play by ear
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play something by ear
1. to be able to play a piece of music after just listening to it a few times, without looking at the notes. I can play "Stardust" by ear. Some people can play Chopin's music by ear.
2. and play by ear to play a musical instrument well, without formal training. John can play the piano by ear. If I could play by ear, I wouldn't have to take lessons—or practice!
3. to improvise; to decide one's next steps after one is already involved in a situation. If we go into the meeting unprepared, we'll have to play everything by ear. He never prepared his presentations. He always played things by ear.
play something by earalso play (it) by ear
1. to play a piece of music after hearing it and without written music My brother can play anything on the piano by ear.
2. to deal with a situation as it develops and without a plan I'm not sure if I can go bowling or not, I'll just have to play it by ear.
Usage notes: sometimes used with other verbs: I write by ear, and rarely with any exact notion of how I want it to come out.
play by ear
1. Play a musical instrument without the aid of written music, as in By the time she was four, she could play a dozen songs by ear. [Late 1600s]
2. play it by ear. Proceed gradually, depending on the circumstances; improvise. For example, I'm not sure how much we should say about our plans, so let's play it by ear. [Mid-1900s]