Origin of “Play It By Ear”

History has shown that we are better at sticking with our New Year’s resolutions when we have a plan of attack. For example, if we want to lose 5 pounds, we are more likely to achieve this goal by scheduling our workouts and meals each week.

Things get tricky when we divert from that plan and begin to play things by ear.

Which got me thinking…why do we play things by ear? When we go off script and begin to improvise, why are we using our ear and not playing things by say, knee or elbow?

Let’s find out in today’s Wonder Why Wednesday…

Origin of “Play It By Ear”

The phrase is in reference to someone’s ability to play music without having the notes in front of them. A good musician can simply hear a song and then play it without seeing the sheet music.

The saying can be traced back to an 1839 edition of The Edinburgh Review:

Miss Austen is like one who plays by ear, while Miss Martineau understands the science.”

In the mid 20th century in the United States, usage of the phrase was common in sports, especially baseball. The Coshocton Tribune from February 1934 talks about the proposed sale of the Brooklyn Dodgers  and says:

Before going further in this direction, perhaps I can believe that awful suspense by stating that I am reliably informed today that the Brooklyn Dodgers, otherwise the daffiness boys, otherwise the young men who play by ear, are for sale.”


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