Learn scales and try to pick them out in the music you hear.
One of the top five ways to play piano by ear is by learning (at the very least) what scales are and what they sound like. Scales are a series of octave-specific notes that are played in a particular pattern or order. By familiarizing yourself with the most common scales, like the C Major scale for example, you will start to hear them in some of the most popular songs you listen to. Bear in mind that when we say, “you’ll start to hear them,” we don’t mean that you’ll hear an entire riff of “a-b-c-d-e-f-g” notes in a row. What we mean instead is that you’ll hear notes that belong to a particular scale. You may hear for instance, an “a – d – f- c- g – b – e” pattern or a “f – d -b- a- c – g – e” pattern. Knowing the notes of a scale, you could identify them in any song and proudly name the scale that they belong to. Then you could repeat those notes on your piano simply from knowing the scale that they’re in.
Do the same with chords.
Chords are a combination of three or more notes that blend harmoniously when played together. Like scales, many exist in popular music. By familiarizing yourself with the most basic ones, you will start to hear them in some of your favorite songs as well. At some point, you’ll be able to listen to a song, name the chords, and then play them on your piano.
Play along with simple songs.
It’s a little disheartening to play along Beethoven when you’re just learning your scales and chords! That’s why we recommend that you play alongside simple songs first, instead. Simple songs are heavily based in rudimentary scales and chords, so they make great introductions to learning to play by ear. Playing alongside “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for example will help you master the C Major scale, but playing alongside Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 will not! Playing alongside “Happy Birthday” can introduce you to simple chords as well, but playing alongside Gershwin’s “Piano Concerto in F” may send tears streaming down your face! Save the fancy stuff for later.
Don’t be afraid to stop and restart a song repeatedly to get it.
While attempting to play by ear, you’ll need to repeatedly listen to the song that you’re trying to emulate. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to stop and restart a song at what may seem like.. every other note! Using this strategy, you’re simply training your ear. So feel free to rewind (and rewind), and rewind (and rewind).
Hum the tune as you’re trying to play the song.
Humming the melody of a song or even just a single note can help us capture the same on a piano. Since sound is vibration, humming helps us match the vibration that we hear on the piano. Try it!