Developing the Ability to Play by Ear

There’s just something special about a capella singing…especially when it combines rich family harmony with the incredible acoustics of an old chapel in the woods. This past Saturday, on the way from a family breakfast in Sevierville, Tennessee, we stopped and visited the Cataloochee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains. While there, we visited the old Palmer Chapel, built in 1903 and decided to sing a few hymns to test out the acoustics. It was incredible! Such a beautiful little sanctuary…

I’m often asked, “How does a person learn to play by ear? How can you hear what to play without seeing it? Isn’t that just something you’re born with?” While it is true that some people have a more natural gift for playing/singing by ear, I believe that many more people have the ability to learn the basics and be a confident member of their church’s music ministry in a capacity that doesn’t require reading sheet music all the time.

One of the best ways to develop an ear for music is to listen to music and sing a harmony part. Sing A LOT! That’s a great way to develop the ear. Think about it, if you can hear an alto or tenor harmony while you’re singing congregational music, then you could find that note on the piano. If you can figure out one harmony note, you could probably identify the other note in the chord. Once you have those three notes, you can likely identify what chord you should play. Practice playing by ear while listening to your favorite song. Don’t try to play every note you hear the instrumentalists playing. Just try to play the main chords.

Identify what the rhythm is. Should you be playing an octave-chord-octave chord pattern with the song? Or should you be using a rolling bass pattern (for example, eighth notes in a 1-5-1-2-3 pattern, with each of those numbers representing scale degrees)?

Play around with it! The best way to be able to play by ear is to practice playing by ear!

Here is our informal and impromptu concert in the beautiful Palmer Chapel. Enjoy! 

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