Improve Piano Ear Playing Skills with this One Challenge

Yep, you can make playing by ear fun. Here’s how.

Improve Piano Ear Playing Skills with this One Challenge

improve piano ear playing

Piano Ear Playing Skills

Learning by ear is usually something to do when we have a lot of time on our hands. It’s a time-consuming process to make progress especially when first starting out.

For those students who have shown interest in learning to play by ear, this challenge uses time pressure and competitiveness to take them from slowly and hesitantly picking out notes to quick-out-the-gate ear playing!

This activity should be approached with care since it does hinge on the pressure of time limitation. I explain to my student beforehand that it is an activity for fun: there are no consequences, judgement or assessment based on this activity. But I also find that by incentivising the challenge (with a reward or highscore) it gives the student extra drive to give it their best.

Read More: The Best Ear Training Apps for Your Studio 

Where did this challenge come from?

When I was researching for my signature online piano course ‘Songs By Ear’ 18 months ago, I came across this fantastic pianist doing great things on video. The YouTube channel is called Amosdoll Music with a following of over 344K subscribers. Decent.

What is he doing that’s so popular? He does a mixture of video categories: piano tutorials for famous songs using the software Synthesia in lieu of notation; piano cover performances specialising in k-pop, Korean drama, anime, Japanese songs, soundtrack and video gaming themes. But the most popular video category for Amosdoll is livestreams.

Currently, with 121 livestreams to his name, Amosdoll Music specialises in sitting at a piano with an iPad closeby, ready to take any suggestion of a song to figure out by ear and play LIVE on camera. It’s impressive to watch:

But this is only half the genius: he has set up the streaming so that in order to have your song request highlighted (and more likely to be chosen) viewers must donate money to his website. What an enterprise!

It was seeing this idea successfully adopted by a seemingly young crowd (going by the song suggestions) that I realised that my own students could benefit from a similar sort of challenge.

What’s the challenge?

Amos’ livestream ear-playing is on average a three hour session but we can do a shortened and more controlled version with our students. I set a challenge to my student to teach him or herself by ear: a melody, a chord progression, or even a bassline within a song (previously chosen by me to suit the student).

It gets more complicated though:

  • There’s a whole preordained list of songs with specified ‘ear-tasks’ to each
  • They can only move on to the next song once they have correctly played the notes of the current ear-task
  • They have to complete all the ear-tasks before the timer runs out.

It’s a race against time!

piano ear playing

There’s nothing like a bit of time pressure to make a piano challenge more interesting.

Here’s how you prepare the challenge:

Put together a list of songs that your student/s would be enthused about, or has potentially even heard before (this gives them a headstart if they’re already familiar with the song). Think of artists that they’ve enjoyed learning or listening to previously.

If you’re not familiar with the students’ musical tastes you could ask them who their favourite artists are in one lesson in order to prepare the challenge for the next.

Listen to each song and isolate the section that you will play to them and identify which part of the music you want them to learn. List these out for later reference. I usually write the timestamp of where the section of the song starts so I can find it quickly.

Related: My Most Popular Resource: Top 10 Pop Songs for Students [Free Download]

Compile a Spotify or Youtube playlist of the songs in the order that you will present them. It makes it easier if you group all the melody tasks together, the chordal tasks together, and so forth, so they can focus on one category of tasks at a time.

Set the number of songs and the time limit. Make it a challenge–if they don’t get through all the songs in the first session it will give them an incentive to try harder next time!

Incentivise the game. Some students will want to do it quickly just because.

But if you really want them to go for it either dangle a carrot in front of them (or a more exciting reward like gold stars or free time at the end of the lesson); or make it a competition between students–who can complete the most ear-tasks in five minutes? Keep a scoreboard and encourage them to compete for first place.

creative music education

Providing students with a well-rounded education that includes ear training is important.


Explain clearly before you start what the challenge is about; how you’re going to go about it; how long the timer is set for; how many songs they have to do; and most importantly, what the incentive is.

Remind them that this is for fun and is not assessed and doesn’t even have to be shared on the scoreboard if they prefer not to.

Allow the student a practice run or two without the time pressure. It may take a couple of goes with this challenge to feel comfortable setting to the timer.

This challenge is best attempted when the fundamentals of playing by ear to figure out a basic pop song have already been covered.

How to take it up a notch:

If a student has already given this a few rounds and you want to up the ante, you could try doing this challenge in a group session:

Have students suggest songs to put in a hat or bowl and drawn out at random for the competing student.

Have students tackle the challenge as a team–taking turns to do each ear-task as quickly as possible and swapping standing to seated position at the piano (like musical chairs!).

Get involved and join the team yourself! Have the students suggest songs for you to figure out under the pressure of the timer! Students love to see that you are willing to join in. (If you’re unsure about unleashing your students with random song choices, give them a pre-vetted list to choose from.)

More Ideas: 20 Creative and Fantastic Ways to Start Your Next Piano Lesson

Conclusion and Final Tip

Don’t always choose pop songs. Think about movie and TV themes, video game soundtracks and even advertising jingles.

Try a new theme for each session! If you’re stuck for ideas, survey your students for their favourite TV shows, movies, video games or apps.

This challenge can be used as a fun activity to end the lesson or dedicate a full lesson to mastering it. Whichever method you choose, it’s guaranteed to ignite your students’ enthusiasm and energy for learning by ear and you’ll see their skills develop exponentially.

What other ways can we get students to enjoy ear training? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Ruth Power

Ruth Power is a dynamic piano tutor and founder of a piano learning hub featuring short burst lessons, based on the science of micro-training.

Now based in New Zealand, Ruth has developed music education resources for the past 11 years: including the highly successful ‘Rocket Piano’ method at Rock Star Recipes Ltd (teaching 90,000 students worldwide); as editor at Europe’s largest sheet-music publisher, Music Sales Group, creating hundreds of popular method & repertoire books for Rhinegold Education, Rockschool, Novello & Co and; and developing eBooks & apps for the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus.

Ruth’s signature piano e-course Songs By Ear teaches the fundamentals of playing by ear directly to the student in a way that is quick, easy, fun and all from your e-device or tablet. ‘Songs By Ear’ is open for enrolment several times a year, find out more here.

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