046 – How to Teach Jingle Bells By Ear

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Episode Summary

The one tune it seems like every single piano student wants to play in the Christmas season. Here’s how you can help them play it by ear.


Items Mentioned

Free Download: Jingle Bells By Ear


The holidays are upon us, and while no student, teacher, or studio is alike, if there is one universal experience we will all have at some point in our teaching careers, it’s having a student in front of us whose first request of the season is to be able to play Jingle Bells. So, if there’s one thing I can gift to all my piano teaching colleagues this season, it’s how to enable our students of any level to play Jingle Bells.

When teaching students to play song requests, I remember learning an invaluable tip from Australian-based teacher and online influencer Tim Topham years ago: oftentimes, students don’t need to play the entire song to feel fulfilled. It’s OK to just do a portion of a song, like the fun opening ditty or the part they love to sing. Even though he was talking specifically about pop tunes, the principal stands here as well.

Most of your students will be completely happy skipping over the “Dashing through the snow…” part and getting right to the chorus “jingle bells, jingle bells….” Plus, since we’re talking about playing by ear, the verse poses a lot more challenges.

While the approach I’ll be sharing today is mostly inspired by teaching tactics I’ve learned from studying Edwin E. Gordon’s research on audiation and how we learn music (known as Music Learning Theory”), it also embraces and incorporates rote-based teaching strategies.

Before we continue with this chat, I will be upfront with you. If you had told me even 5-6 years ago that I would someday do a podcast episode on playing by ear, I would have laughed hysterically. Playing by ear is something I was never really taught growing up. Even to this day, it does not come naturally and is something I have to work at continually.

However, I think this is precisely why I’m just the person to talk to you about this. I’m coming to you as someone who doesn’t just play by ear with ease; I’ve gone through the wringer trying to understand and wrap my head around what it means to hear music with understanding, not just for my students but for myself as a musician.

The goal is that after hearing the process applied to this specific tune, you can then, in turn, apply some of the same processes to your daily teaching, whether it’s with pieces students are learning by ear or making applications to pieces they’re learning via notation. In all this, just remember that this is just one way of approaching by ear playing. It’s OK to take what you can from it that works for you and leave the rest!

Curious to hear more? Stick around.

Welcome to the Piano Pantry Podcast, where together we live life as independent music teachers. I’m your host, Amy Chaplin. In this space, we talk about all things teacher-life related, from organizing our studios to getting dinner on the table and all that comes between. You’ll get loads of easily-actionable tips on organizing and managing your studio while balancing life and home.

If you’re really interested in the topic of playing by ear and are new around, first of all, welcome! Second, when you’ve finished listening to this episode, consider hopping back to episode #34 where I first shared this process applied to the tune “Happy Birthday.” While episode ratings will always fluctuate, that episode is currently the second highest rated and has been in the top 5 since it aired. I have a feeling the trend will continue.

To set us up, I recommend teaching this tune in either F or F# major. Not only is it a comfortable singing range for most voices, but playing it in F# puts the majority of the melody on all the black keys with only one white key – the B on occasion. Younger children especially do well playing on the black keys as the key pattern is a little easier to see than the white keys. Today, I’ll be doing it in F# major.

The first part I always like to approach is meter and rhythm. Let’s start by singing the piece on a neutral syllable, “bum,” so we focus on the music itself and not the words. If you can, stand and move gently side to side to the big beat and then find the little beat by lightly tapping on the side of your legs.


Can you feel the big beat divided into twos or threes? It’s in two’s*,* so we are in Duple meter.

Echo these rhythm patterns with your voice and then play the rhythm on one key. (Let’s use F# since it’s the resting tone-I don’t tell the student this I just tell them which key to play it on). and think about if any of them feel the same or if they’re all different

#1… Chant #2… #3… #4…

What do you think did any of those feel the same?

Notice the last pattern. Something about that feels really different… We have to take a breath before…. it’s called an upbeat. So we have 4 different patterns

The next musical element to walk through is finding the resting tone. Start singing the tune but tell the student when you stop singing to continue hearing it in their mind and then to sing the note that is the resting tone.


Then, to reinforce the feeling of the resting tone, sing through the song making random stops along the way and ask the student to sing the resting tone. Try to let them do it alone but if they’re struggling, sing it softly to prompt them.


After identifying the resting tone, ask the student if the song is in major or minor. If your student is already familiar with both of these tonalities, major vs. minor, then they will usually pretty quickly identify that the tune is in major. For those that use Moveable do with La-based minor, we would say that it’s in major tonality because the resting sound is “DO.”

After establishing meter, resting tone, and tonality, the next musical element is to address starting pitch. Does the melody begin on the resting tone or something else? Something else. OK, echo me Sing Tonic chord patterns

Does the melody begin on Do, Mi, or So?

I’m going to sing the song, and I want you to raise your hand when you hear the pattern Mi-So-Do (can you sing that?)

