You may be wondering if the ability to play music by ear is an inherent skill that only a small number of people are lucky enough to have been born with. I actually use to think of it this way myself. I thought I was part of the “unlucky” musical group that was born without this amazing skill.
Playing music by ear is a learned skill, not something that only a lucky few are born with. Through proper practice and dedication, almost anyone can learn to hear music (live or recorded), internalize it into their brain, and replay what they heard through an instrument or their voice.
I agree, when you have no experience playing music by ear it can seem like the people who can have some kind of magical super power. Every song seems either too fast or too complicated. You can’t seem to find any notes with your instrument or voice. It’s too hard! Well, let’s get to fixing that…
Put the work in to learn, and soon enough you’ll be playing music by ear.
We’ll break this process up into a few steps. This way, sitting down to learn a song by ear won’t seem like such a monumental feat. What are the steps?
- Pick a song (duh, right?)
- Figure out the song structure/lyrics (if the song has lyrics)
- Learn the bass notes and chords
- Learn the accompanying melodies (start with the singing parts)
- Cheat and look it up (if you get totally stuck)
Stick with it for a few songs, you will learn something with every song you attempt. It’s not easy, that’s why it’s so cool.
1. Pick a beginner friendly song
In the beginning, it is going to be a challenge. You’ll be siting there, all set up with your instrument, song prepped to play, and finally ready to figure this one out completely by ear. You fire up the song and start pecking away note by note on your instrument trying to figure this thing out. Then…..
You instantly start to feel the large wave of discouragement. There are so many sounds going on, all at once, and everything is moving too fast! How do you make sense of all this? How is it possible to play this by ear?
I remember this feeling, and I still get it from time to time when working through a piece of music that is particularly difficult for me. It can feel very discouraging, especially when you know that you can make the pain stop by simply looking up some tabs or searching for a YouTube video. But relying on cheating every time is just letting someone else put in the work that you need to succeed.
You may be making the mistake that I made over and over again, and that is trying to transcribe a song by ear that is too difficult in beginner stages. You need to find a piece of music that has a slower tempo (speed of the song) and very clear chord changes. This will set you up with the best chance for success.
Think about some songs that you love and know really well. Even just knowing the complete lyrics (no chords or music) to a song can be very helpful, as it makes you aware of the singing melody and structure/changes of the song. Pick yourself a song that seems like it would be simple to play (although sometimes this can be deceiving) and commit to it.
Do you have a song in mind?
Another quick tip is to pick a song that you will be able to find some lessons or tabs for later, in the event that you get completely stuck after attempting to work it out by ear. So in short, pick something that is at least semi-popular.
2. Figure out the basic structure of the song.
Listen to the song a few times through and really try to internalize the underlying chord changes and bass notes. Try to memorize the flow of the song as much as you can. Next, sketch out a rough structure of the song on a piece of paper. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I’m not talking sheet music here, but rather something like this:
- Chorus (x3)
If you don’t know much about the different parts of a song, I’ve included a short video here from The Song Foundry that does a great job explaining how songs are commonly arranged.
How does the structure of the song you’re going to learn by ear match up with what was explained in the video? Any similarities? I bet there were some.
Notice that songs usually have 3 to 6 different parts (or chord progressions) that will each need to be learned in order to play the entire song. It makes it less daunting to know that once you’ve learned one of these sections, it’s likely that it will come around again at some point and you’ll already know what to play.
Now that we have our basic song structure sketched out, we know exactly how many different parts need to be learned. We’ll just need to go part by part, and as best we can, figure out what chords and bass notes make up the main body of the song.
3. Figure out the Bass Notes and Chords.
This to me is the most interesting part of the entire process because you really get to travel inside the mind of the songwriter. You develop a deep connection with the song when you personally deconstruct the recording and then put it back together yourself using your instrument/voice (or both).
