‘Play It by Year’ or ‘Play It by Ear’? (Clearing up the Confusion)

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!”

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

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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.”

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THE ORIGINS OF  “PLAY IT BY EAR”

Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke wrote, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.” 

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This is a very specific way of saying something we all know - Things never go exactly according to plan, and this is also true with music. which is also true with music

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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