Play By Ear – Meaning and Usage

Have you asked a person what their plans are for the weekend, and they respond with, “I don’t know. I’ll just play it by ear”? It might confuse you if you don’t know what this idiomatic expression means.

Find out what it means to play it by ear and how to use it in a sentence. This article also shows other ways to say this expression. 

What Does it Mean to Play by the Ear?

To play it by ear is an idiomatic expression that means to do something without preparing for it. Instead of creating a plan, you decide how to manage a situation as it occurs. 

Example:

  • I don’t know which dress to get. I’ll just play it by ear.
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In its literal sense, to play something by ear means to play a piece of real music on an instrument by simply listening to it instead of reading from a music sheet. 

Is the Phrase Play it by Ear or Year?

The correct phrase to say is play it by ear. There is no true meaning for the expression play it by year. 

Examples:

  • Incorrect: I have no idea what I’m cooking for dinner, so I’ll have to play it by year and hope it’s delicious.
  • Correct: I have no idea what I’m cooking for dinner, so I’ll have to play it by ear and hope it’s delicious. 
  • Incorrect: This Venice trip is spontaneous; we have to play it by year.
  • Correct: This Venice trip is spontaneous; we have to play it by ear. 

What is Another Way to Say Play it by Ear?

Here are some similar alternatives for play it by ear:

  • Wing it.
  • Make it up as you go along.
  • Go with the flow.
  • Go where the wind goes.
  • Whatever floats your boat.
  • At the spur of the moment.
  • Stumble into/onto.
  • To do something on a wing and a prayer.

Here are some examples:

  • We’re going to wing this dance presentation.
  • We’re going to play this dance presentation by ear.
  • I designed this rush order on a wing and a prayer.
  • I played this rush order by ear. 

How Do You Respond to Let’s Play it by Ear?

When someone tells you to play it by ear, you can either agree or not. Suppose a person asks you out. On the night of the date, you discovered they didn’t make a dinner reservation. They also have no plans to watch a movie or stroll at the park.

Are you willing to play it by ear? Do you want to be spontaneous on the date? If you do, you can say, “sure” or “sounds good.” But if you do not like the idea of playing it by ear, you can say, “I think we should make a plan.”

How to Properly Use Play it by Ear

Use play it by ear when you want to decide how to deal with a situation as it’s already occurring. You can also use the expression in its literal sense when you can play something on the instrument by only listening to it.

Here are some examples of play it by ear in a sentence:

“I kind of just play it by ear, I like to see what people are liking, see what people enjoy what I post and what not, and then I’ll kind of just go from there,” she said. [NY Post]

Lara remembers those early days of the strikes when she and her colleagues played it by ear and learned along the way. Over time, she became eager to use her newly-found leadership skills to support and build Allan Brothers’ union. [Crosscut]

“They were saying, ‘We’ll make sure you get those maggots, Dad. Will it happen in the future? Let’s play it by ear.” [Yorkshire Post]

Summary of Play by Ear

Now you know that to play by ear is the opposite of planning in advance. Remember that the correct expression is play by ear and play by year is merely an eggcorn

Would you rather plan your activities or play by ear?