What does the idiom "play it by ear" mean?

play it by ear is an idiom used by many writers. When idioms are used in the right place, they open the doors of effective communication and increase your descriptive power. In this way, you will be better understood. The meaning of the expression play it by ear is also remarkable in this respect.

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.

Example Sentences

  • 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.

The meanings of the words in the "play it by ear" idiom

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.


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