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Playing the Piano by Ear

The biggest breakthrough I had while trying to learn to play the piano was when I closed my eyes. It was like magic! If you close your eyes and feel the black keys on the piano, even if you’ve never played a piano before in your life, you can discover some amazing things. The black keys are in groups of 2 and 3 repeating up and down the piano. If you grab each group of these black keys with your hands and move up and down the piano, you’ll realize that it’s like a map topography, only much simpler and repeated. If you play only the black notes, you find that they always sound good together.

This is because they form what’s called a pentatonic scale (a five-note scale). You can sit there with your eyes closed and jam on just the black keys for a few minutes. It sounds pretty good!

A lot of people try to approach piano by starting with the white keys. Basically your fingers are blind on the white keys, because they are not grouped like the black keys so you can’t feel your way around very well. You have to look at your fingers. For very beginners on the piano, it’s good to be able to play without looking. What you want to concentrate on is listening and feeling.

If you can find a piece of recorded music in the right key (Gb, Db, or B will work well – perhaps you could ask a musician to recommend one), turn it on on your stereo and sit down at your piano and close your eyes. Let your fingers grab onto the groups of black keys and play them along with the rhythm of the song on your stereo. It’s okay to play random black notes because none of them will sound bad. As you play listen to how the notes you choose sound along with the track. Use each hand alone, then both hands together. Try single notes and clusters of notes (also known as chords). You can even hum or sing along with the notes you play (keeping your eyes closed all the while). If you keep at it for a while, you will not only have fun, you’ll find that you become more musical.

Eventually, still keeping your eyes closed, you may want to experiment and reach over to the occasional white note in between the black notes that you are now so familiar with. A nice note to find is ‘A’. It is the top white note in between the group of three black notes. By adding only that one white note and playing all the other black notes, you can now play an Eb minor blues scale! If you can find a recording of a blues tune in Eb, you can jam on it on the piano and sound like a pro!

There are many more things to learn on the piano, in fact the possibilities are nearly limitless, but the steps I mentioned above can give a beginner a a great start on the instrument, and can even help an experienced pianist to focus on using their ears and fingers more when they play. 

I once jammed on the piano with a great gospel pianist. He was playing bass lines and chords and I was watching his fingers; trying to figure out what he was going to play next, so I could try to solo (improvise) up in the high register of the piano along with him. I was struggling because he played so many chord changes and they moved around so fast. He stopped and looked at me and said: “Close your eyes!”

So I did. Suddenly I had to use my ears and let my fingers feel their way around the piano, and suddenly – like magic – I was playing notes that sounded good… because I was listening instead of thinking. There’s a place and a time for thinking in music, but there is a lot to be said for just listening and feeling it.

If you’ve never tried playing the piano because it seemed difficult, just sit down, close your eyes, and play the black notes. I’d love to hear your reactions.