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Playing By Ear

Aural Skills

Aural skills refer to the ability to play by listening; having first internalized the pitches, then being able to replicate what is heard on your instrument. In this article we will explore focused avenues for aural skills, and provide specific exercises to take with you into the practice room.

To Play By Ear - or - Read Sheet Music

The short answer is yes. Both have their place and their uses. Just as an athlete should be balanced in cardio and weight training, so too is it with aural skills and note reading.

Aural Skills: Chords

If you are just starting off and want to improve your ear, I recommend taking chords to all the songs you know and convert them into “Nashville Notation” - this reverts back to the diatonic scale and references the root note of each chord in relation to the original scale of the piece.

As you play these songs, SING!! Both the pitches and the scale degree. Ex:

I’m Yours” [ I - V - vi - IV] or [ 1 - 5 - 6 - 4 ] or in the key of C: [ C - G - Am - F ]

Results: you will begin training your ear with the intervals. Over time, you will subconsciously grow and find yourself listening to chord changes and pinning them down quicker.

The “Hum & Play”

  1. Pick a Pentatonic Scale and play it up and down

  2. Choose a note and play it

  3. Then, sing that note and continue singing another 3-4 note lick

  4. Play what you sang

Results: This will train you with intervals within your scales. Next level, remove the handicap of “2” (this denies yourself any point of reference).

Pandora Exercise

Pandora is a gift for introducing music that you may never have come across. Using this to our advantage:

  1. Go to a Station (I much prefer The Black Keys for this exercise)

  2. Listen for a lead melody line or lead vocal line, maybe something from a chorus

  3. Play your Pentatonic Shape (1) in different positions until you find the key of the piece [you only get 12 options]

  4. Take the line from “2” and play it on your instrument

Results: You will grow in your ability to pinpoint the different keys of each song, become more acquainted with your scales, and be able to take a line by ear and place it on your instrument.



  • Always contextualize these exercises with your scales!! It will reinforce multiple other skills at the same time, saving you time and energy.

  • This is not a 1 - week course, this is something for life. This skill revolves around time and consistency.

  • Be Encouraged!! This is a tough skill to track growth on. You may feel like you’ve been doing it for ages and are getting nowhere. BUT YOU ARE GROWING. It’s typically not until someone makes a comment on your ability to play from thin air that you realize “oh, I guess I can do the thing now.”

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