LIKE MANY other sayings “play it by ear” has developed in usage over a long period of time. In a practical way it has reference to a gifted person who doesn’t know the theory of music, but has the ability to play a tune after hearing it only one or two times. Thus, we declare: “He has the ability to “play by ear!” Some musicians are very effective in reproducing music in this way.
The word “ear” has been used since the 16th century in referring to musical talent. Jan van Wynkyn printed a book in 1526 by William Bonde entitled: The Pilgrimage of Perfection. In that book is the following statement: “In the psalmody…have a good eare.” However, it was not until 1839 that the expression “play it by ear” appeared in print. The following statement was in The Edinburgh Review: “Miss Austen is like one who plays by ear, while Miss Martineau understands the science.”
THE EXPRESSION “play it by ear” is now often used to mean moving ahead on something without carefully planning ahead of time how to complete what one is pursuing. This is being impromptu, moving ahead without a specific plan of action. In some situations this may be necessary because we may not know what to expect. This may be because of a lack of experience in a particular endeavor. It may also be a matter of not knowing what to expect out of a person we will have to deal with. By “playing it by ear” we will react and make decisions in response to how the circumstances develop.
Dub Mowery is a Gospel preacher in the Church of Christ. Presently he serves as full time evangelist for the Pittsburg Church of Christ. A native of Southeast Oklahoma, he is the author of Colloquial Sayings & Expressions (Morris Publishing, 2008)