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Yesterday I spent a happy half-hour with my ukulele, learning to play “Drive My Car”. It’s one of my favourite Beatles songs. My ukulele group is performing it for the first time at an event this week. I decided it was time I learned to play it without looking at the chord chart.

Playing by heart is my absolute favourite way to make music. It always has been, ever since my mother taught me to play ukulele when I was six. But in my fifteen years of classical music training with violin, viola and piano, I never played anything without sheet music. And nobody ever suggested that I could.

Playing music by heart is so much more fun than playing along with a chart.

Heart, ear or memory?

Playing music without looking at a score or chart is a very handy part of a musician’s toolkit. But many musicians never play without a printed page.

Learning how to play without a chart involves a mix of skills, including ear training, memory and watching what other musicians are doing.

Some people have a knack for this – but you won’t find out whether you have it until you try. Other musicians have to practice to develop the skill. Either way, it’s a rewarding and useful musical ability.

Melody and harmony

When I started playing bluegrass fiddle I found that I could pick up tunes quite easily by ear, following along to music that I didn’t already know in a jam session.

But I had to work harder to pick up the harmony. I initially found it more challenging to play by ear instruments that carry harmony: guitar, bass and keyboard. (And ukulele.)

My sense for the harmonic structures of music developed gradually over a couple of years. It was such an amazing feeling when I started to be able to tell which chord was coming next.

Written music isn’t everything

Written music is a useful tool – but reading music is only part of the spectrum of musical skills and talents. However, Western culture and in particular the classical music education system thinks written music is essential, the bottom line. All musicians have to read music. Kids who don’t quickly pick up music reading are dropped out of music classes. There are a couple of exceptions: Suzuki music education emphasizes learning to play by ear, which is considered radical and unusual by many music teachers.

Classical musicians almost always use written music. The big exception is elite musicians who get to be the soloist in concertos. They usually play by heart.

Even blind musicians have to learn to read music. One blind woman told me that she’d had to drop out of music lessons because she was dyslexic and couldn’t cope with Braille music notation.

There are many genres of music where reading music isn’t particularly useful, including pop, rock and folk. Many musicians who play popular music can’t read music and don’t see the need to learn. (Paul McCartney is one example, and another is my husband Matthew.)

Why play by heart

Playing without a written score is great for performing. It’s easier to connect with an audience when you’re not glued to your part. Many popular music genres don’t use written music in performance (occasionally you’ll see a keyboard player at the back of the band with a written score). Most musicians playing traditional music would never be seen performing with sheet music – even though they may be able to read music well.

Playing by ear is also great for jamming and playing in groups. When you’re not looking at a score you can pay more attention to what the other musicians are doing. If you don’t know the music, you can follow along by watching the chords that other people are playing.

One of my friends, who’s a trained musician, finds it much easier to play by watching than by following chord charts.

When you can play by ear you can jam at parties or evening events where there may not be enough light for reading sheet music.

How to start playing by heart

You don’t have to be an experienced musician to start playing by heart. In fact, the sooner you start, the better.

Pick a song that you already know. Choose a song that only has two or three different chords. Practice playing one line without looking at the music. When you’ve got that right, add another line, until you know the whole song. You could start by learning the chorus, and then add the verses one line at a time.

You probably won’t get the song memorized in one go. Keep working away at it over a couple of weeks.

Want to find out how to work with me?

I teach ukulele to people all over the world via Zoom and Skype. If you happen to live in Hamilton, New Zealand, I also teach community ukulele classes. Click this link to book a free, no obligation15-minute chat to find out how I can help you.

I’d love to see you making music!