Below, I will share the first steps I use to help my beginning students start to play by ear. Make playing by ear fun by doing quick listening games at each lesson! Encourage students to try picking out familiar melodies at the piano, and remind them that learning to play by ear is a process and it is okay to miss a few notes on your first try.
1. High or Low?
The first step to playing by ear is being able to distinguish high sounds from low sounds. This can be tricky for beginners, who often equate high and low with volume, instead of pitch. Using imagery can help students distinguish the difference between high and low. For example, a high sound can be compared to a bird chirping high in a tree, while a low sound can be compared to a bear roaring deep in his cave. I also find it helpful to get students in the habit of using their hands to gesture high and low sounds; this will come in handy once they begin to listen for more complex patterns.
2. Same, Up, or Down?
Once students can distinguish high and low, they can work on listening for notes stepping up, stepping down, or repeating. Play students a set of three notes, and ask them to use their hands to show whether the notes are going up, down, or staying the same. Encourage them to sing the patterns back to you and try to match the pitches.
3. Playing Short Melodies
Once students are comfortable with distinguishing notes stepping up and down, they are ready to play by ear short melodies that use step-wise motion. Sing a melody, and ask students to use their hands to show the direction the notes are going. Then, give students the starting note and ask them to play the melody on the piano.
Some familiar step-wise melodies to use with beginners include:
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” (first half), start on C
“Mary Had a Little Lamb”, start on E
“London Bridge” (first seven notes), start on F
“Ode to Joy” (first 8 measures), start on E
“Away in a Manger” (first 4 measures), start on G
What do you think? Do you encourage your students to play by ear?