A lot of people assume that you MUST have perfect pitch (essentially a musical super power) to be able to play guitar parts of a song just by simply listening to the music. Well, it’s not true.
Having the gift of “Perfect Pitch” or “Absolute Pitch” is NOT a requirement to playing guitar by ear. Playing music by ear is a skill that anyone can learn through proper discipline and purposeful training methods.
In the following sections I will dive into some of the reasons why Perfect Pitch is NOT essential to possessing the amazing ability to listen to a section of music and be able to replicate it with an instrument or even your voice. I know it’s possible, because I’ve learned how to do it myself.
Playing guitar by ear is a learned skill, not some inherent talent obtained at birth.
Sadly, I used to believe that playing music by ear was reserved strictly for the “lucky people”. The people that I thought had some magical gift that gave them the ability to listen to a song on the radio and just grab their guitar and play it.
“WHAT!!??!” No tabs, sheet music or youtube video. Nope, just grip it and rip it.
Well, what I didn’t know is that these “lucky people” had actually just spent time and effort to hone the skill. Possibly by practicing in a structured discipline like Interval Training or Singing the Major Scale (aka Solfege). Or maybe they just had the confidence to listen to a song repeatedly and plucked around with different notes on the fretboard until they found which note or chord sounded correct.
Either way, they were practicing, learning, growing their skill. They were putting themselves in the position to internalize/burn the tones and differences of how the notes sound into memory.
The vast majority of the population does NOT have Perfect Pitch, sometimes called Absolute Pitch. Most people have what is referred to as Relative Pitch.
Relative Pitch is defined by Wikipedia as “the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note by comparing it to a reference note and identifying the interval between those two notes“.
What this means is that once a given note is known/established, you can figure out a sequential note based off of how it sounds compared to the known note.
See in music, if two notes are played in sequence, only three possibilities are available. The sequential note is either the exact same pitch, a higher pitch, or a lower pitch. These are the only options.
So when you are trying to understand a piece of music that you are hearing, once you have established a note or chord, you can first determine that the next note is either the same, higher, or lower.
Let’s say that you have determined the note sounds lower. You could then simply start on the known note and try each note one at a time getting lower and lower working your way down the tones on your instrument until the pitch you are hearing on your instrument matches what you heard in the music.
No magic required. Just listening closely to the note you are hearing in the music and trying to match it on your instrument.
Now, with that being said, there are some other tools and strategies you can add to your ear playing arsenal…
Practicing listening to musical intervals strengthens your ear’s ability to know what you’re hearing.
An AMAZING way to improve your ear’s listening skills is to play through the Major Scale on your guitar while simultaneously singing each note out loud. I’m not talking about trying to sing like Michael Jackson, I just mean matching the sound that is coming out of your guitar with your voice.
A great way to practice this is through learning Solfege. If you don’t know the term, it refers to assigning a word to each respective note of the major scale that you can sing. You’ve heard it before. It’s “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do” or “Doe, Ray, Me, Fah, Sol, La, Tee, Doe“.
It sounds silly right? “Sing the song from the Sound of Music??” Yes, do it.
I can personally vouch that this activity significantly increases your ability to hear different interval changes in music. Here’s where the beauty of this exercise lies. You don’t have to stick to strictly running through the scale from end to end linearly.
After you have become comfortable singing along with the scale from end to end, forwards and backwards. Try skipping directly to and from different intervals of the scale. For instance, try singing the notes “Do – Mi” or, “Do – Fa“, or “Do – Sol“. You get the picture.
What you are doing in this exercise is training your brain and ear to hear what different note or chord transitions sound like when played with one another.
After practicing this exercise for a while you’ll be able to recognize these changes when they’re played within the notes or chords of a song. If you are learning a song that plays the chords G major then C major, your brain will begin to notice/recognize that this sounds exactly like the “Do – Fa” or “I – IV” note/chord change that is found within the major scale.
Similar to any other skill, it doesn’t come instantly but with repetition and persistence you will DEFINITELY notice a difference in you musical aural abilities over time.
Many songs that were composed by a guitarist use a similar set of specific chords/scales.
It’s not a coincidence that it seems just about every other song written on guitar is written in the key of G major. This is due to the way that the guitar is tuned.
Some keys are much easier to play on the guitar than others.
Some common keys composers use to write songs on the guitar are:
- G major
- A major
- C major
- D major
- E major
- A minor
- E minor
- D minor
Some uncommon keys composers use to write songs on the guitar are:
- Bb major
- C# major
- Db major
- Eb major
- F# major
- Ab minor
- Eb minor
- Db minor
This works in your favor when you are learning to transcribe a song by ear. If you are working through a song and find that the first chord played is a G major chord (or any of the other common keys) this raises the likelihood that there are going to be more familiar sounding chords used in the composition.
For instance, C major, D major, A minor, E minor. These chords all align/sound amazing to our ears when used in conjunction with G major.
It’s likely that the composer wrote the song in G major because the set of chords found within the key are familiar, comfortable, and recognizable to him.
Remember, MOST people initially learn the same basic chords on the guitar, just the same as you did. Not only are these chords the easiest to play for YOU on the instrument, they’re the most natural and familiar chords for EVERYONE that plays the guitar.
So, it helps us out when we are playing by ear if we realize that more songs are written using certain chords and scales on the guitar than others.
There are many modern tools available to us that can assist with the process of learning by ear.
Lucky for us we are in a day-in-age that gives us Google, YouTube, and other specific Ear Training software that can speed up the process of obtaining the ability to learn music by ear.
Check out earbeater.com. They provide a series of online ear training exercises that can help sharpen your listening abilities without even having an instrument in the room with you.
If you spend some time searching through Google and YouTube for search phrases such as Ear Training Exercises or Relative Pitch Training you will discover endless different resources to help speed up your Ear Training journey.
Just try it. Sit down with your instrument and try to figure out any section of any song.
The best exercise for learning to play a song by ear is just sitting down and trying it. Make yourself uncomfortable. Try to hear the changes. After you work on a song for a bit, look up the chords online and see how you did. Even if you only found one correct note or chord, you have successfully transferred what you are hearing down into your hands and through the guitar.
This is mostly how I learned the skill and find it to be the absolute best way to get better. It does get easier with time. If you put in the work, you’ll reap the rewards.