Can You Learn to Play by Ear?

New Ears Resolution has helped hundreds of musicians learn to play by ear over the past 15 years. And now, the Second Edition offers scores of new innovations designed to make your learning experience more enjoyable, effective, and thorough.

Whether you work with a jazz combo, rock group, or big band, or just play for your own pleasure, “New Ears Resolution” will help you become the musician you have always wanted to be.

i’ve taught this method for years and have used it in my own performances.  i’ve researched extensively in order to improve its design and have thus developed a comprehensive approach to the art of playing by ear.


“New Ears Resolution” is a hands-on method. Learn to play by ear by playing, rather than studying abstract theory! It’s fun, and it’s practical.

The audio contains 26 enjoyable play-along tracks in many different styles: swing, bossa, bop, rock, folk, country, jazz waltz, ballad, and fusion.

The 78-page book includes charts for each of the 26 exercises along with clear, simple instructions and lots of handy tips on how to succeed on the gig or in the jam session.


Learn to use these scales:

  • Major
  • Natural Minor
  • Harmonic Minor
  • Melodic Minor
  • Blues Scale
  • Extended Blues Scale

Learn to use the following modes:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

Learn to improvise over these chords:

  • Triads
  • Major Sevenths
  • Dominant Sevenths
  • Minor Sevenths
  • Minor 7 Flat 5 (Half Diminished)
  • V7(b9)
  • sus b9
  • V7#9(#5)
  • Diminished
  • Augmented

Learn how to navigate key changes (modulations) smoothly and effortlessly.

Learn techniques for improvising.

Learn about harmonic context.

Understand how to play over these progressions:

  • The ii-V-I progression
  • The I-vi-ii-V progression
  • The 12-bar blues progression

Learn the art of melody embellishment.

Learn how to play polytonal passages.

Master rhythm and learn to swing!

PDF Book & Music – $9.99
Or Printed Book & CD $19.99

Thanks to the reliable FastSpring delivery system, you can begin your ear training study right now. You will receive the 78-page “New Ears Resolution, Second Edition” ebook (as a pdf file) along with the 26 mp3 audio files, all in a quick downloading zip file.

Or purchase the physical book & CD via PayPal.


How do i know? Because I have taught over 100 musicians to do it over the past 15 years. These are musicians of all ages and levels of ability on various instruments, and you can be one of them.

Playing by ear is a thrilling experience. With this skill, your instrument can reproduce any song you can whistle or imagine, in any key. You can write down melodies while sitting on an airplane, without consulting a piano. How is this wonderful feat accomplished?

There are two ways a person plays by ear. Either you are born with perfect pitch or you learn to play by ear using relative pitch.

One in 10,000 people is born with perfect pitch. These rare individuals can hear any note and tell you what that note is. Some folks say perfect pitch can be learned, but I am very skeptical of these claims.

Relative pitch – by contrast – is the ability to name any note once you have been given a reference pitch. You figure out the second note by calculating its distance from the given note. I can teach you to do this.

In order to improvise, you must be able to transfer any melody you hear (on the radio, in your memory, or in your imagination) to your fingers and your instrument.

How do You Do It?

My “New Ears Resolution” ear training method is based on the “movable Do” system as elaborated by my teacher, Alvin Learned. Al was Dean of the legendary Westlake School of Jazz, which trained many of the leading Los Angeles musicians of the 1950’s, including Paul Desmond, Les McCann, and Billy May.

By playing along with the “New Ears” audio tracks, you learn to discern the relative position of various notes in a scale, and you become adept at finding any scale degree on your instrument in any key. The difference this makes in your playing is immediate & dramatic!

Visualize two typists, one laboriously “hunting & pecking” for each letter, the other effortlessly “touch typing,” spinning out error-free paragraphs. Now imagine two musicians, one painstakingly searching for each note (by trial & error), the other soaring through a melody as if it had been carefully memorized.

A very talented and ambitious young student told me he was trying to memorize one tune per week in all 12 keys. I responded, “That sounds like a mountain of work, and it will take you 10 years to build a repertoire!”

When you play a song by ear, you do NOT memorize the sheet music. Rather, you hear the tune in your imagination, calculate the tune’s formula in real time, and translate the formula into actual notes in any desired key on your instrument, also in real time.

This may sound like it would consume a staggering amount of brain power, but the process becomes amazingly simple, once you have worked through the exercises contained in the “New Ears Resolution” package. The 26 exercises on the CD (or mp3 download) start out quite simply and grow increasingly complex as your ability and confidence grow.

You will play along with the 72-minute audio a minimum of three times.

