Play by Ear

for Pleasure and Technique

From the age of seven, I was a visual learner. Like many of my generation and before, as well as some students today, I learnt symbol before sound. I learnt the symbol for Middle C followed by the correct button to press.

Until well into my professional career (piano accompanist, teacher and occasional soloist), I felt stuck with the score. I used to dread birthdays as I couldn't reliably play simple music on cue by ear.

Fast forward to my mid-40s, and I've performed solo piano confidently from memory for over a decade (please see FAQs below for the relationship between playing by ear and memorising). I can reproduce simple pop and other songs by ear after one or two hearings, which feels like a dream come true.

I can internalise complex songs, medleys and Intermediate-level classical pieces in a couple of sittings and perform them assuredly.

Above all, my playing coordination feels direct, flowing and relatively easy. If I can do it, anyone can!

This course is for:

  • Adult players seeking to play by ear from scratch
  • Elementary to Intermediate adult players who feel stuck with the score
  • Piano teachers of all age groups

Course Contents

  • Over 40 short, engaging videos organised in 6 Levels
  • Over 25 concrete Tools for playing melodies, bass lines and simple chords by ear in any genre
  • Downloadable PDF Cheat Sheets, Summaries and Progress Charts
  • Over 200 audio tracks of traditional songs arranged by toneset (pitch range) from 2 pitches to over an octave - doubles as an invaluable teaching resource

Course FAQ

What do you actually mean by 'playing by ear'?

Hearing sounds in detail and being able to sing (or mentally sing) and, by extension, play them accurately, without resorting to trial and error.

Is that different from keyboard harmony?

Subtly. Keyboard harmony is the skill of harmonising melodies from scratch in your head. Ideally, this would stem from lots of experience of playing by ear.

The alternative is to memorise theory (i. e. where Chord V or Chord II 'ought' to go) which is arguably less invigorating, flowing and expressive a process.

This course focuses on hearing recorded sounds and reproducing them, which is an ideal (arguably necessary) precursor for harmonising out of nothing.

Why is playing by ear helpful for memorising?

It's one of the Piano Portals Elephants in the Practice Room that confident memorisers 'hear' music clearly in their 'mind's ear', in the moment, as they play.

Nobody brought this to my attention at music school, where I developed a block around performing from memory lasting over a decade. But pianists and pedagogues from Ronan O-Hora to Herbie Hancock have publicly spotlighted it.

You can imagine the tune to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, right? But do you 'hear' it in enough detail to be able to play it confidently straight away on your instrument?

Perhaps you hear the second 'Twinkle' to be higher than the first. But exactly how much higher? Can you be sure you'll hit the correct pitch on your instrument at the first attempt?

This course offers concrete Tools for hearing music in detail, in meaningful patterns and phrases, in relation to the pitch hierarchy of a scale, plus much more.

So, is playing by ear the same thing as playing from memory?

Not necessarily. Some claim memorising involves a range of focal points and, for them, perhaps it does.

The Piano Portals experience is that playing predominantly by ear - by hearing the music inwardly in detail - is a vastly more rewarding and reliable route to fluent, expressive performance from memory than playing from visual, theoretical or rote cues or relying heavily on 'muscle' memory (procedural memory acquired through repetition).

Why is playing by ear helpful in technique?

Another Elephant in the Practice Room is just how much visual learning can hold back technique.

If you learn from the score without also 'hearing' the music in detail in your mind's ear you could be selling yourself well short of your playing potential.

Think of any technical difficulties or ceilings you face. Playing predominantly by ear produces direct, flowing playing coordination without hesitation or excess tension. It can even dissolve difficulties.

Troubleshooting technique is the main focus of the Piano Portals Transform Technique courses. But learning to play by ear is a central tenet of these. If, like me, you've been a primarily visual learner, you may benefit from giving this aspect extra attention before delving into the physical minutiae of technique.

Can't I just use aural tests and apps?

By all means, please do. There are even some great free apps, quizzes and resources that play melodies, intervals, chords, etc. for you to identify. These are helpful for testing/measuring your aural skills, but how do you actually improve your aural processing so as to excel at these tests and at playing by ear?

Piano Portals offers Tools for building your aural skills in musical, meaningful, methodical ways. You can apply these in any context, from listening to songs and reproducing them to memorising repertoire or smashing aural tests out of the park.

I already play Intermediate - Advanced music from the score. Why should I to go back to simple melodies?

You can use the Tools with any music you choose. As an Advanced player, I still use these exact Tools for memorising complex music. My skills, technique and confidence have benefitted immeasurably from a regular, parallel practice involving much simpler music.

This course invites you to build confidence quickly and easily, using the simplest possible music first. That's what I did.

When I discovered the joy and value of playing by ear, I internalised hundreds of 'tiny tunes', then Elementary music and then complex music, in a relatively short time.

You can decide which Level of music to start with, assuming you assess honestly where you currently are with playing by ear.

Piano Portals recommends you do this as a regular, parallel practice, alongside any other music you may be practising, playing or performing.

Every second you spend paying more attention to musical sounds will 'rub off' on more complex repertoire.

Is there a time limit to course access?

No. Once enrolled, you have unlimited access.

Can I revisit 'completed' Lessons?

Yes. Once enrolled, you have unrestricted access to all Lessons and resources.

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Meet Founder, Stephen Marquiss

MA (Cantab.)

Stephen left music school in the late 1990s frustrated by recurring injury and a ceiling on his technique.

After reading music at Cambridge University, Stephen worked on diverse community projects in his native Frome, Somerset, England. He founded the town's successful orchestra and helped spearhead its summer arts festival to international acclaim.

Stephen refocused on the piano in his 30s and 40s. He journeyed from frustration to facility to become a respected performer, tutor and speaker.

Stephen has been a piano tutor at the prestigious Jackdaws Music Education Trust since 2017. He gave seminars to packed audiences at the UK Music and Drama Education Expo in 2020 and 2023. He has taught adults privately and children at the widely-admired music department at Hazlegrove Preparatory School for 20 years.

@stephenmarquiss on YouTube for playing videos

@pianoportals on YouTube for free tutorials