Ear Players Part 1: Discovering Ear Players

Below are three things that I look for during lessons to discover if a student is predominantly an ear player:

How does a teacher discover that a student is ear player?

  Ask the student if he or she likes to make songs up. Sometimes students are excited to show what they can play by ear but others won’t offer that information until asked because they are shy. Ask a parent if their child likes to play around on the keyboard at home, whether by composing original music or by playing familiar tunes. If the answer is “yes,” there is a good indication that the child has a keen musical ear.
(Note that memorizing sheet music is different that hearing something from a cd or the radio and copying it on the piano without any helps. The child that memorizes may not be an ear player, but the child who copies songs without music is most likely an ear player.)

  Discover how a student learns his or her pieces. If a student struggles and struggles through a piece until they hear it played from the teacher (at which point the student plays amazingly better!), they most likely are relying on their hearing rather than on the printed music. I once received a good piece of advice: Do not play an ear player’s musical piece for them as an example. Force the students to discover how the music sounds for themselves without any helps!

  Be on the lookout for rhythmic deficiencies. Although ear players tend to get creative in their rhythms, I tell students to play exactly what is written on the sheet. Playing precise rhythm is very important and students need to have a good understanding of note values, time signatures and strong/weak beats. It is all right, however, to sometimes change the note durations in method books to suit a student’s rhythm. For example, sometimes an ear player adds a dotted rhythm. The teacher can make two crotchets (quarter notes) into one dotted crotchet + one quaver (eighth note) by adding a dot to the first crotchet and then adding a quaver line onto the other crotchet. This should only be an occasional variation, however, and it is a good opportunity to explain the theory of dotted rhythms.

If you are a parent and notice that your child enjoys making pieces up, develop this skill by encouraging the child to play pieces by ear and to learn theory very well. If you are a piano student and you notice that you have an aptitude in hearing the intervals that make up songs, continue playing by ear and getting more proficient in this area of music.  If you are a teacher, feel free to comment below on ways that you’ve discovered ear players during lessons.


9 thoughts on “Ear Players Part 1: Discovering Ear Players

  1. These are great tips and certainly signs that appeared when I began lessons (I started composing almost as soon as I started playing!). One thing I’d add, which should be kept in mind when structuring lessons, is that there is a difference between an “ear player” and a predominantly auditory learner, a student who takes in general information best through the auditory pathway. One can be an ear player and a visual learner (me), or not an ear player at all but a very auditory learner (my violinist and duo partner). For instance, my ear was very strong years before I began lessons, but because I am a very poor auditory learner (cannot retain information well unless it’s presented visually), I would have difficulty learning a piece by ear even after listening to hundreds of repetitions. After a repetition or two of a garden variety tonal piece I can give a general analysis of it (or the first few phrases, anyway), but anything more specific than that won’t stay in my memory. Academic lectures are useless for me unless I can take detailed notes or steal someone else’s. My first teacher had me (and the rest of her students) on a modified Suzuki curriculum, but that method will crash and burn with a piano student who’s a visual learner (= learns best from notation) but has a strong ear (= doesn’t need to develop their sense of pitch in the way the method encourages). I am still struggling with the consequences of having worked with that method, the biggest issue being that I have no reliable means to learn music quickly–because my primary learning pathway was partially blocked (my sightreading was considerably stunted for years and, for partly related reasons, I still have trouble playing by feel and have to look at my hands), and I was being asked to take in information through a still-defective pathway (my terrible auditory working memory), I never had the chance to develop either pathway fully until well past that “critical period.” As a primarily collaborative pianist now, these deficiencies are REALLY coming back to haunt me.


  2. Thank you, Nicole, for taking the time to share this. I’ll keep in mind that some ear players rely on sheet music (I’d always make students learn to read sheet music during regular lessons no matter what, but it’s helpful to know that some ear players are visual learners). I agree with you that an auditory learner and an ear player are different! I would be the opposite of your learning style and would be primarily be an auditory learner while being a weak ear player/composer. Thanks again for your helpful comment!


  3. This topic was very interesting and helpful to me in understanding my eldest son’s playing style. He fits all 3 categories that you mention, with sight-reading being his worst area. In fact we ended up not really going beyond Gr.5 in classical piano, and instead changing to “Pattern Piano” (mainly due to time constraints). He has very good rhythm, and is very creative, so this way of playing the piano seems to suit him very well – he makes up beautiful impromptu pieces too. However, I am sorry we never continued with the more traditional /classical approach. Anyway,thank you for these helpful articles! PS: I’d be interested to know what you may think of “Pattern Piano” (if you know of it) if you feel so inclined.


    • Hi Faith, sorry for the delay. Here is the website: http://www.playpianotoday.com He calls it Rhythmic Patterns but it also goes by the name of pattern piano. I hope it’s helpful! (ps: some of the rhythms are very jazzy and we don’t choose to listen to music like that, but have used them to learn the course). Best regards and hope you are keeping very well!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Lesley!
    I learned a little more about “Pattern Piano” and I would say that it’s really helpful to learn chord patterns (which are quite mathematical). Chord patterns are useful for ear playing and also for understanding music harmony in general.
    As far as rhythm goes, regular rhythm patterns happen not only in music, but also in things like a heartbeat or in ocean waves (ex. a regular rhythm pattern in 4/4 time accents the 1st and 3rd beat, though at times there can be variety). Without a good sense of pulse music will sound sloppy and disconnected. However, music wouldn’t be music without a melody, so I think melody is more important than rhythm and something to really focus on while studying piano.


  5. Thanks very much for the reply Faith, and for the points you make; they make sense to me and I’ll remember what you’ve said. Hope all is going super-well at flynnpianostudio!


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