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I've come across a few cases where I needed to write this phrase and I cannot determine which is correct. Do we "play it by ear" or "play it by year"? I'm using this with the intended meaning of something like "we'll figure it out as we go". I'm not using it in any sort of musical sense.

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closed as off-topic by Andrew Leach, Barrie England, Mari-Lou A, Janus Bahs Jacquet, user49727 Nov 15 '13 at 22:25

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idioms.thefreedictionary.com/play+by+ear I can't even imagine a context in which "play it by year" would make sense. –  RegDwigнt Nov 15 '13 at 19:36
    
@RegDwigнt True, but without knowing the musical origins to this phrase, it's hard to conceive how "play it by ear" means one should figure it out as they go. –  drs Nov 15 '13 at 23:28

2 Answers 2

The phrase is "play it by ear", meaning to use a musical instrument to play a song using your sense of sound (and memory) to guide the way, rather than by reading a music sheet.

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If you are referring to someone who plays a musical instrument without sheet music, then they are said to be playing the piece 'by ear'. It means that they have listened to it so many times that they are able to reproduce the notes from memory.

There is no obvious single meaning for the expression 'play it by year' but it might be possible to think of one!

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The only semi-obvious meaning of ‘play it by year’ I can think of would be if someone had, say, a Motown compilation with many, many songs in it. You could conceivably say, “That’s far too many songs for one listen—chop it up into bits instead, and play it by year”. Even then, though, I would probably say, “Play the songs by year”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '13 at 20:21
    
Actually, a competent musician can play a piece by ear even if they've only heard it a few times. Such musicians understand music well enough to catch on rather quickly; it's not a memorization skill so much as an ability to catch on extremely quickly. Playing by ear is quite different from playing from memory. –  J.R. Nov 16 '13 at 23:03
    
@J.R. Having said that I am of course aware that what we call 'memory' encompasses a range of neural activities, which take place in different parts of the brain. Hence, by way of example, my 99 year-old father who often has difficulty remembering what was said 15 minutes ago can still remember being presented with a 'Peace Mug' in 1918 at the age of 4. I think there have been examples of people whose brains have been damaged to the point where they don't know who they are, but who can still perform complex tasks like advanced algebra. –  WS2 Nov 17 '13 at 9:27

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