Play It By Ear | Meaning & Example Sentences

Idioms updated on  March 5, 2024 2 min read

Play it by ear is an idiom that means “do something without planning it out beforehand.”

The first recorded use of the phrase was in John Playford’s 1658 handbook A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick: “To learn to play by rote or ear without book.” This idea of playing music by listening to it instead of reading it off a sheet is where the idiom comes from.

To play music by ear requires the musician to feel the music and play according to how the song develops; to play something by ear in the idiomatic sense is to act on something according to how a given situation plays out.

Examples: Play it by ear in a sentence
I’m not sure when we’ll be there; let’s play it by ear.
We’re playing it by ear because the weather looks bad.
My teacher didn’t have a plan, so she played it by ear.

How to use play it by ear

You use “play it by ear” when talking about doing something without a plan or any preparation.

You can either use the phrase as is (e.g., “We’re going to play it by ear”), or you can replace the word “it” with the name of a specific activity or event  (e.g., “We’re going to play the road trip by ear”).

The verb “play” in the expression is conjugated for both tense and subject (e.g., “I played it by ear,” “you are playing it by ear”).

Examples: Play it by ear in a sentence
I’m going to play the presentation by ear since I haven't memorized it.
She wants to be more spontaneous and is playing everything by ear.
Emily doesn’t feel good today, so she’s going to play it by ear.


Play it by year or ear?

The correct phrase is “play it by ear.” “Play it by year” is a common misspelling or commonly misheard phrase with no discernible meaning.

To play something by ear is to be guided by your senses, much like a musician playing music by ear without written notes.

Examples: Play it by year vs play it by ear
We might go later, but we’re playing it by year.
We might go later, but we’re playing it by ear.

Play it by ear synonyms

“Play it by ear” is a common idiom, but it’s great to have options. When you’re discussing something being done without extensive preparation or planning, consider one of these alternatives.

Synonyms

Examples

Improvise

She’s going to improvise the whole party.

Think on one's feet

Shelby had to think on her feet when she got called on in class.

Ad lib

The actor ad libbed most of his lines.

Wing it

I’m just going to wing it at rehearsal tonight.

Fly by the seat of one’s pants

I lost the itinerary, so now I’m flying by the seat of my pants for the whole trip.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Common mistakes

Commonly confused words

Rhetoric

Whoa or woah

Advisor vs adviser

Metonymy

Theirs or their's

Accept vs except

Synecdoche

Ours or our's

Affect vs effect

Verbal irony

Forty or fourty

Among vs between

Irony

Sence or sense

Anymore vs any more

Grawlix


What is the origin of play it by ear?

The idiom “play it by ear” comes from John Playford’s A Brief Introduction to the Skill of Musick (1658). He writes, “To learn to play by rote or ear without book.”

When should I use play it by ear?

Use the idiom “play it by ear” when you are discussing an action or situation that is done or will be done without a plan in place.

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Paige Pfeifer

Paige teaches QuillBot writers about grammar rules and writing conventions. She has a BA in English, which she received by reading and writing a lot of fiction. That is all she knows how to do.

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