How to Play Piano By Ear: Formulas That Work

How to Play Piano By Ear: Formulas That Work

By Randall Crews



You Just Have to Feel it!

Growing up in the south, church was a regular part of life and a regular part of church was music and at the center of all the musical commotion was the piano. As a child I took strong interest in piano and soon started approaching musicians after church to get pointers on how I too could learn to play. I noticed that an overwhelming amount of church pianist never used sheet music, but they played by ear. Being young and curious I wanted to know how I too could play by ear. So, I asked and almost every musician that I questioned gave the exact same reply, “You just have to feel it.”


After several failed attempts of trying to “feel the music” I soon realized that this made absolutely no sense. My mother took notice of my desire for piano and soon enrolled me in sessions with some of the best teachers in town. After years of traditional lessons I learned how to play notes on a staff, but one problem remained, I could not play the songs that I loved from the radio and I was envious of those that could do it by ear without having any traditional lessons at all.


The Number System

In college I was introduced to the number system, which is a methodological way of playing piano by ear. I finally found exactly what I was searching for, a way to play piano by ear without having to be dependent on sheet music. The number system teaches individuals how to break down piano in terms of numbers and patterns and not just by “feeling the music”. Here is a website that offers a beginner course on the number system —->


There are a few things you will need to learn before being able to utilize the number system. I’ve made a list of those things below. Once you get a firm understanding of the below items you can then begin substituting numbers in place of lettered key names. This is where things start to get really interesting as you can then start forming chords and chord progressions. You will begin hearing musical patterns based on the numbers and not only that you will be able to dissect songs piece by piece.


  • Key Names
  • Whole Steps and Half Steps
  • The Major Scale Formula (All other scales are derived from the Major Scale)


Dissecting Music by Ear

I’ve played piano by ear in church services, concerts, plays and other gigs for many years and I’ve developed my own method of dissecting music. The formula I use is not new and it’s the basis of how most people dissect music using the number system. The list below provides the basic guidelines that I use to figure out songs by ear.


  1. Find the key of the song
    • The key of each song can be found by listening for the resolve note of the song. The resolve note will be the first (1) scale degree of a song.
    • Example: Sing the ending phrase of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, which says “how I wonder what you are”. The word “Are” resolves to (1) or to the first scale degree, which is the key that the entire song is played in.


  1. Play the scale of the song
    • You will need to play through the songs scale and become familiar with it as the entire song will move back and forth through that scale. It’s very important to be familiar with the scale of each song.


  1. Play the MELODY LINE
    • Listen for the melody line and play it. The melody line is what gives unique identity to a song. The melody is a distinct sequence of notes played together and gives songs their own sound. The melody line will be played using the right hand.
    • Example: If you hum the song “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with your mouth that’s considered the melody line of the song. It is the unique single note sequence that helps you identify the song.


  1. Play the BASE LINE
    • The base line is the low-end rhythmic part of the song that gives a song bottom. Listen carefully for the baseline and pick it out note by note. The base line will be played using the left hand.


  1. Match Chords with Intervals
    • When you convert any scale into numbers those numbers are called intervals. Each number/interval will have its own chord type.
    • Example: C Major Scale converted to the number system (see below)
      • C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
      • 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 8

1 = Major Chord

2 = Minor Chord

3 = Minor Chord

4 = Major Chord

5 = Major Chord

6 = Minor Chord

7 = Half Diminished Chord

8 = Major Chord


The base line will oscillate back and forth through the scale. For this example let’s assume that our song is played using the major scale. So, whatever note the baseline lands on you will play it’s designated chord type. Example if you land on 2 you will play a minor chord, if the base lands on 4 you will play a Major chord and so on and so forth.



We see musicians playing by ear without having any knowledge of basic theory at all. These musicians usually fumble and struggle to figure out songs all while relying on YouTube or someone else more knowledgeable to show them songs. If you are someone who learns music this way, you will find that you are very limited in what you can do, but it does not have to be that way any longer. Take the time to learn basic theory and the number system and you can begin playing by ear the “right way” in every key without a hitch. Learning the number system allows you to plug in variables and repeat the same process over and over again. The number system allows you to play any song in any key saving you loads of time and headaches. No more struggling and fumbling. Do not continue to cripple yourself by simply listening to songs, picking them apart and transposing them. There is a better way to play by ear, the right way.