  • The first time, you read through the charts given in the “New Ears” book while you play along with the audio track. This also helps refine your sight reading ability.
  • The second time, you play along with the recording without looking at the book. You are now playing the exercises by ear. This increases your confidence.
  • The third time through, you improvise variations as you play along with the recording. This builds your improvisatory vocabulary.

While this method is primarily designed to teach you to play by ear in all 12 keys, many other benefits are derived from practicing with the “New Ears” recording.

  • Your sight reading grows stronger.
  • Your tone develops.
  • Your intonation improves.
  • Your rhythmic sense increases.
  • You begin to develop an improvisational vocabulary.
  • Your confidence blossoms.

While the majority of my students incorporate the “New Ears Resolution” ear training method within a series of 12 or more one-hour private lessons, scores of self-motivated students have found they can learn on their own from the book & audio tracks.

The brand new, comprehensively redesigned Second Edition answers numerous questions which more than a hundred students have asked me over the past 15 years.  Its 26 audio tracks and 78-page book are packed with helpful tips to prepare you for the gig & the jam session.

Students who encounter questions or road blocks along the way need only send me an email, and the issue will be promptly addressed.

PDF Book & Music – $9.99
Or Printed Book & CD $19.99

Thanks to the reliable FastSpring delivery system, you can begin your ear training study right now. You will receive the 78-page “New Ears Resolution, Second Edition” ebook (as a pdf file) along with the 26 mp3 audio files, all in a quick downloading zip file.

Or purchase the physical book & CD via PayPal.


15 thoughts on “Can You Learn to Play by Ear?

  1. Hi Craig,

    I take clarinet lessons from Signe, who recommended your ear traing book and CD.

    I would like to stop by and pick up a copy (I live in PA) , I will be in Sequim this Sunday around 2:00pm, will be leaving Sequim around 4:30. Would either of those times work to pick up a copy.


  2. Hi Craig–It would be clearer if you explained that the movable do is the “do” of “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do”. Sig


  3. I bought the “New Ears” set last May 2007 while attending the Big Band workshop in Port Townsend. I worked on it on my own from time-to-time and was making some progress. Then, in Jan 2008, I had occasion to be on the Olympic Penninsula and arranged to do a lesson with Craig. That 1 session was HUGE help. I understand quite a bit more of what I’m working towards with the New Ears book. Now, I have it on the top of my practice pile and am using it as my warmup each day when I have the opportunity to practice. I can do a lot with it on my own, but I also can see how being able to pair it with regular lessons would be even better. Wish I lived closer! To be able to find someone like you, Craig, here at home to work with on an ongoing basis would be a wonderful thing. In the meantime, I’m learning a lot and seeing some neat places by looking farther afield for lessons and places to play!


  4. bossachoro Says:

    May 26, 2009 at 11:48 am
    Hi Craig,

    Thanks a lot for your feedback. I play mainly Brazilian music style and also some Jazz and Classical music. I am Brazilian. I play bossa-nova (i.e. Jobim), chôros (i.e. Pixinguinha), some comtemporary (i.e Guinga). I wish to play, I mean be able to improvise mainly over jazz, and brazilian music standards.

    I am working every day thru the entire CD of “New Ears Resolution. I find it quite relaxing singing or hearing in my head the solfegio syllable names and playing the guitar at same time. I understand that working with movable DO is important to develop relative pitch and be able to transpose more easily. Do you think it is also necessary to work thru the chromatic scale in the future? I mean using syllables like LI, SI, FI, etc.

    I am already feeling some effects of this work when playing by ear or improvising. It is not perfect but it seems the fingers find more “right” notes and faster. How long, in average, do you think it takes to be able to play the things I hear in my head consistently?

    In the book, page 6, step 2, you say we could play the chords. For the moment I am playing only the single notes by ear. Is it important to play the chords? Do you mean playing the chords the intervals together? I think most of intervals being played are inside the chords. What is the best way to practice?

    Craig, thanks in advance for taking your time. Please let me if there are other materials I can buy from you.

