About Playing By Ear with Trial and Error

You may be surprised to learn that a large part of learning to play by ear is in fact trial and error! However, you can accelerate your learning by adding some method to the madness – with the proper tools and training!

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In our recent episode with Chris Owenby of Practice Habits and The Online Piano Course we talked about how he learned to play by ear through painstaking trial and error – and I mentioned how at Musical U that’s an approach we recommend too.

That might have sounded surprising. For a website promising to help you play by ear, isn’t trial-and-error a bit lame? We should be able to do better than that, right?

Well, yes and no.

I have no hesitation saying we teach a trial-and-error approach because there is far too much mysticism and misunderstanding around how playing by ear works and I feel obliged to try to counterbalance that a bit by just straight up telling it how it is. But “trial and error” doesn’t mean that learning to play by ear has to be frustrating or tedious, or that it’s pure guesswork all the way. Absolutely not.

So let’s talk about this “trial and error” approach to playing by ear.

Inside Musical U we have a module called “Start Playing By Ear”. It’s designed to help you get 100% clear on what playing by ear is, and isn’t, and how learning to do it actually works.

And I’m going to tell you its most valuable part right now: You learn to play by ear by trying to play by ear.

This is a “big secret”, in the sense that you’ll meet lots of musicians and music educators who try to get around that fact and pretend there’s some trick to it. As we’ll be talking about in a minute, it can be much cleverer and more effective than *just* trying to do it. But at its heart, playing by ear is a learnable skill and we typically learn musical skills through repetition and practice.

So the one big message in that training module, and one I hope you’ll take away from this episode is this: You learn to play by ear by starting to play by ear.

The first time you do it you’ll get it almost all wrong. But then next time you’ll be a bit better.

Because “trial and error” should really be called “trial and improvement”. As long as you’re paying attention you should be learning from those errors and avoiding them next time.

The more you do it, the better you get. And here’s the critical thing to understand: it works this way for *everyone*. This isn’t a cop-out method you use if you’re not gifted. With the exception of the tiny percentage of people who have perfect pitch (and check out our Perfect Pitch episode for more on that) – everyone else, even those who say playing by ear came naturally, has learned to do it through practice, and making a lot of mistakes. Check out our episode with Professor Anders Ericsson for more about this, and how every skill we think might be a “talent” or a “gift” is actually learned and learnable. All that differs is how *quickly* we learn it.

So yes, you might encounter a 15 year old who has a great ability to play by ear. But I guarantee they didn’t get every note right the first time they tried it. And what distinguishes them from the musicians who has tried playing by ear and really struggled – it’s just the speed of that trial-and-improvement process.

So that’s the situation – and there’s some really good news. Because although your natural ability to learn this skill may not be as swift as the so-called prodigy – there are extensive proven methods you can use to accelerate that process.

That’s why I’m not worried about telling you that at Musical U we see learning to play by ear as a process of trial-and-improvement that will take practice. Because I know we also equip our members with the training and tools to drastically accelerate that process. I won’t go into detail here, but in short our approach is to equip you with the core ear skills that give you the building blocks underneath playing by ear. We help you recognise notes and chords by ear, so that when you sit down to play something by ear the chances of you getting each note right are dramatically higher than if all you’ve done is practice guessing.

It’s a bit like if you were trying to learn to paint portraits. Sure, you can just sit there and practice painting faces from photographs all day every day. And you’ll gradually get better. And fundamentally that is going to be how you improve, through trying again and again. But compare that with the aspiring painter who gets a few lessons in colour mixing, and different paintbrush techniques, and how light and shading work. The painter who has studied those fundamentals and built those core skills is going to improve in their painting dramatically faster than one who *only* goes through the process of trial and error. And will reach the point where it’s easy to sit down and paint a wonderful portrait first time, every time.

That’s what the process of learning to play by ear looks like. And so I hope this episode has both encouraged you to know that this skill is certainly within reach if you want to learn it. And that there are tools and techniques available to you which can dramatically accelerate that learning process for you. If you’re curious to know more about how that works you can check out the free previews for our Roadmaps at Musical U by visiting musical-u.com/training – or I’ll put a direct link in the shownotes for this episode at musicalitypodcast.com.

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