UD#93 Five Pitfalls Playing by Ear

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NOTE: If you don’t feel like reading today skip to the “CHALLENGE”
section below and learn a couple of songs by ear!

UD#93 Five Pitfalls when Playing by Ear
from Ukulele in the Dark with Guido Heistek

…but something was missing.

I remember seeing one of my favourite jazz guitar players play a gig. Most of the songs the band played were familiar jazz standards, so they didn’t need any sheet music. A few times though, a lesser known song would come up, and the guitarist would have to pull out a chart. On these sight-reading songs, I could feel a difference in his playing. My attention even started to drift sometimes. His musicianship was fine, but something was missing. Something really important.

Of course, you could argue that the songs he was reading were less familiar, and that affected his performance. Maybe true. But, I’ve noticed, with myself and others, that reading off the page has an effect on music making. Maybe there is less connection and feeling? It’s hard to put into words exactly. At any rate, the security of sheet music seems to come at a cost.

So, I sometimes get my students to put the paper away. For the beginner uke player, it can seem like an impossible challenge. Nonetheless, I encourage my students to try.

…strum a simple song without sheet music.

One thing we do is learn to sing and strum a simple song without sheet music. For this, we use a recording or a YouTube clip. Sometimes we print out just the words, if we don’t have them memorized.  That’s a good support. On occasion, we list the chords on a piece of paper, so we know what chords we are drawing from.

Once we’ve learned the song, I encourage the student to practice it from memory or, as I prefer to say, “by feel.” The other day I was doing this with a student and he suggested that I write an article about the “possible pitfalls when playing/learning by ear.” If you are interested in this kind of work, read on! There will be some challenges and exercises and hopefully some helpful tips.


1. Just because the melody changes doesn’t mean the chord changes.

This may seem really basic. But, I don’t know a musician who hasn’t been tempted into changing chords at the wrong spot by something that happened in the melody. Leaps in the melody can be a big red herring! One thing to remember is that the chords in a song usually change less often than the melody. It takes some time for students to learn to not change the chord every time something dramatic happens in the tune. Getting a feel for this is a matter of practice and experience.  

One of my favourite songs for this is “Clementine” which, when we do it in the key of F, uses two chords: F and C7.  The melody in “Clementine” has several leaps at the beginning before the first chord change. It’s a great tune for teasing out the tendency to want to change chords because the melody moved.

(See the CHALLENGE section below to learn “Clementine” by ear.)

2. Just because you haven’t used that chord in a while doesn’t mean it’s next.

The other day I was doing some “by ear” learning with a student. At one point, she played a wrong chord, and by the look in her face, she was very aware of that fact! I asked her, “Why did you play that chord?” She replied laughing, “Well, I figured we hadn’t used the Bb yet so it had to be the next one!” We both had a good giggle.

Many songs cycle between two or three chords for a while before a new chord is introduced. Say, for example, you are playing a song that uses the chords F, C, Bb and Bbm. In the first part of the song, you play the F chord then the C chord. We often assume that, logically, the next chord has to be Bb. We haven’t used that one yet. Right? Not necessarily! Music is logical, but not in this way!

A good song example is “Blue Bayou”, which, in the key of F, goes back and forth for a long time between F and C, and then finally goes to a Bb chord and then a Bb minor. 

(See the CHALLENGE section below to learn “Blue Bayou” by ear. )

3. Not being allowed to make mistakes.

Getting the feel of playing songs by ear is a MESSY BUSINESS. Making mistakes, playing the wrong chords, is part of the process. And it can HURT to make mistakes. If it’s not OK to get things wrong, then it is not possible to learn to play by ear. Or, learn anything for that matter. So, if you want to put the paper away, you need to tolerate some bumpiness in the process. You’ll have to “tough it out” to some extent. I think you’ll find that it is worth it. 

4. Memorizing the lyrics. 

Have you memorized the lyrics? This is a simple step that takes some work on its own. It seems to me that it takes more work as the years go by! But, when I have the lyrics totally memorized it can free up a lot of mental space for sensing and remembering where the chords change. So, if you keep getting stuck when learning a song by ear, make sure that you have the lyrics well memorized. This takes a lot of time going over it again and again in your head. It’s fine to have the lyrics printed out for support for a while, but eventually you have to internalize them. 

5. Attempting the impossible.

Some circumstances really demand sheet music. When playing songs with large groups of people, it is usually not realistic to play by ear. Everyone is at different levels and some are not capable of playing that way. Take away the sheet and it is chaos! Also, if the song is really complicated, with 9 or 10 chords, it may not be a good candidate for learning by ear, at least for the time being. If you have a simple song with 3 to 5 chords, it may be a good candidate. So, maybe try “Four Strong Winds” before you tackle “Hotel California.”

On a personal note, I have been guilty of assuming that everyone should be able to learn this way. And not everyone is. Nor does everyone want to. Chalmers Doane (the father of Canadian uke education) once vigorously pointed out to me that as teachers we need to be aware of our inclinations and sometimes set them aside. He said, “Have you ever asked your students how they would like to learn?” Good point.

There are some situations where it is simply impossible for students to learn without sheet music. I had a student with early dementia, though he didn’t know it at the time. It was a battle to try and get him to put the paper away and I finally gave up on it. It was just stressing him out. And me! Later he found out about the dementia. It was a good reminder. I don’t always know what’s best.

That being said, if you do want to try to play by ear, I encourage you to do it. I hope this article gives you some ideas about how to support yourself in that adventure. 


I’ve made a little worksheet with two songs, “Clementine” and “Blue Bayou.” The first page has the lyrics with the chord choices above. I’ve also included links to clips of the songs. Use the song clips to help you learn the songs by ear!


I hope you enjoyed today’s newsletter!

All for now, 


P.S. I am regularly adding new lessons to Ukulele in the Dark. Please subscribe to my mailing list below to receive every lesson right when it comes out. Be sure not to miss a thing!


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