The Beginning of the Beginning

Piano KeysIn January I’m going to be learning to play piano by ear. This is a skill I’ve wanted for a while now. Ever since listening to Richard Diamond on old time radio when I was 15, I suppose. The style I would like to play in is similar to that which Diamond did, so a bit of a 1940s jazz & show tune style. I’m coming into this skill with very little in the way of existing ability. When I was about 16 I took piano lessons from a friend, but this was all sight-reading and technique. I’ve dabbled on-and-off ever since then, but have never really done much by ear, because I wasn’t good enough for it to be enjoyable. Hopefully the next 20 hours will change that.

Target Performance Level:

Be able to play any song I know, fairly smoothly, by ear, with both hands, on the fifth twentieth try.

I think this is a reasonable goal, and one I’ll be very satisfied to achieve. Now that I know how well I want to be able to play, I have to discern what makes up the skill.

Skill Breakdown:

From what I can tell, there are three main parts to being able to play piano by ear:

  1. Play the melody
  2. Identify the accompanying chords
  3. Make those chords sound nice

The first step, playing the melody, is definitely the easiest. From my little bit of playing, I know I can figure out most melodies  after a few tries. The goal here is to be able to play it with very minimal mistakes the first time through.

The second step is much harder for me, likely because I have had no practice. I got a tip from a friend that identifying the chords is easiest by just playing the bass note, and then filling in the rest of the chord once I’ve got that figured out. Sounds good!

Making the chords sound lovely is the final step, and the one that will take me from being able to play a song, to being able to play a song that people will enjoy listening to.


I’ve got a piano, so there’s that. And I just got it tuned, too, so that will definitely help!

A friend recommended that I’ll learn a lot of great jazz technique if I work my way through The Jazz Piano Book, by Mark Levine, so I’ll be doing that this month.

If I run out of songs to play, I can always listen to some of the great jazz standards, found on this Wikipedia page, and work on them.

Another useful thing that I came across, is a list of chord progressions for different types of music. This could end up being quite useful:

  • I IV V   (Folk & Western)
  • I V7 VI7 (Blues)
  • I VI7 II7 V7 (’30s & ’40s jazz)
  • i iv V7 (Minor Blues)
  • I vi IV V (1950s & ’60s Soft Rock)
  • I vi ii V (’50s ballad)
  • I V vi IV (4-Chord Pop Music)


With all of the pieces in place, the only thing left to do is practice! I’ll be giving updates on progress every week or so, whenever something noteworthy occurs, after reaching 20 hours of practice, and at the end of each month. Check back often for the latest!


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