'Play by Ear' or 'Play by Year': Which is Correct?

By Shanea Patterson, updated on November 9, 2022

You might have heard this phrase and wondered, “Is it ‘play by ear’ or ‘play by year’?” This can be especially confusing if you’re not familiar with the English language and its use of idioms.

The short answer is that it’s ‘play by ear.’ It is never correct to say ‘play by year’ because it doesn’t have an alternate meaning, like most idioms in the English language.

'Play by Year' or 'Play by Ear'? Clearing Up the Confusion 

As you just learned, the correct way to say the phrase is ‘play by ear,’ not ‘play by year.’ That’s because the latter is not an American English idiom.

Understanding Idioms

If you’re just learning English, you might not know what an idiom is.

An idiom is a group of words in a fixed order that has a particular meaning that is different from the meanings of each word on its own, according to Cambridge.

Take a look at some common idioms and what they mean:

What is the Correct Phrase? 

The correct phrase is ‘play by ear,’ but you’ll also hear people say ‘play it by ear.’

So, what does that mean? Let's take a closer look at the definition of the term as well as the definition of the word 'play.'

Definition and Meaning 

Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘play’ as “swordplay,” “game, sport,” “the conduct, course, or action of a game,” “a particular act or maneuver in a game,” “the action in which cards are played after bidding in a card game,” “the moving of a piece in a board game (such as chess),” and “one’s turn in a game.”

It’s also defined as “amorous flirtation: dalliance,” “absence of serious or harmful intent: jest,” “the act or an instance of playing on words or speech sounds,” “an act, way, or manner of proceeding: maneuver,” “the state of being active, operative, or relevant,” and “brisk, fitful, or light movement.”

It also means “to perform music,” “to reproduce recorded sounds,” and “to emit sounds.”

The definition of the term ‘play it by ear’ is “to do something without special preparation.”

But the term ‘play by ear’ can mean that someone can play a song on an instrument (such as a piano) without learning from the sheet music. They learn the notes strictly by listening to them being played and they often repeat after what they hear rather than read the notes on a piece of sheet music.

How to Use it In a Sentence Correctly

Since you know the correct phrase and you know what it means, we can move on to creating correct sentences.

Here’s how you’d use ‘play it by ear’ in a sentence:

  • I’m not sure if I’m going to the game; let’s just play it by ear.
  • I don’t know if I feel like hanging out tomorrow; let’s play it by ear.
  • Alan asked me to go swimming later, but I told him we should just play it by ear.

Now let’s see how you’d use ‘play by ear’ in a sentence:

  • I never took any guitar lessons; I play by ear.
  • A lot of famous musicians don’t read sheet music; they just play by ear.
  • I tried to learn to read sheet music, but it’s easier for me to play by ear.

Final Thoughts on ‘Play By Ear’ and ‘Play By Year’

Now that you know the correct phrase, you can use it in a sentence correctly around all of your English-speaking friends.

If you ever forget the actual phrase, don’t be afraid to pop on back over and refresh your memory.

We’ve got a whole library of articles dedicated to confusing words, as well as idioms and figures of speech.

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Written By:
Shanea Patterson
Shanea Patterson is a writer based in New York and loves writing for brands big and small. She has a master's degree in professional writing from New York University and a bachelor's degree in English from Mercy College.

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