How to Finally Ditch Sheet Music: The Honest Truth No One Told You
Dreaming of playing sheet music free? Want to toss chords around and “just play” like the rest of your church worship team seems to do so easily?
I learned to play both by ear and by music. Here are my personal thoughts for anyone struggling to play by ear after starting out with sheet music.
I made this for anyone who wants to play on a worship team, but I hope it’s helpful for other music goals as well!
We Need to Talk...
Do you like coffee? Go ahead and get some real quick. I’ll wait.
Please don’t freak out when I say this but…
Out of the 15 years that I have been playing "by ear," it took me 13 of those before I could actually play by ear. And I’m still not that great at it.
I’ve been using chord sheets my whole life, but that’s not the same as being able to play by ear. I was chained to pieces of paper like you are--a slightly different type, but still.
Then something just clicked. It suddenly all made sense. My fingers flew. I could identify chords and notes without any reference. I could play any song without relying heavily on sheet music.
Now that I know the secret, I’m going to share it with you. But first, there are a few things you should know… *sips coffee*
Not all of us can (or even need to) actually play by ear
Bottom line: most people on worship teams can’t really play by ear.
True, it requires some measure of “by ear.” You have to be able to use the lyrics to keep on the beat and remember how the song goes, but you already do that when you sing.
The skill is already there. You just need to learn how to use it for piano. It’s the exact same amount of “by ear” skill that singing without sheet music requires.
I know it looks like the worship team is being spontaneous, but the majority of it is just habit seasoned with a little bit of logic.
Instead of needing a separate, detailed sheet of music for every single song, they just learn ONE single way of playing music that can be applied to every single song thrown at them.
For you, that would be like playing ONLY Moonlight Sonata every day for the rest of your life, varying the key and the order of the bars now and then.
Not all that glamorous or magical. Sounds pretty boring, actually. Trust me: you have NO idea! To go from Chopin to playing the same three notes over and over like a broken record was NOT my idea of fun.
Worship team playing often does not need very much playing by ear. If the team uses numbers or chords sheets, has good communication, and plans well beforehand, then you can get by without ear skills. The rub comes in when the team is used to “just winging it” or often breaks into spontaneous. Communicate with your worship leader about your limitations and ask for help. All you really need is to be able to see it on paper.
Side note: If your church doesn’t have CCLI, they should! You’ll never sweat about where to find a chord sheet again! It even has lead sheets if you still need a sheet music version. And also, it protects your church from copyright strikes. [Not sponsored. Yet! lol]
Not all of us can “hear melodies in our head” as we play
I’m confident I can teach you the style so you can play by chords fluently enough to make it on the worship team. That’s the easy part!
And no, learning to play chord sheets does not require you to hear melodies in your head telling your fingers what to play. Relax! I’m super bad at mental imagery (but don’t tell anyone).
Really playing by ear means that you can compose music in your head and reproduce it on the piano. It means being able to throw out fancy chords and bend the music to your will. It means being able to pick apart the music into little pieces and then put it back together again–all in your head. It means communicating the depths of your soul as easily as shedding tears.
Most people who haven’t been given formal lessons are forced to learn chords by ear but lack the musical know-how to create much with it. They have just enough to get by on the worship team. And that’s okay!
Not all of us started out playing by ear "naturally"
I’ve had formal lessons, but even I waited years for my ear skill. I’m much better than I was before, but I’m not that good at it. I only know of one person who is. He’s my childhood hero.
I remember a moment in the living room when I was watching him play on the TV. The dream settled in my soul and took roots. I thought “I want my fingers to fly freely like that!”
His name is Gordon Mote. Here’s the clip I was watching. He was born blind and started playing piano on his own when he was just 3 years old. For this particular song, he had told his drummer in the studio to play a rhythm completely at random. If you buy his CD (There’s No Place That Love Can’t Reach), you’ll get to hear him play this song to that funky rhythm on the spot! (that’s not an affiliate, I’m just a huge fan).
THIS is what playing by ear looks like! I’m still dreaming of the day I’ll be able to do that!
I’m not telling you this to discourage you. It’s the exact opposite actually!
