Play What You Hear

Playing by ear is one of the most valuable tools in your arsenal. Memorizing music is easier. Learning new music is easier. Sight reading is easier.

“But I can’t play by ear,” you say!

You can and, to a certain extent, you already do. If you’re adjusting your intonation to blend with the rest of your clarinet section, you’re playing by ear. If you’re playing rhythmically with the rest of the ensemble, you’re using “by ear” skills.

Just Like Speaking. Consider that when you were a baby, you learned speech by imitating the words and vocal inflections you heard around you. You can use your clarinet to do the same.

Ever hear the recording of a song you like and find yourself singing along with it? Or singing it by yourself later on? You’re singing by ear. Without consciously thinking about it, you know what to do with your voice to raise and lower the pitch and adjust the rhythm. You know how to do this because you’re constantly putting pitch, rhythm and dynamics into practice every time you speak.

To Scale. I’m always amazed when my clarinet students need the sheet music to learn their scales and arpeggios. I only allow them to learn one scale from the sheet: usually our key of C. Once they’ve successfully played the C scale, they know the tune. Now it’s just a matter of starting on a different note and playing the same tune in a different key.

An Easy Exercise. Here’s an exercise to get your musical ear working: Without the sheet music in front of you, play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” starting on your low F. Or—my personal favorite—“Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” also starting on your low F. Those are two simple songs that begin on the tonic note for the key and stay within one octave.

Once you’ve figured them out in F, start on your G and play those same tunes. Then start on C. Then D. Then start on any note. Once you’ve accomplished this, you’ll have proven to yourself that you can play by ear, and you can tackle more complex melodies.

About author

Jim Snyder

Jim Snyder is a clarinetist from Orlando, Fla. Though primarily known as a jazz musician, his extensive career has put him in every musical place you’d expect to hear a clarinet—and in some you wouldn’t! Jim played for many years in New Orleans with trumpet virtuoso Al Hirt and is currently a staff musician at Walt Disney World. A Yamaha Performing Artist, he travels the United States as a soloist and clinician. Visit his website at

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