Play by ear


      • make decisions as one goes along
        To approach a situation without a definite plan, instead deciding actions as the situation unfolds

      • perform music without sheet music
        To play a musical piece without following the written notes, relying on memory or improvisation instead

    Examples of Play by ear

    • The musician started playing a new song without the sheet music, relying solely on his ability to play by ear.

      In this instance, 'play by ear' refers to the musician's skill at playing a song without reading the musical notation. Instead, he is able to listen to the melody and chords of the song and play them accurately by ear. This idiom is commonly used to describe behaviors or actions that do not rely on predetermined plans or instructions, and instead are improvised based on intuition and quick thinking.

    • The musician poorly remembered the sheet music for the symphony, so he had to play by ear during the performance.

      In this context, "play by ear" means to perform a musical piece without the aid of written music. It implies relying solely on one's hearing and memory of the melody to play the instrument.

    • The cook wasn't originally familiar with the ingredients called for in the recipe, so she had to play by ear and improvise in order to make a delicious meal.

      Here, "play by ear" refers to making a decision or executing a task without following a strict guideline or set of instructions. It indicates the ability to use one's intuition and experience to accomplish a goal in a creative or flexible way.

    • The comedian often impromptu jokes and punchlines during his performances, as he is skilled in playing by ear and reading the audience's reactions.

      "Playing by ear" in this sense signifies the talent to spontaneously react and respond accordingly to a situation or circumstance without prior preparation or practice. It implies a level of confidence and competence in handling situations on a whim.

    • The musician couldn't quite remember the lyrics to the song, but she determinedly played by ear and sang along as best she could.

      In this context, "playing by ear" refers to the ability to sing or recite a piece of work without the aid of written material, and instead rely on one's memory and sense of melody or rhythm. It indicates a high degree of musical or vocal proficiency.

    • John is a gifted musician who can play the piano by ear. He doesn't need sheet music to create beautiful melodies.

      This is a common use of the idiom "play by ear." It refers to the ability to play a musical instrument without reading written music. John has such a talent, as he can "play by ear" and create music without the aid of written notation.

    • When Sarah's flight was delayed, she decided to catch a different mode of transportation using her instincts. She playfully said, "I'm going to play this by ear."

      In less literal terms, Sarah's statement means that she would travel by intuition, without a strict plan or schedule. Because her initial plan was disrupted by the flight delay, Sarah decided to improvise and figure things out as she goes.

    • During the theater production, the lead actor forgot his lines and looked to the audience for help. The actor's colleagues quickly encouraged him and said, "Just play it by ear, man!"

      In this scenario, "play it by ear" is used to inspire the actor to wing it and improvise when caught off guard. It's a form of encouragement to be flexible and adaptive in unexpected situations.


    The idiom "play by ear" can be used to describe making decisions as one goes along or performing music without sheet music. In both cases, it implies a lack of a specific plan or script, and instead relying on intuition, memory, or improvisation.

    Origin of "Play by ear"

    The origin of the idiom "play by ear" comes from the world of music. When musicians play by ear, they are able to listen to a piece of music and then reproduce it without needing to read the sheet music. This ability requires a good ear for music and a strong memory for melodies and harmonies. Over time, the expression has been extended to describe approaching situations without a specific plan, using one's instincts and intuition to guide decisions. The idiom is often associated with flexibility and adaptability, as it implies the ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Overall, the origin of "play by ear" reflects the idea of relying on one's own abilities and intuition rather than following a predetermined path.