The holidays are here and you are probably spending your entire day on Youtube. Are you envious of Youtubers who are seemingly able to cover any song and play their instruments as if it is as easy as breathing? Well, many of them are playing by ear and it is a really neat skill that once learnt, will serve you well for life.

Imagine carrying a guitar on your back like a samurai, then suddenly you see your crush walking towards you. Quick as lightning, you whip out your guitar and start serenading her (or him). Before you finish playing Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking out loud“, your crush is already worshipping at your feet. Or imagine going to your relative’s house during Chinese New Year and your aunt starts boasting about how your cousin just passed his violin grade 4. Nonchalantly, you walk to the piano and start playing “Gong Xi Fa Cai”. Your aunt will shut her big mouth and quietly retreat to one corner while your parents’ jaws drop – the first time they are pleasantly surprised.

Sounds good, huh? It is. I first started playing by ear a few years ago when I decided that classical music was too rigid. Without scores, you would not even know I have a musical background. But with scores, I was only a robot regurgitating what was written on the paper, playing what the composer wanted me to play. Instead, what I really wanted to do was to play what suited my mood. I wanted to hear a song in my head and be able to play it on the piano. That was what motivated me to play by ear. 

So what does it mean to play by ear? It is exactly what the literal meaning is. You have nothing – no score, no synthetic video to follow on Youtube, no teacher at your side to tell you which note to press—to fall back on except your ears. And it can seem insurmountable at first. How do I know which note to press on the keyboard and which fret to press while I strum my guitar? That is why it is important to start with one note at a time.

To start, listen to a note of a song. Then on your keyboard/ guitar, try to find the same note. It may take you a while at first to identify the note but no matter, slow and steady wins the race. After that, listen to the whole line of the song, and try to play that entire line. This will train your ability to identify the relationships between different notes (how many semitones apart are the notes). Practice this enough and you will be able to play any tune that you hear. But to create a rounded sound, you will need chord changes in your right hand. For instance, listen to the song “7 years”. In the introduction, the right hand plays the same thing throughout, but there are chord changes in the left hand. This gives rise to an introduction which sounds varied and interesting.

Before we move on, what are chords? And how do you know what chords to play in the left hand? Well, chords are the building blocks of music. Just like we have alphabets in the English language, we have chords in the musical world. Chords have a distinct sound to them. Major chords sound relatively cheerful/ light, while minor chords sound sad/ dark. Together, major chords and minor chords create variety in a song. The following video can probably explain what chords and chord progressions are better than I can, so do give it a watch. 

Once you have learnt how to play chords, you can conquer virtually any pop song because many pop songs nowadays only use the I, IV, V and VI chords of a key. 

Do take note that learning to play by ear requires patience, determination and passion. Sometimes you will be stuck. At other times, you will feel like giving up. But even though it is a long road, it is a worthy journey. I stand on the same road as you do, just slightly further, and I can tell you that the view here is breath-taking. Will you join me?