That piano player you saw last week during prayer? Remember wishing you could play like that? I’m trying to tell you that it’s more within your reach than you think. It may just take a little bit of a style change, that’s all. Not really as big a deal as you thought it was.
There’s a big difference between “playing by ear” and playing like most worship team pianists.
Relax! You are already a rarity in the church worship team world. You know more music than all the worship team members combined, most likely. You are in the elite class! You’ve spent blood, sweat, and tears to get to where you are now. I’m confident you have what it takes to play on the worship team!
Can you play by ear though? We’ll get to that, don’t worry. First, you have to start out with the basics, as most everyone does.
Ditching Sheet Music: The Real Reason You Find it So Difficult
Why am I taking the time to explain all this?
Because I know you probably feel hopeless, scared, frustrated, intimidated, confused, trapped, and maybe a little heartbroken.
I totally get it–I’ve been there.
Does any of this sound familiar? “Why can’t I play freely when it looks like it should be easy? Am I doomed to fail because I was taught sheet music first? How can I play something that I can’t see? How will I be able to hear the music in my head enough to play it?”
The biggest fear of all is probably lack of time: “How will I find the time to practice enough? How long will it take to master this?”
Don’t worry. Seriously! It’s bad for you.
Nothing will hinder you from accomplishing your dreams better than fear.
Fear, anxiety, nervousness create tension and adrenaline. Your brain will shut down, your heart rate will increase, your nerves will tremble, your breathing becomes shallow. Your brain will not retain information and learn. It will reach into its reservoir and pull from what it is deeply familiar with already. Your chest becomes tight, your arms feel like sticks, your hands refuse to cooperate.
I’ve met many people who’ve spent a ton on piano lessons and still had no idea how to relax. They tell me their sad story of quitting piano lessons and giving up on their dreams because they just “can’t get it right.” Then they spend just an hour with me and suddenly they’re as free as a bird.
Because the heart of music is not the rules, techniques, notes, and details. The heart of music is YOU.
Up until now, you’re probably more familiar with the rules and details. You’re not sure how music can come from your own soul, on the spot, uniquely yours. Maybe your teacher was particularly strict, so your very foundation was fear.
It’s okay! Ask God to help you relax. Remember that verse “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” (Proverbs 3:5-6)? I think it means letting God carry your whole heart. Don’t give Him only pieces to carry. No matter where you go, He will make sure you get to where you need to be. It’s okay to fail.
To express music from the depths of who you are, step 1 is definitely learning to relax. Play scales, simple songs, exercises as you focus on letting your finger support the full weight of your arm.
Watch this to see how it’s done. There’s even a cat involved! Piano Exercises: Using the Weight of the Arm – 1.
Bonus Tip: Remember to breathe! Keep your arm, shoulder, and chest loose and free. You need your ENTIRE body to play the piano. When I’m properly relaxed, I’ve found that I have much more accurate control over how the keys sound. On a real piano, this also produces a much better quality of sound.
WARNING! Playing on the piano incorrectly for too long can lead to injury. That’s why relaxing properly is super important! Always listen to your body and stop what you’re doing if your body doesn’t like it. If you need to, find a piano teacher who can show you the right way to handle the piano to avoid injury.
There’s More to Your Brain than You Might Think
When musicians are creating on the spot, their brain TURNS OFF the behavior filters (here’s a full TEDD Talk studying musical creativity in the brain). Your brain censors out inappropriate or irrelevant thoughts, so you don’t immediately run up and kiss your secret crush every time he/she enters the room.
As you have probably experienced at some point in your life, you have the ability to turn this behavior/thought-censor off (Have any stories to share? Leave a comment!).
No limits, no restrictions, no rules!
The dorsolateral prefrontal region of the brain is responsible for, among other things, intellectual regulation. It includes the brain’s censorship bureau: the bit of the brain that prevents us from saying or doing inappropriate things. It allows us to control impulses and to choose appropriate courses of behavior according to our circumstances. It seems that in highly creative people, this part of the brain becomes much less active during times of creation. –Characteristics of Highly Creative People
Don’t underestimate the power of this brain that God gave you!
Most of the time, people get frustrated with learning because they are working against their brain, not for it. As a piano teacher, I help my students understand what’s really going on in their brain, what they’re good at, and how they can work with their brain to achieve faster and better results.
