Church, Music, and some other stuff

Worship Music and Playing by Ear: 5 Big Reasons

Concentrated little boy playing with the doctorSure, you can play every set/song staring at some sheets of paper, spend your days frantically searching online for chords,  always annoying people by asking them for chord charts, waste money by paying for them…


You can learn to play by ear!

Worship musicians seem to be the joke of the music industry these days.  Why?  Because it’s filled with thousands of “musicians” who know a few chords, stand on stage and stare at some paper, and then write in their twitter bio about how music is their life.  The musicianship in our churches is at an all time low.

I get asked all of the time for chord charts or where people can find them, and I’m going to be honest with you.  Don’t be offended and don’t hate me, but when people ask me for chord charts, they might as well just say “Hey, I’m an amateur musician.”  At least that’s what I hear in my head.

The only only thing I know about chord charts is that most of them are wrong anyways. Of course I am always happy to help, but hey, I’m only human and I have my thoughts.  (If you’re going to ask me for chords, for love of God, at least be asking me for the number system numbers.)

This isn’t about my pet peeves or how dumb people look staring a music stands like statues, it’s about the one big thing that separates ok musicians from great ones.  And that’s the ability to play my ear.  Don’t let me loose you, because no matter where you come from, playing by ear CAN be learned.  First off, here are 5 big reasons why:

1.  Flow

Flowing in worship isn’t necessarily playing a song, but is just improvising and following wherever the Spirit leads.  It gives more opportunity for worship.  So many bands desire to be good at this, and the only way you can add this to your bands arsenal is if the musicians are able to follow and play by ear.

2. Create songs or Lead Lines from Melodies in your head.

Ever wanted to pour out what’s in your head onto your instrument without a hitch?  That’s what playing by ear can do.

3.  Almost instantly be able to play along with any song.

Easily learn songs for a set, or just jam with friends. It’s way more fun this way, trust me.

4. Remember music and anticipate chords.

Something about playing by ear, over reading chords, burns songs into your memory.

5. Get rid of the trash pile on the stage.

By trash pile, I’m talking about papers and music stands.  You don’t need them anymore.

You may be thinking that all of this is great, but isn’t playing by ear something only a few special people can do?  No.  Playing by ear is something that can taught and learned.  In my next post I’m going to share with you some tips on how to become great at playing by ear.  Better musicianship is something that is desperately needed in worship music.  Let’s honor God by growing our talents.

Read the next part in this series: 4 Tips on Playing by Ear

Do you think playing by ear is important in worship music?

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  1. Eugenio

    It’s remarkable for me to have a website, which is useful in support of my know-how.
    thanks admin

  2. Brittany

    I like this a lot. It’s an amazing practice when a new artist comes up with a song like All Sons & Daughters- and instead of googling them with “pdf” in the title to see if Leslie Jordan allows free downloads… (ok I do that, sometimes :)… I use the number system and strum or hit keys to decipher what chords they used.
    Usually it makes me “own” the song better when I worship, and helps me learn! Thanks again, great reminder.

  3. Shalon

    Hey Bill, this is great stuff! Thanks a lot!

  4. Caleb White
    Caleb White10-29-2013

    Hi Shalon
    I agree that playing by ear is preferable to being glued to charts. With a change in approach and understanding of modern music it’s really quite unnecessary … G D A Bm, etc.
    I would agree with JG, too, in that in arrangements that move beyond the standard 3 or 4 chord progressions, it is advantageous to be able to read music.
    I’m a worship leader and drummer who is trying to become a competent keyboard player, and I can’t wait for the day when I can play everything without charts.

    God bless,

    • Shalon

      That’s good stuff, thanks for sharing Caleb!

  5. John Gardner
    John Gardner10-25-2013

    When I teach young musicians, I always emphasize the importance of being able to do read music AND play by ear. It seems most folks want to stress one at the expense of the other, but the truly rounded musician needs to be able to do both.

    Our church uses full orchestration much of the time, where note-reading is most important. But when we lead with rhythm section alone, or include just a few horn or string players to supplement it, I’m thankful that our people know the number system. It gives us great flexibility, and we almost always end up playing something unique and creative that allows each musician to shine and emphasize their strengths.

    • Shalon

      Hey John, thanks for sharing! And yes I agree, both are very important.

      • Bill Adams
        Bill Adams01-29-2014

        Shalon, As a bass player in two of our worship bands, I have to agree with your post with regards to playing by ear. I have been playing on and off for the last 40+ years and have never used music/dots on stage as I am a firm believer that the music you play should come from the heart. Being able to read music is wonderful and it is an area that I wish that I had pursued in my earlier days BUT, I soon learned that music is from the heart/soul and you get a feel of what notes should be played and in what style. Many a time I have spoken to musicians and asked them to drop the music stands so that we don’t have a barrier between them and the congregation. In the last year I have been invited to play at other churches because I can fit in with whoever is playing without having to ask for charts etc. All I ask them to do is to e-mail me the songs that they are thinking of playing (mind you, sometimes you arrive and you find that the minister has asked for an additional song or two) and then I listen to three or four versions of that song/hymn and then have a 30minute rehearsal to make sure that we are all playing and singing from the same hymn sheet, (yes, pun intended) and away we go. I do not criticize anyone who only reads music, I just say to them that being able to use their ears and the right hand side of the brain (as opposed to the left hand side when reading music) is a very useful tool and it will enable them to play with feeling, the way the music should be played. Hope I have not upset anyone with my thoughts but I believe that God gave me these gifts and talents to share with others.