Idiom – Play It By Ear

English Idiom – Play it by ear.

Meaning – To decide what to do as a situation develops. To do something without making detailed plans, to decide on your actions according to the circumstances or results.  To let things be as they may. Playing something by ear is improvising or acting without preparation.

This expression originates from music. If a musician plays something by ear they listen to the music, then reproduce it without looking at the music score.

Other expressions featuring ears:

  • All ears – To listen intently.
  • Bend your ear – To talk a lot to someone, usually about a problem.
  • Ears are burning – This expression is used when somebody has been talking about you. “Were your ears burning last night? We were gossiping about your latest relationship!
  • Have your ear to the ground – To listen out for something, to be well-informed.
  • In one ear and out the other
  • Lend an ear – To listen to someone, usually about a problem.
  • Music to my ears
  • Nothing between the ears – To be stupid or gormless.
  • The walls have ears – A warning that somebody may be listening to what you say.
  • Up to my ears in something – To be very busy doing something.

Have you heard any others?


When could you use this idiom?

  • You can’t make detailed plans until you know more about the situation.
  • A friend is organising a night out, and you want to make decisions about to go as the night progresses.
  • You don’t know enough information to prepare for a presentation or talk.
  • Somebody wants to set up a date, but wants to keep things informal.


  • “We are going shopping this afternoon. I don’t know when we’ll be back home. Let’s play it by ear and arrange a time to meet later.”

In The News:

United head coach Karl Robinson said he wouldn’t rush Brannagan back, and would be patient for him to return. Robinson said: “We’re still unsure on a date for that and we’ll play it by ear. “It’s a severe bang and some bruising he’s been struggling with since the game, so we’re just waiting really.”


  • Is there an idiom like this in your country?

What is an idiom?

An idiom is a word or phrase that is not taken literally.  An idiom is an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its individual words, but has a separate meaning of its own.

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