How to Play Rock Piano Songs By Ear
Have you ever listened to a song on the radio, hummed the tune all day long,
then sat down at the piano to try to play it? Did you get the tune right, or did your fingers stumble over the
keys until you realized you lost the song you had carried all day?
Pianists frequently try to imitate with their fingers what they hear with their ears. Some successfully land on
the right chords like a missile landing explosively on its target; others flail helpless on the keys like a crash
landed pilot struggling to stay afloat in the water.
Fortunately, there are a few simple tricks to learning how to play rock piano songs by ear so that you can take
any catchy tune from the radio and replicate it without ever reading a note of music.
The first important lesson to recognize about rock music is that it frequently is based on the same three or
four chords. Rock musicians typically sing the melody, while the piano (or guitar) rocks out the basic, rhythmic
chord structure behind.
Knowing this gives you an advantage – it means you know you only need to find a few chords, and the pressure is
off for trying to learn an entire song. So, listen carefully to the chords that you hear and the order in which
they are played.
The more you know about music theory and popular piano chord
progressions, the easier it will be to identify the chords you’ve just listened to. Some musicians become so
good at this that after only listening to a song one time, they can perfectly replicate what they heard, including
rhythm, variations, and complexity. This is because they understand the basic chord structures that music is
commonly organized around.
One of the basics you want to wrap your fingers around first is the I-IV-V-I
progression. This means that you will frequently hear the root chord, followed by a chord four notes higher,
followed by a chord five notes higher than the root, then a return to the root.
For example, many rock songs are played with the chords C, F, G, then back to C. Of course, there are many, many
types of chords that comprise songs you hear.
As you’re listening to chords, one aspect that will help you is knowing what kind of chords you hear. First,
listen if each chord is a major or minor chord. Then, decide what type of chord each is: is it a suspended chord?
Is it a seventh chord? Is it a root chord? Does it have a second thrown in with
it, or maybe a ninth? Knowing what kind of chords you’re listening to immensely helps your fingers find the right
When playing through songs, don’t try to imitate all of the rhythm and variations immediately. Instead, begin
simply by focusing on finding the right chords and playing them slowly. Try just playing with your hands together
on quarter notes first, with your left hand focusing only on playing the bass roots and your right hand playing
Once your fingers find the right notes and comfortably get familiarized with them, then it’s time to continue
your experimentation to begin making your notes sound more and more like the song that you originally heard rocking
out from the radio. Like any other piano skill, learning how to play rock piano songs by ear will only truly come
with practice, patience, and devotion