Idiom: “Play It By Ear”

A: Do you want to go to a movie later? Maybe around 7 p.m.?
B: I have so many errands to run after work…I would like to go, though. Can we play it by ear?

If you’ve heard the idiom “play it by ear” (sometimes asked as a question or in the imperative: “Can we play it by ear?” or “Let’s play it by ear.”), you might be able to guess its meaning from the context of the conversation…but maybe not!

Either way, do you know what “play it by ear” refers to?

…here’s a hint:

English idiom "play it by ear"
Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on

The literal meaning of “play it by ear” refers to when a musician is able to play a song after hearing it, without needing any sheet music to help them.

In a way, the musician is able to improvise playing the song without the need of exact notes written out in front of them.

This directly relates to the idiom “play it by ear.” When someone asks or suggests that you “play it by ear,” they are saying:

“I don’t want to or I can’t make firm plans right now. I’ll determine closer to the event in question whether or not I am able to do it/attend.”

“Play it by ear” is a great informal way to:

1) Not commit to an event or situation that you want to attend, but are unsure if you are able to attend.

2) Not commit to an event or situation that you do not want to attend, but you don’t want to disappoint or offend the person you are speaking to by declining the invitation immediately.

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