fbpx Skip to Content

“Playing by ear” vs. “Playing by year”

“Playing by ear” vs. “Playing by year”

Sharing is caring!

Commonly misheard sayings are nothing new to the English language.

In fact, it happens so often that there’s even a word, Mondegreen, that describes the phenomenon of mishearing song lyrics and popular phrases.

Although we aren’t going to get into song lyrics, today’s commonly misheard phrase does relate to music.


Is it “playing by ear or playing by year”?

The correct phrase is “playing by ear,” not “playing by year.” This phrase refers to the practice of playing a song “by ear” (that is: after listening to it) rather than using sheet music. Metaphorically, “playing by ear” means to act without a plan and respond to changing situations as they happen.


The meaning of “playing by ear”

The phrase “playing by ear” comes from the world of music. When playing a piece of music, musicians typically use sheet music or some other form of notation.

The sheet music ensures that they’re playing the correct notes and that the song or tune will sound the same each time.

However, not all musicians need or use sheet music. Some people have such a good ear for music that they can hear a song once and play it back perfectly. What these musicians do is called “playing by ear.”

In extended uses, this phrase has come to mean doing something without a solid plan in place beforehand.

It also implies that a situation might change rapidly and that it will be easier to change what you do to meet that changing situation, rather than writing down a detailed plan that might no longer apply.

Although it seems like a stretch to get there from music, another part of playing an instrument by ear is that you can tell if it sounds wrong and adjust your playing accordingly.

In other words, both the original and extended meaning of “playing by ear” rely on improvisation and flexibility rather than rigidly sticking to a plan.


Where “playing by year” comes from

Many people think this phrase is “playing by year” and assume that it’s a saying without much meaning.

To be fair, English does have a lot of things that have changed over time and the answer to riddles like the difference between slacks, pants and trousers can come down to older words clashing with new ones.

However, the most likely origin of this particular Mondegreen is in the spoken word. If you say “by ear” very quickly, it sounds a lot like “by year.”

There are some complicated linguistic reasons for this, but the short version is that in many dialects of American English the position of your tongue in your mouth at the end of the word “by” and the start of the word “ear” ends up being nearly identical to if you say the word “year.”


How to use “playing by ear” in a sentence

The phrase “playing by ear” is a verb phrase, meaning that you can place it in a sentence wherever a verb would go. (Check out our article on the difference between clauses vs phrases for more information on using phrases in a sentence.)

You can use “playing by ear” in a sentence any time you want to show that someone is acting without a plan.

In most, if not all, cases you’ll include the word “it” between “playing” and “by.” You can also change the verb tense of “playing” to show past, present, or future.


“The teacher didn’t hand out a syllabus. Instead, he said he’d play it by ear.”

Here, the teacher has decided to teach without a set plan.

“When my sister went to Hawaii, she played it by ear and ended up missing her flight home.”

In this case, the speaker’s sister might have gotten a little too relaxed on her vacation.

Of course, it’s always possible she used a lack of planning as an excuse to extend her stay!

“The team playing it by ear was able to win the tournament because the opposing team’s coach stuck to the playbook too closely.”

Improvisation can be risky, but sometimes it pays off. In this case, a coach who’s too focused on textbook plays ends up costing her team the trophy.