Happy Birthday By Ear: The Ultimate Teaching Resource

Can you think of any moments when, as a young piano student, you were
put on the spot or caught off guard being asked to play something for people and feeling the heat rise to your face because you weren’t able to do so “because you didn’t have any “music”?

I myself have had many experiences in this situation – sadly, even into my early adult years. Often, the request was a simple one – “Happy Birthday” – and yet to me, it was crippling and made me feel ashamed.

These people know me as THE pianist in their life. That’s what I’m known for! Why can’t I just sit down and play this simple tune without music?

Without a doubt, life experiences make up who we are today.

As a teacher, I’m now determined to help my students feel
ENABLED and CONFIDENT that, as pianists, they can sit down and play something anywhere and at any time – starting with the tune “Happy Birthday.”

Today I am excited to release the ultimate teaching resource for playing “Happy Birthday” by ear and am confident this is the only download you will ever need!


Avoiding a “Crutch”

Over the years I’ve come across a small handful of resources online for teaching happy birthday, but most of the time it’s a lead-sheet and almost always in the key of C.

While playing from lead-sheets is a skill I highly value and teach often in my studio, it wasn’t how I wanted to approach teaching a tune I wanted my students to always be prepared to play such as “Happy Birthday”.


If students are taught that the only way they can learn to play the piece is with music notation in front of them, then they will always feel that notation “crutch” – even if they memorize the tune after learning it with notation.

I really wanted to approach it from the sound side in order to give them the confidence they really CAN play it without music – and thus anywhere at any time.

Here’s a little preview of the first page (more previews below):


A Brief Word on Playing By Ear

Often, we are told often when playing by ear that you “pick out the melody” then memorize it.

Hmmm… I get where you’re coming from, but is that really a reliable and long-lasting process? I don’t know about you, but my memory is terrible. Even if I were to pick out a tune and memorize it, I’m not going to remember it a year later if asked to play it at the drop of a hat.

As someone who was taught very traditionally and completely by music notation, it never worked for me. Playing by ear always felt like “walking in the dark.” My ear had never been properly taught how to truly hear music with understanding (audition).

It wasn’t until I discovered Music Learning Theory in my adult professional life that I finally felt enabled to learn (and teach) how to truly “hear” music and understand what I was hearing.


Goals for this Resource

Besides making sure this was a resource that helped teachers approach teaching this piece by ear, I had a few other goals in mind:

First, while I have learned much from MLT, and am influenced by the philosophy, it was important to me that this resource be flexible enough that any teacher could use it.

Second, I wanted a tangible guide that served as a visual for teacher and student to walk through the process as well as a place for students to keep track of their creative variations on the tune.

Third, I wanted the visual layout to feel helpful and not overwhelming and for teachers to be able to customize the resource for the level of the student. So, if your student is only learning the melody, all they need is page one – not the whole document!

Fourth, while the desired approach is “by-ear”, I had some really good verbal memory tips that my students and myself found useful in remembering how to play the melody. Yes, I admit, these are a bit of a “cheat” on what’s said to be a “by-ear” approach, but they have proven to be so helpful that I wanted to include them.


What You Get

This 11-page download includes:

  • 3 student pages: Melody (previewed above), Harmony, and Get Creative


  • A create variations tracker: A checklist for students to keep track of different creative combinations they’ve used (such as waltz bass, what keys they’ve transposed to, creating an introduction/ending, etc.)


  • 3 teacher pages: Suggested teaching tips for approaching each area including a “bonus” page with some extra MLT-inspired activities if you would like to take the audiation-based instruction a little further.
  • 2 notated pages:  One with the melody only and one that includes chord root harmony. These are included as a reference for your convenience, but I would strongly encourage teachers to consider not giving students the notation.


The pages of this resource are laid out so you can print as few or as many pages as you want to give to students. Are they just learning the melody? All they need is page one! Don’t overwhelm them with extra pages.

The beautiful thing about having a life-long piece like this is that students don’t have to learn it in the same order each year.

Perhaps in their first year, they learn to play the melody, the next year add single note bass harmony, the third year root positions chords, and the fourth year they get creative with variations on accompaniment patterns. Students at any skill level can learn to play this piece with confidence!


Ready to Purchase?


Featured on…

This resource was featured in Episode 28 of the Beyond Measure Podcast.



  • Amy,
    Nice job of simplifying the play-by-ear process!
    This can be expanded of course to other tunes. But the students absolutely must be able to sing the tune or at least have it in the ear first.
    To my dismay, students seem to be learning (in school) fewer and fewer traditional songs, patriotic songs, folk melodies and the like. My remedy is as follows.
    From a functional piano class in college, I have lists of tunes that can be harmonized with I, I and V and I, IV and V chords. First I teach them to sing the song, then plunk out the tune on the piano, then figure out a harmonization.
    In recent years, I’ve been teaching all my beginners to start with singing to develop the ear. Several method books have apps that accompany the books- very useful for singing/playing by ear. I’d love to hear what other teachers do.

    • Yes, you are absolutely right, Maryjane! The process crosses over into other tunes as well. I love hearing what you do with your college classes – it’s such an important skill. I agree that singing the tune is an important first step in the process. Our voices are our first instrument!

      I have a sheet of 147 Tunes to Harmonize if you would ever find it useful: https://pianopantry.com/147-tunes-to-harmonize/

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