‘Play It By Year’ or ‘Play It By Ear’? (Clearing Up The Confusion)

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  • ‘Play It By Year’ or ‘Play It By Ear’ – which is it?
  • Find out which phrase is correct and where it originated…

You have probably heard the phrase “play it by ear” before, even if you didn’t realize that – yes – it is “ear” and not “year!”

It’s a reference to improvising or playing music without the aid of musical notation or any other concrete reference to a detailed plan.

“Play it by year” is a misunderstanding based on spoken English: the elision of the “y” sound in “by” and the “e” sound in “ear” makes it easy to confuse “by ear” and “by year,” especially when speaking fast.

But is there anything we could make of this other phrase, “play it by year?”

The Origins Of “Play It By Ear”

There are all sorts of occasions in the lives of both musicians and non-musicians that cannot be planned for.

The Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke wrote in 1871 that “Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus.”

In case you are not fluent in German, this translates to “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.”

This is a very specific way of saying something we all know from the experience of being human.

Things never go exactly according to plan, and this is also true with music.

Sure, there are composers who try their very best to plan their music out, sometimes to the finest detail.

There are others, especially composers prior to the Romantic Era, who leave a bit more to the musician’s discretion as they read through a score.

Many forms of music are not even written down in musical notation, leaving some, but not all, elements to the discretion of the performer.

It is an over-simplification to suggest that all music written in musical notation is planned, and thus all music that is not written in musical notation is unplanned.

In the same way, it is an over-simplification to suggest that all music that is written in musical notation is played off the page and all music that is not written in musical notation is played by ear.

Really, there is a lot of mixing between these polarities in any case of music-making, yet the idea that “playing by ear” is the same as “improvising” or “making it up as you go” relies on these bifurcations.

Can We Make Something Out Of “Play It By Year?”

As musicians, we know that there is more to improvising than making things up as you go.

Every musical form has its own syntactical structures that determine what is “good” improvising in a particular setting and what is “less good.”

The best musicians can arrive at their intended meaning when playing music only after years of formal or informal ear training and extensive practice on their musical instrument or voice.

Ear training takes time, learning an instrument takes time, and developing a voice as a musician takes time, whether we mean the voice as an instrument or the voice, more figuratively, as having something to express as a musician.

I have heard a lot of young musicians who have the technical chops to play incredible music, but there is always a small detail missing from really young musicians’ performances, and I think it is that voice.

There is something to the impact of years lived on performance: a connection between all of the human experiences and the work it takes to bring them into a performance.

This time, these years, are the natural varnish of a violinist’s hand oils finishing the neck of the instrument: this process is not to be overlooked.

So, Is It Play It By Year or Ear?

The phrase is definitely “play it by ear.”

“Play it by year” is just a misunderstanding, but I think there is something to be said for seeing the best music as a product of time – great music generally can’t be played without years of experience.

I doubt this understanding will catch on, and I actually hope it doesn’t lest things get even more confusing with two phonetically identical phrases in use. But it is certainly something worth reflecting upon.

(Can you be good at music without actually learning music theory? We investigate this age-old argument in Do Music Producers Need Music Theory To Succeed?)