Step 2: Allow yourself to fail! Learn to approach the piano without that behavior filter. I know it’s scary, but the hardest part is taking that first step into the unknown. You’ll soon discover that failure is fertile soil for creativity!
You’re probably used to having to play it just right the first time, or hiding until you can play it perfectly. This is the BIGGEST reason why people give up on ever learning piano. They think failure is a weakness when actually it is their greatest strength.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy
You can’t give what you don’t have
Remember cramming information in your head for a test? Can you still recite all that information? Probably not. For a little while, just long enough to pass the test, you have it all memorized. But soon your brain dumped it all down the sink.
That’s what’s happening when you only play by the sheet music. None of the information is making it into your long-term memory. It’s all short-term, so you need to have sheet music every time you play it.
There are at least 4 types of musical memory:
Muscle memory is performing an action on “autopilot” out of habit. Every time you repeat a certain motion, it sends neurons on a certain path. That path gets stronger and stronger each time you repeat that motion until it is branded into part of who you are.
Each time you go to sleep, your brain does cleanup duty. It washes out all unnecessary information and erases extra neuron pathways that aren’t a priority.
You may have played thousands of songs, but none of those songs exist in your head. They have all been erased. Your brain doesn’t retain any of the information is collected as you read the sheet music.
This is why you “draw a blank” every time you even think about creating something. There’s no history there. Musically, you’re a clean slate. Sure you know enough theory to pound someone on the head with it, but that’s not music. As I said, music comes from YOU, not rules and details.
Disclaimer: I’m not saying that all people who play only sheet music don’t know how to play real music. There are many, thankfully, who have developed an ear for music and were taught how to express it from their heart. That’s the training that I got, and I loved it! I just don’t want anyone stuck and bored playing sheet music like a lifeless robot. Sheet music is limited in the amount of information it can deliver, just like any language. There is no language known to man that can adequately portray the deepest emotions of the human soul. If you’re stuck with just what is written, you are selling yourself very short.
Step 3: Start building history. When you practice, work on creating long-term memories. Have fun with it! Play around, try new things, repeat what you like. The best way I have build history is by just living life with it: playing for groups and worship teams wherever I could.
This is true for just about any creative endeavor: writing, drawing, blogging… You have to build a personal history with it. You’ll get better as you go along, I promise.
I got WAY better playing by ear this way than any amount of practicing and lessons ever did. Some things are best learned by getting your feet dirty.
Reading sheet music is a skill. But it is often confused with the skill of piano playing and they are not one and the same. Pianists who only learn pieces from reading sheet music can have a 1-dimensional understanding of piano music – they will understand how to follow instructions read off the page, but all too often they don’t understand the harmony behind what they’re playing, or how to expand on what they’re playing. If you took the sheet music away, could they interpret the music to take it in their own unique direction? Maybe not. -Piano Picnic, How to Learn Piano Without Sheet Music
That’s how I can play the way I do. I can tell you so many stories behind every single note. I started out knowing just the rules. When I added personal history, it all gradually came alive. I found my personal identity in music. I’m proud of it!
The melodies I play aren’t just in my head, they’re part of who I am.
This is the part that takes time. I can try to teach you the rules in a week, but there’s no shortcutting this part. If you truly want creative freedom and to play by ear, you’ll need to get to know this music like it’s your best friend.
Music is a language. Science proves that the best way to learn any language is to live life with it: to hear it and speak it in context. This is why African-Americans, the founders of jazz, are so good at improv music. It’s part of who they are. They grew up speaking this language, so it’s natural to them.
In our western lifestyle, music is not as ingrained in our everyday life as it is in the rest of the world. But that can still change.
I hope this was enlightening and encouraging to you.
Learn to relax, allow yourself to fail, start building history.
There’s more to it of course, but that will provide a solid foundation for success as you embark on this journey. It will be so worth it! Piano players who can do both sheet music and by ear are super valuable. It is a rare skill that will serve you well in years to come. You’ll also find that your enjoyment and understanding of music will get 100x better!
There’s no mistaking it: mastering both worlds not easy. But it is well worth it.