Sing and find, then play on the piano

Let’s play the first part of the song. I’ll go first, then you play after me

pattern 1 – pattern 2 – then 1+2 / repeat a few times

pattern 3 – what do you notice about this part? (it starts on a white key) and when do we go down to the black key (use the words – “oh, what fun it is TO RIDE”)

put that all together

pattern 4 – this is the one with the breath before

  • notice we just use these two notes until we say hey! and where does your voice go?

put that all together

Now, what happens in the song?

We do it all again – except what is different? The end

I would acknowledge the end is the hardest part.

Notice we just to down and what one key do we not play?

which note do we play twice?

You could then even compare the ends of each phrase, having them play each one, so they notice the difference.

Once the student becomes very confident of the melody – and this will vary from student to student – some will be very confident immediately and will be ready to add harmony in the first lesson, and some will need to just play the melody alone for a week at home before they feel confident to add any left hand.

Oftentimes I just ask the student what they feel comfortable doing

When it’s time to add harmony, I tell them we only use three notes in the entire song – the I, IV, and V. If you’re playing in F#, then that’s F#, B, and C#. Even if students already know chords, I like to begin with just the chord roots to reinforce the sound of the harmonic movement.

While the harmony is mostly I-IV-V, In order to make the song harmony not feel watered down, there is also a secondary dominant harmony at the end of the 2nd phrase – That is, what would be a V of V or a major II. How much verbiage you use completely depends on the level of the student, but all they need to know is which key to play.

Tat is, the bottom of the 3 black keys for I, the bottom of the 2 black keys for V, the white key for IV and in one spot, they will play the middle of the 3 black keys. I always also point out what note they’re NOT playing in the LH, and that is the top of the 3 black keys, the 3rd note of the scale.

Usually I will let them choose if they want to put their pinky on tonic and go up or if they want to put their thumb on tonic and go down Sing. However, since we want to get that 2 in there, I find for this, it’s easier just to have them put their pinky on the I harmony.

Also, make sure they are aware that when we sing I-IV-V, we’re not talking about playing the 1 finger, but the first note.

Sing the harmonic pattern and have them echo

Then, we play it on the piano with me pointing to the keys – always keeping your hands above and near the fallboard so the student can see what they’re doing.

Next, we play it again while singing the melody, either just me or the student. YOu can talk about what words of the song the harmony changes on “OH” “IS” “One” “sleigh” if you think that helps your student. Also, be sure and talk about how the first half of the song ends with II-V because it’s not finished and it needs to keep going but the end of the song uses the cadential V-I to pull the tune to a close.

Sometimes we switch back and forth with the students playing one part and me playing the other until they feel ready to put hands together.

Now, your student can go home and feel proud that know Jingle Bells. The parents may or may not thank us depending on how much they have to hear it but all in all yes, most parents are easily tickled to death to hear their kiddo playing this song.

If all of this feels really new to you and you love it but it still feels nice having something tangible in front of you when working with a student, I’ve got you covered. As a thanks for listening, I’ve made available a free download. It’s an excerpt of the Jingle Bells portion from my resource Christmas By Ear: 8 Tunes to Harmonize.

The free download is a two-page spread and is something you can put in front of you in a lesson and walk through all of these things together with the student. On the first page, the student circles things like what meter the piece is in, what the tonality is, and the starting pitch. You choose the key together and then they mark on a keyboard picture all the keys they will use to play the piece and the notes used to harmonize. It’s right there for you, step by step.

On the second page, you get a chord chart of the piece with the lyrics and harmonic changes showing functions only (i-iv-v) so you can then pencil in the chord names depending on what key you choose for your student

I love this so much because it’s tangible and yet also flexible. At the bottom of the page is a checklist of a variety of ways your student can learn to play the piece including singing the melody and playing harmony, playing the melody in the RH and a variety of accompaniment patterns in the LH, or getting creative with it like changing the meter or tonality.

The link to download this free resource is in the show notes.

If you want more where that came from, visit the blog at PianoPantry.com where you can find several resources on playing by ear, including Happy Birthday By Ear, Christmas By Ear, and 147 Tunes to Harmonize.

If you’re online, you can connect with me on Instagram at amychaplinpiano or on Facebook at Piano Pantry.

At the end of each episode, I have been sharing one silly little fun fact about me, your host. Today I thought I would share that I love change – that is something I know I’ve said before but specifically today, I’ll point out that one way I like to change is with my hair. I remember when I was a kid noticing my mom changing her hair frequently and I thought it was kind of funny but I pretty quickly took on the same trait after high school. It’s been the gamut from long and natural color (brown), to short and spikey, to a curly bob, to short and solid red to short but with colors like green, purple, red, and blue along the front. My most recent trial is that I’m trying an undercut pixie.

This is another one of those weeks, like episode #44 when I told you I could blow bubbles inside my mouth, that I’m going to have to get onto social media and just show you so…with the holiday week, I’m not sure when that will happy but before next week’s episode, I promise you will see all the photos. People that haven’t listened to this episode will be like…what in the world is going on.