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Playing it by ear

Posted by Smokey Stover on January 22, 2007

In Reply to: Playing it by ear posted by ESC on January 22, 2007

: : : playing it by ear refers to conversation by way of melody, not playing by memory, don't you agree?

: : play by ear -- to deal with something without previous planning or instructions. (Merriam-Webster)

: : Regarding music, if someone "plays by ear" he or she can't "read music" or hasn't received formal instruction. At least, that's how we used the phrase in West Virginia.


To a musician, the meaning of to play something by ear means to play it as heard. To play it from memory is ambiguous, because remembering what the music looked like is not playing by ear. There are some idiot-savants who can play extremely complicated music by ear, without being able to read music at all. Indeed, without the necessity of learning to read music. Even without the use of intellect, however, it involves a lot of brain power. Your mind has to receive the sounds and translate them, although into what is not easily expressed. A sound picture? The continuous sound picture has to stay in memory. It is easy enough to remember a tune, and to remember the harmony in a way that enables us to tell when the harmony is off. But a certain kind of musician can remember the harmonies in a way which he can translate back into the correct pitches, and often with all the melodies and counter-melodies of polyphonic music. Simpler pieces, and sometimes extremely complex pieces of music he can play by ear at the piano with astonishing ease. Just playing the piano is a great skill, and doing it by ear is correspondingly greater. Think Mozart at the age of seven, playing off complicated pieces that he may have heard once.

Playing by ear is not a rare skill, however, even if it admits of great variation in degree of skill. You probably know someone who possesses this skill to some significant degree.

An interesting skill of those who can play by ear is the ability to "fake" an accompaniment, say, to a singer singing a song the pianist never has heard. Someday we will talk about "fake books."

The figurative meaning of "play by ear" is really more closely related to the skill mentioned in the last paragraph above. You make your responses ad hoc to the unfolding situation, for which you are not exactly prepared, since it hasn't occurred before. One scenario: "What are you going to say to the boss?" "I dunno, I'll play it by ear." That is, he'll take his cue from what the boss says, and hope this is what the boss would like to hear. Or another: "You know nothing about this subject, but your going to interview this fellow who's an expert." "Yeah. I'm pretty good at faking it, though."