What can you already play by ear? Harmony & Rhythm? | Easy Ear Training

What can you already play by ear?
This article follows on from part one, on melody. If you haven’t read it yet, please start there for the explanation and background. If you’ve already started your self-assessment – let’s continue on! Today it’s harmony and rhythm to round off the skill set.


If you’re a guitar player or a singer wanting to accompany yourself on piano, this is probably the area that interests you most: chords, chord progressions and advanced harmonies.

1. Simple isolated chords (type)

First things first: individual chords. Do you know the basic types of triad chords?

How about these ones?

2. Simple chord progressions (role)

Once you can tell major from minor (and spot augmented and diminished chords too), the vital skill will be hearing the changes from one chord to the next. Do you know what a I-IV-V progression is? Can you hear the different roles of chords in a key?

3. Chords in a musical context

Hearing a progression of simple chords in isolation is one thing. But can you tune in to the same chord roles when you hear real music?

This is the playing-by-ear skill most musicians wish they had!

Can you play the chords to a song like this straight away?
(note: if you know how to play the song already that’s cheating!)

Or this one:

What about that song you heard on the radio earlier?

4. Advanced harmonies

Once you’ve mastered the basics of playing chords by ear, it’s time to move on to more advanced tasks. Can you identify the underlying chords of, say, an orchestral arrangement?

Or the more varied and unpredictable chords used in jazz music?

Remember: No peeking! If you need to look up the chords or happen to know them already, that’s not playing by ear!


For most musicians the rhythm skills come more easily than the pitch-based skills. The challenging part of replicating a melody or chord progression tends to be figuring which notes to play, rather than their timing.

That said, some of you will find this side of things a real challenge – and there are advanced skills to tax drummers and more capable players…

1. Clap back rhythms

This will probably be a familiar exercise to anybody who’s taken an instrumental exam: can you clap back the rhythm?

2. Imitate rhythm of melody or chord

Sometimes the rhythm used in a melody or chord part is key to its musical contribution. Can you reliably replicate rhythms when playing melodies or chords by ear?

Could you replicate the varying rhythms used here by harmonica player Magic Dick on your own instrument?

Or how about some skillful scat…?

(you might need to take that one bit-by-bit!)

3. Improvise, matching style

Rhythm is a big part of what defines a musical ‘style’. If you play a rhythm instrument (e.g. bass, drums, percussion) or tend to provide the rhythmic accompaniment (e.g. on guitar or piano) can you imitate the rhythm of a song well enough to convey the right musical style?

Do you think you could cover your favourite songs in a variety of styles like the above? What about all the genres featured in this video:

So! Hopefully you made a few notes as you went through the lists above. In any case, it should have given you some insight into:

  • What kinds of thing you can already do (more than you thought?)
  • What kinds of thing you can’t yet do
  • What skills you might like to work towards

In the next posts we’ll be looking at some ways to accelerate your progress towards these skills.

If you want to share what you learned from the list above, we’d love to hear from you! Just leave a comment below or contact us directly. We’ll try to focus our future tools and tips on the areas you care most about.

Oh, and if you disagree with the outline above or think we’ve missed something vital – we want to hear from you too!

Series Information
This is part 4 of 17 in the Learn to play by ear series.

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