How to Play Christmas Tunes by Ear

The holiday season is a great time for learning tunes by ear because:

  • Tunes that are this familiar are the easiest to pick out by ear.
  • Knowing a few seasonal favorites are likely to come in handy for festivities wherever there’s a piano nearby.
  • Learning tunes by ear tends to fix them in your long-term memory, so you’ll be able to easily recover them for future holiday seasons.

Steps to Playing by Ear

1. Work Out the Melody

  • Find the first note – Many tunes begin on the tonic note but you can’t count on it. For example, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” starts on the third note of a major scale. Sing the first note of the Christmas melody while playing up the scale until you find a match. For example, playing the C scale while singing the first note of Silent Night reveals that G is the first note.

Silent Night

  • Find the last note – Work backwards. The last note of most tunes is nearly always the “home” or tonic note (C in the key of C). With the key still in your ear, sing the final phrase. Make sure the last note is tonic.
  • Sing the tune – Choose a tune and sing, hum, or grunt the melody in the key of C with or without lyrics. All creative musicians vocalize while practicing. It doesn’t matter how it sounds. It’s just a tool. Get used to the idea and do it often. If the tune doesn’t feel right in the key of C, sing it in a range that feels more natural and try to determine the key (this is harder).
  • Establish the key – On the piano, it’s easiest to play by ear on the white keys. Begin by playing the C major scale to get the sound of the key in your ear.
  • Hunt and peck – Continue adding notes by through trial and error using notes in the key. If you find that you are playing more than a few accidentals outside the scale, you probably are in the wrong key. When you get stuck, think “does this next note go up or down?” If you get really stuck, repeat step 3 holding the unknown note in your voice while playing up and down the scale to find a match. If you are completely stymied, start over with an easier tune such as Jingle Bells.
  • Memorize the melody – When you find all of the notes, burn them into your memory. It’s important that the melody be second nature in your mind and fingers before proceeding.

    2. Add Chords

  • Look for chord tones – Melodies and chords are related. Analyze the melody notes to see if they contain notes in the I, IV, or V primary chords (C, F, G or G7). Pay particular attention to the strong beats at the beginning of each measure as this where you will play chords.

Here We Come

  • Choose a Chord – If a melody note can be found in more than one chord (i.e. the note C is in a C chord and F chord), choose the chord that sounds best to you. For example, the first note F in the third measure of Jingle Bells could be harmonized with either an F chord or a G7. They both sound good so just decide which one you like best.


  • Combine the melody and chords – Add simple left-hand whole or half note primary chords to the right-hand melody. Think ahead. Musicians don’t’ have the luxury of reveling in the moment like listeners. Be thinking, “The F chord is next” or “Here comes a G7.” If you are lucky enough to have a teacher who supports playing by ear, ask them to help you.

Deck3. Add an Accompaniment Style

Convert your left-hand chords to a rhythmic block or broken chord pattern appropriate to the character of the tune and your ability level.

Beginners – Play simple half or quarter note block chords. Notice that some measures call for two chords on beats 1 and 3. Here are some possibilities for duets:

Come Ye alberti

Go tell boogie

jingle root fifth

Intermediate Challenge – Play one of the duet parts above in lieu of the left-hand chords. If it goes well, try embellishing the melody.

Good king embellish

Advanced Challenge – Try adding harmony to the right hand by “hanging” chord tones off the melody notes. Always keep the melody on top with harmony notes below. This frees up your left hand to play bass lines such as the duet parts above or others of your own choosing. You might also try substituting secondary chords such as the Am7 chord in the example below.

Angels RH harmony

4. Keep it Steady

If the beat’s not steady, the tune’s not ready. Beware of getting hung up on the details in this process. The fact is, it doesn’t matter if you miss a melody note here and there or vary your left-hand patterns as long as the beat is steady. Start slowly and avoid pausing to fix every little “surprise” when your fingers don’t match your aural image of the tune. A steady beat will wash away insignificant unintended notes and the tune will improve by itself magically when you play it again tomorrow through the miracle of brain processing during sleep.

Unit next time, enjoy your creative music making journey,








Bradley Sowash


More Goodies:

Learn to Play, Teach, and Compose Pop Music
at the 88 Creative Keys Winter Webshop webinar
January 22, 2016



4 thoughts on “How to Play Christmas Tunes by Ear

  1. Great post Bradley! I am discovering that far too many children and teens are no longer familiar with the Christmas carols which were a tradition, even a generation ago. Part of our responsibility as teachers is to introduce great music. This year I have students writing some of their own Christmas arrangements and several are also really enjoying your Christmas Jazz series. Sometimes it just takes a slight twist to an old tune to generate new excitement and keep the tradition going. Thank you for all you do to encourage teachers and students.

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