If you’re struggling to play by ear it normally means you’re trying to run before you can walk.
You might be worried that you’re “not musical” or “don’t have the talent required” but I assure you that’s not the case! In fact, you’ve probably just skipped a crucial step...
Many musicians (and play-by-ear instructors!) make the mistake of jumping straight to listening to music and then trying to play it back. Although this is an important part of learning to play by ear, if this is the only thing you do it will be extremely slow and frustrating for you.
The key to learning to play by ear quickly is to focus on the core listening skills required.
With the process of ear training, you can learn to recognise notes, chords, and rhythms by ear. This makes it much easier to then play things by ear on your instrument.
For example, with solfege ear training you can learn to hear notes and recognise them as “do, re, mi” and so on. This means you might hear a melody, recognise in your head that it goes “mi re do re mi mi mi”, and then know that in the key of C that would be “E D C D E E E”, so you can immediately pick up your instrument and play back that melody.
If you’ve been finding it hard to play music by ear (learn more here) then it’s time to take a step back, put your instrument down, and ask yourself if you are able to understand and recognise what you’re hearing. If not, you can do dedicated ear training exercises to learn those core listening skills. Then once you do have that deep instinctive understanding of what you’re hearing, you will be able to directly apply that to play by ear on your instrument.