Playing a piano by ear means being able to hear a piece of music or a song and then play it on the piano without having the sheet music in front of you (indeed, without ever having seen it). I can still remember years ago when a friend of the family, upon hearing a tune on the television, was able to go to the piano and play a version of the same tune. Okay, his playing had a couple of hiccups and he stuttered a little, but the tune was recognizable and in a few minutes he was playing it smoothly. I can still remember the wonder — I had heard the “proper” tune, and now, here in our living room, was a person I knew creating the same tune on our piano! But is such ability something one is born with, or can you develop such a skill?
The answer is that just about anyone who has any musical ability at all will be able to develop the ability to play music by ear. You need to spend time with music — listen to music, play music on your piano, try slight variations of many pieces of music — and you need to spend time becoming really, really familiar with your piano — the sound of the notes, the sound of the chords and the sequences. Eventually you begin to find that parts of music begin to “fit”, to sound and feel “natural”, and you recognize (albeit sometimes subconsciously) different musical phrases. Chords start to become almost obvious, and sequences of notes start to become second nature. When progressions of chords start to become second nature, you know you are well on the way to learning how two play a piano by ear.
When most people are taught how to play the piano, they begin with reading music and learning how to play the piano while following sheet music. This becomes so familiar that when you try to play a tune without the sheet music in front of you, you feel lost. I know what it feels like, as do most people who have learnt to play the piano.
In order to get to the position where you know how to play a piano by ear, it is necessary to have an understanding about chords and their progressions. Once you have this understanding under your belt, and you have begun to get the feeling for the different chords, you will start taking your first steps in learning how to play by ear. What I did (and I know others have done it this way too) was find a song that sounded reasonably straightforward and which I liked to hear. With your new understanding of chords and familiarity with them, you can listen to the piece of music and decide whether it has just a few chord changes, or many — if the answer is “many” then you might want to change your tune!
(It was important for me to like the tune — that way, when I successful I could experience the magical feeling of hearing a favourite tune coming from my fingertips!)
You must be patient, because in your first steps with playing by ear progress is likely to be slow, and sometimes you will be frustrated with the pace; but in the long run it really is worth it, and you will find your new-found ability to be so very rewarding. Some people will be quicker at picking up a tune and learning to play by ear than others — it is a combination of musical ability, your “musical ear”, your muscle memory, and so on.
Experimentation is the key, along with determination and patience, to learning how to play a piano by ear. Take your time and you will be rewarded. Eventually you, too, will be able to hear a song and be able to play it almost immediately on the piano — just imagine how good that will feel!