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Where did the term "play it by ear" come from?

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It was originally literal. We don't have written music for this guitar piece; so you'll have to listen to me and learn it that way. Learn the piece by listening; play it by ear.

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The term "play it by ear" was first used in the 16th century but do not have a specific place that it came from. It referred to the playing of music without reference to printed notation. It is now used symbolically to mean 'handle a situation in an impromptu manner’, that is without reference to pre-determined rules or guidelines.

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