What does ‘Let’s play it by ear mean?

play it by ear

To play it by ear is to act spontaneously and according to the situation. Playing it by ear means you have no game plan.

Playing music without sheet music originally meant that you either recalled the music or made it up as you went along. From there, it expanded to include various sorts of improvising. A quarterback will forgo the called play and try a new option if he plays it by ear. A politician is making it up as she goes along if she conducts a speech by ear. We all occasionally have to “wing it.”

Ever hear the expression “let’s play it by ear”?

If you hear someone say this, it suggests they don’t want to have a concrete strategy for anything. The speaker prefers to make a decision about what to do right away.

So, when we wish to be more adaptable with our ideas, we employ the expression “play something by ear.” It is frequently used in casual conversation, particularly when discussing less official arrangements like social or travel plans. This phrase has its origins in music, where “playing something by ear” refers to playing an instrument without using a music sheet.


But be aware that this idiom must always be used with a noun (typically “it” or “things”) between “play” and “by ear” when discussing the future.

Here are a few instances:

A: “So, after the show, where are we going?”

B: “Let’s wing it since I don’t know what time the concert ends.”

A: “When we go to the lake, where will we stay?”

Oh, I suppose a bed and breakfast somewhere,” B said. Let’s just wing it for now.

You can respond to someone who says, “Let’s play it by ear,” using words like “sounds excellent” (which means “yeah, I agree”) or “don’t you think we should establish a plan?” (=no, let’s create a strategy.)

“Go with the flow” is another expression with similar meaning. This term also refers to the idea of not making firm plans. However, it refers to imitating what other people are doing at the moment rather than making a decision. For instance:


A: “What are your plans for Saturday night after the game?”

B: “No, I believe I’ll just follow suit and carry on as everyone else does.”

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