piano? This practice is called pitch matching. You can use pitch matching to find the other notes in the melody, too, but I recommend using relative listening instead, which connects the notes you have already learned to the next notes in the melody, like a musical sentence. Is the second note higher or lower than the first note? How far up or down did the singer have to go to reach that note? (A third? A fourth?)
For students of all levels, this process takes a lot of trial and error. Don’t be afraid to play wrong notes! Wrong notes help us to train our ears to hear the right notes when we find them.
Once you have the notes of your melody, listen closely to the rhythm of the melody. What notes are long? What notes are short? Taking it just a few notes at a time, try tapping the rhythm on your leg or your chair before applying it to the notes. And before you know it, what you’re playing starts to sound like your favorite song!
For an intermediate-level piano student, we can start to use selective listening to recreate a song by ear.
The first step is learning the melody of the song, using the process I detailed above. (Most importantly, learn the melody little by little. Only learn a few lines, or the first verse, before moving on to the next step.)
The second step is listening selectively for the bass: the lowest note you hear! If you’re listening to a rock or pop song, chances are good this is played by a bass guitar. Can you use pitch matching to find the first note of the bass line on the piano? How about the second one – is it lower or higher than the first?
This bass line will become your left hand part on the piano. Simply playing the melody and a few bass notes will already sound pretty great. But if you want to take it a step further, start to build chords on top of your bass line.
A chord progression is the pattern of harmonies that occurs in a song underneath your melody. Now that you have your bassline, listen to the chord on top of each bass note. Is it major? Minor? If you’re not sure, try out both and see which one sounds right! As you discover the chords that comprise the song, definitely write them down in the right order for reference, once you start to put the melody on top. I would recommend printing out the lyrics to the song, and writing these chord names over the words where they occur.
At this point, you have two layers of music: bass/chords (left hand), and melody (right hand), the bread and butter of your song!
Once you have a good handle on how to listen for melody, bass and chords, you can really take playing by ear to the next level.
For your chords, start to explore inversions and voicings (the order of the notes in your chords from bottom to top). For instance, if you’re playing a C major chord (C, E and G), which note sounds like it’s on the bottom at that moment in the song? It might be C, but it might also be E (which implies a first inversion chord) or G (a second inversion). Arrange the remaining notes on top of the bottom one accordingly to achieve a sound that will be even more accurate to the original recording. Also, these chord tones don’t have to be limited to the left hand! Maybe the left is playing C and G, and the right is incorporating E beneath the melody. Experiment with what sounds best. The sky’s the limit!
For very advanced players, one of my favorite things to explore is instrumental imitation. What if you’re playing a rock song by a four-piece band? As the pianist, we have to be the drummer, bassist, guitarist and singer all in one. If there’s a bass solo happening, recreate the notes in a lower register. A high, wailing guitar solo? Play those notes in a higher register! And for the drums, see if you can recreate the groove in the rhythm of your left hand, while playing the bass part. Sometimes, this is really challenging and we have to simplify the rhythm to its most basic and important beats. But that’s the fun of it! Don’t feel like you have to do too much at once: we’re just looking for a basic impression of the song’s most recognizable components. Choose wisely!
No matter your skill level, recreating your favorite songs on the piano is right at your fingertips. Give it a try and start rocking today!