What does the idiom "play it by ear" mean?
The phrase play it by ear is often used in English, but what does this idiom mean? When idioms are used in the right situations, they strengthen communication and enrich the language. You can communicate more effectively by learning the meaning of play it by ear.
Meaning of "play it by ear"
The idiom 'play it by ear' means to take a situation as it comes without predicting or planning ahead. It implies an improvisatory and adaptable attitude, allowing the final outcome to depend on what happens in the moment.
The phrase is said to have originated in the United States in the early 20th century. It likely originated from the expression 'play by ear', referring to the practice of playing music without notation, which was more common prior to the invention of musical notation in the 17th century. As musical notation became more common, the phrase shifted in its meaning to be used more broadly as it is today.
This idiom can be used to describe a person's attitude in a variety of situations. For example, someone might use it when they want to express that their decision making is spontaneous and adaptable. It can also be used to describe a particular approach to a situation that is unpredictable or has no clear path forward. Someone might 'play it by ear' when not knowing what to expect in a conversation, event, or situation.
- I'm not sure what will happen, so I'm just going to have to play it by ear.
- I don't know if this will work out, so I think we should just play it by ear.
- I'm not sure what the best course of action is - let's just play it by ear and see what happens.
Beyond the Literal: Figurative Language in Idioms
Idioms often use figurative language to convey a message that is not meant to be taken literally. For instance, the idiom "bite the bullet" means to endure a painful or difficult situation without complaint, while "hold your horses" means to be patient and wait. Other idioms, like "kick the bucket" or "pop your clogs," use euphemisms to talk about death.