    Best wishes,



    1. Dear Luiz,
      I believe i can speak for the entire jazz community when i express how great a debt we all owe to the musicians of Brazil for the profound contribution your country has made to this music. Of course, for most of us our primary connection to Brazil is through the music of Jobim, Gilberto, Bola Sete, and Milton Nascimento. But our appetites have been stimulated to seek more. Perhaps – as i share with you the joy of ear training – you will also teach me more about the music of your countrymen.
      Brazilian compositions such as those of Jobim offer us a freshness of rhythmic approach which is widely appreciated, but his music is also very rich in harmonic & melodic content. As you work through “New Ears Resolution,” you are mastering the harmonic language encapsulated by the common II-V-I progression, which is the backbone of jazz standard literature. You are also becoming more secure in your ability to navigate the 12 major scales, which provides a basic vocabulary for melodic construction.
      We are considering various strategies to use in volume II of this work: whether to focus on modes, the various minor scales, blues, pentatonics, or chromaticism. Your first work in chromaticism should be in the use of chromatic passing & neighbor tones. For example, if you enlarge on exercise 1, you might vary it first from TI-DO to TI-DO-RE-TI-DO. Then try TI-DO-DI-RE-RA-DO-TI-DO. Obviously, you need to adjust the rhythm to make room for the additional notes. Next, attempt LI-TI-DO-DI-RE-RA-DO-LI-TI-DO. These and other variations can be executed over the same 9 exercises already encountered on the CD. As you begin to elaborate on the original 9 exercises (in all 12 keys), you are:
      1. Learning the syllables in all 12 keys.
      2. Learning the chromatic notes between the scale tones in those 12 keys.
      3. Learning how to plan your rhythmic flow so as to accomodate the number of notes you wish to fit in a given sequence.
      4. AND, MOST IMPORTANT, you are beginning to improvise … in a way which fits the melody, the harmony, the key center, and the rhythmic groove.
      This last point is perhaps the most essential of all. Many of my students comment that achieving a smooth flow in concept & execution is their biggest struggle. It is not as important to play 3 notes or 5 or 18; what is crucial is that your melodic path unfolds smoothly, consistent with the metric flow & the groove.
      Now, in regards to your question about chords, the guitar is BOTH a melodic AND a chordal instrument. Guitarists imply the harmony in various ways.
      1. My friend Mark Turnbull can play a melody in such a way that each note in the melody is the top note in a chord.
      2. Other guitarists play a melodic phrase and then punctuate that with a chord (like Kenny Burrell).
      3. Still others use arpegiated chords (which is what we horn players are forced to do) to deliniate the harmony.
      You may wish to start by simply playing the bass notes (the root of each chord), being careful to keep in precise rhythm with the drums. Or you might try playing a harmony to the melody (example: to the melody FA-MI-RE-TI-DO, play LA-SO-FA-RE-MI)
      Another area in which “New Ears Resolution” is strengthening you is in the matter of MODULATION. Jobim’s best known song, “Girl From Ipaniama”, is not difficult to play as far as the degrees of the scale go; the melody contains only 2 non-harmonic tones. What makes it a challenge for students is the many modulations it contains in the bridge. The best way to think of a key change is like crossing a border. When i am in Bellingham, WA, i am a citizen; when i travel to Vancouver, BC, i become a visitor. Same person, different function. So, in “Ipanima”, when you move from the verse in F major to the bridge in Gb major, the first note changes from DO to TI. We notate that as DO=TI … the old DO becomes the new TI. As you begin to hear and adapt to these internal modulations, you will no longer get lost, but will always know where you are. It is as if you get off of 1 train and get on to another train. You move at the same speed but in a new direction.


    1. Hello Beau,
      You are correct in your statement. That is why “New Ears Resolution” stresses the degree of the scale (its function) for each note. The only time one would be pre-occupied with “major sixth”, “perfect fourth”, “tritone”, etc. is when one is learning 12-tone (20th century) avant garde music. For straight-ahead jazz, function is the key.


    1. Yes. You are on the right track. It is the difference between “touch typing” versus the “hunt and peck” method. Konwing where all of the notes are frees you up to choose and play the exact note you desire, rather than searching for it in the dark. By the time you find it, the moment has passed. “New Ears” is like scratching the itch … it feels so good when you find the right spot.



    > —–Original Message—– From: D H
    > Sent: Friday, August 26, 2011 6:23 PM
    > To:
    > Subject: Ear Training
    > Hi! I have been working on playing by ear for several years (off & on).
    > Do you have any tips or guidelines for multi-instrumentalists,
    > specifically different keyed instruments? (I play mostly Alto Sax,
    > flute, & clarinet.)
    > Thanks for your help. Have a great day!
    > -DH

    On Aug 27, 2011, at 1:15 PM, Craig Buhler wrote:

    > Hi DH,
    > Good to hear that your interest in playing by ear is growing. You will
    > find it liberating & exciting to play melodies without being enslaved to
    > the printed page. This skill will also open up to you the wonderful
    > world of creative improvisation & composition.
    > Please see my article on the subject:
    > Any work you do on any one of your instruments will apply equally well to
    > the others.
    > cb

    —–Original Message—–
    From: DH
    Sent: Monday, August 29, 2011 2:58 PM
    To: Craig Buhler
    Subject: Re: Ear Training

    Thanks for getting back to me.

