“Play It by Year” or “Play It by Ear”?

Phrases can often be misheard, leading to confusion. “Play it by year” is a typical example of misphrasing. The phrase is often used in place of the phrase “play it by ear.” Let’s find out what both these phrases mean.

Play It by ear—What It Means

The phrase “play it by ear” involves improvisation and doing things without following a particular plan. It means that one would see how something goes and go along with it instead of preparing for it beforehand.

Another way of describing the phrase would be paying close attention to surroundings and being flexible enough to change actions based on what happens.

Where “Play It by Ear” Originated

The phrase originated in music when musicians would listen to a piece of music and then try to recreate the sound. Another way of describing the origin is that a musician would learn or study music without any sheet music, so they could then play what they hear.

The meaning of the expression has expanded in scope over the years to embody more contexts. For example, the original context implied that musicians would listen to music they are familiar with and then play the same notes. In recent years, the term has extended to cover situations where there is unfamiliar music, such as during “jamming” sessions, where musicians create music based on improvisation.

When we expand the scope of playing it by ear to include jamming or session-style playing, the phrase fits a lot more in context to how it is used in day-to-day situations now.

Play It by Year

The term “play it by year” does not mean anything. It is easy to see how the term emerged, as it sounds similar to “play it by ear” and is plausible enough to mean something. However, the specific term does not have a set definition.

Why Do Some People Dislike the Saying “Play It by Ear”?

The phrase is sometimes disliked, not because of its wording, but because of what it means. This is because people that like to make concrete plans and follow strict music theory might not like it when others want to improvise or be spontaneous.


“Play it by ear” has a long history and is a phrase that is still commonly used today. Its importance in the musical world is evident. We hope this article clears up any confusion you had about the phrase.