    I am a good sight reader, so would I be better off starting with the
    2nd run through without the music? Also, should I order all 3 – C,
    Bb, & Eb, or just transpose from C?

    Thanks for your help. Have a great day!


    Hi DH,
    If you feel confident, you are welcome to begin on the 2nd run thru.
    The first 2 exercises you will find quite easy. The terrain becomes more
    as you progress thru to the later exercises, and you can resort to reading
    at any time if necessary.
    Once you have mastered the 2nd run thru on all 9 exercises, “the sky is the
    limit” as regards ways in which
    you can approach the 3rd run thru. Since you will be improvising over
    II-V-I changes,
    all of your work here will directly enhance your ability to perform
    improvisations on
    real live songs.
    The CD is the same for all of the books, so if you are going to attempt the
    work beginning
    at phase II, you will only need 1 book. Choose the one corresponding to
    the horn on which
    you feel the most confidence.
    I wish you much success and am confident you will find the effort most


  6. Hi Craig; I bought your ear training book a few years ago, but only recently got serious about using your solfege method in learning tunes and improvising. I’ve been playing music off and on since childhood (I’m 59) ,mostly piano and violin, but only got serious about jazz for maybe last 5yrs. 3 yrs. ago I picked up the alto sax and am now playing in the peninsula college jazz band. My question is this; when you use your method, are you actually thinking/singing the appropriate syllables in your head when you play? Or at least trying to? Or is that something you should leave behind when improvising especially, as it may interfere with flow? I find that if I try to sing the syllables as I play, I have a real sense of playing what’s “in my head”, not just letting the fingers run around aimlessly. However, so far it’s a pretty halting way to play, as my brain can’t make the transfer from thought to syllable to fingers very fast, or very consistently, especially in up tempo stuff. So is this something that just needs more time and practice, or am I on the wrong path? Thanks for any advice you can give me Craig. I love your melodic playing by the way…….


    1. Hi Bob,
      Thank you for expressing appreciation of my playing. My 9th CD will be available in about a month with pianist Linda Dowdell, bassist Ted Enderle, and drummer Tom Svornich performing some wonderful lesser known standards.

      And Thank you for articulating what i believe is the most profound subject in improv process development. My grandfather, Karl Buhler, wrote extensively on the psychology of language and pondered the same sorts of issues you raise here.
      Perhaps we can best address your question by dividing jazz repertoire into 4 categories.
      1.) A simple diatonic melody, such as “Autumn Leaves.” A student who has studied “New Ears Resolution” and can play major & minor scales will be able to easily analyze the syllables in “Autumn Leaves” and then play the melody in any key. A large portion of your improv can be navigated in this way.
      Do you actually “sing the syllables” as you play such a melody? i cannot definitively answer this question, but i am definitely aware of the tonality and am choosing melodic patterns appropriate to both the key and the chord of the moment.
      As i continue to practice hundreds of “licks” in all 12 keys, the linkage between ear, imagination, and fingers grows ever smoother. i also study transcriptions of solos by the masters in order to better understand how they have approached similar challenges.
      2.) A multi-key diatonic melody containing internal key changes, such as “All the Things You Are” or “Invitation.” Before i was able to navigate these tunes, i had to ponder the nature of the internal key changes. My students do this by putting boxes of various colors around the different sections of the tune, with each color representing the appropriate key. Once you understand the internal key changes, you will be able to perform these tunes in any key as well.
      For example, the key change in exercise 1 of “New Ears Resolution” can be conceptualized as “the old DO becomes the new TI,” (or “DO=>TI” for short.) A second example: The key change at bar 6 of “All the Things You Are” can be characterized as “LA=>FA.”
      3.) Polytonal or atonal melodies found in the compositions of such avant-garde composers as Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, or David Jones. As of this date, such pieces are beyond the scope of “New Ears Resolution.” I am currently studying the work of Mark Levine and hope to one day incorporate these complex, non-diatonic structures into the framework of “New Ears Resolution.” In the meantime, i resort to the method of intervals (“up a perfect fourth, down a tritone”) in memorizing such melodies.


  7. I want your book & cd titled “New ears resolution” for trumpet. I don’t have a credit card or debit card. I can send you a money order. Will that be aceptable?
    Can you tell me where to send the money order and
    The full price?


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