In a way, you get to rewrite the song because it is extremely difficult to match exactly what you are hearing on the recording. Every person is unique, so if you had ten people learn a song by ear then play it back, you would get 10 different interpretations. That is part of the beauty of music.
Don’t get too stuck on trying to play exactly what you are hearing on the recording. Take notice that if you see the same musician who wrote the song, but playing it in a live scenario, they almost never play it exactly like the recorded version. If the song writer isn’t worried about matching the recording exactly, then why should you?
Now, for the hardest part (and the most important). This is the part of the process that is the real grind, and the part that is going to make you want to give up. This is the point where you have to actually just sit down with your instrument and play the song over and over and over and try to match what you are hearing as best you can.
The more you do this, the better you will get at it.
Here is a great trick to use if the movement of the song is too fast. You can use an awesome feature that YouTube provides that will allow you to slow down the song without changing the pitch (without making the sound lower).
Search for the song you are learning, and click the little gear shaped settings icon in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.
Then, select the Playback Speed option.
Next, choose what speed you want the video to play. You can select from the suggested settings or create your own custom speed if you want to find something in between.
You will notice that the more you slow down the video, the worse the sound quality gets. Once you get to the 0.5 – 0.6 range, the audio usually gets so bad that it’s not really useable anymore.
Give it a try, it really helps a lot. I have used this trick myself numerous times to help figure out a piece of music that is too fast to figure out by ear without some help.
First, focus on the bass notes as much as you can. This doesn’t necessarily mean listen to the bass guitar, as many songs may not even have one in the recording. I’m just referring to the bass notes representing each underlying chord.
Typically, there is some type of bass line that is providing more girth and body to the higher pitched chords that are being played simultaneously. Usually, on the first beat of a new chord, the bass note being played is the root note of that chord. Here’s an example:
If the chord progression was this:
- G Major, strum, strum, strum
- E Minor, strum, strum, strum
- C Major, strum, strum, strum
- D Major, strum, strum, strum
Every time the above progression changes to a new chord, the first bass note you would hear is the main note of that chord. Like so:
- G bass note…. then some other bass melody
- E bass note…. then some other bass melody
- C bass note…. then some other bass melody
- D bass note…. then some other bass melody
So as you’re listening along to the song, you may not know exactly what chords are being played, but if you can figure out some single bass notes you will be able to have some idea of what chord is being played. Then you can further use your ear to figure out the chords.
So now, let’s say that you have figured out a section of a song that seems to sound like these main bass notes are being played:
Great, now you have something to work with. The best way to figure out a chord is to let it play in the song and then stop the song immediately. Let your brain really internalize the way the chord sounds. Play and stop the song again a few more times to let it really set in.
Then just take a guess as to what chord you think it is. If it sounds like a C is the bass note, try a C Major chord. Does it sound right or totally wrong? If it sounds totally wrong, then maybe it is C Minor chord.
Once again, the more you try it, the better you’ll get. You will eventually start to clearly hear if what you are playing is matching up or not.
If the chord you chose sounds kind of right but something seems a little off, the chord being played is likely some kind of variation of the chord you chose. In our C Major example, maybe the actual chord on the recording is a Cmaj7 chord, or a Cadd9 chord. Without getting too technical, those are basically just chords that add an extra note to a C Major chord.
The deeper the understanding of Music Theory that you have, the easier it will be for you to know exactly what you are hearing. Explaining music theory basics is outside of the scope of this article, but here is an easy to understand article I wrote about music theory basics.
Repeat this process for the other sections of the song. Many times, I would get stuck on one part of song, move on to the next for a while, then come back and be able to figure out whatever I was stuck on. Don’t be afraid to do this.
Another strategy that helps is to struggle with it for a bit, then put the instrument down for the rest of the day and return to trying again the next day. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but something magical happens with music when you struggle, sleep on it, and try again. All of a sudden you can just clearly hear what seemed inaudible the day before. Give it a try. Don’t give up on it.
Now, let’s move on to the fun part. Figuring out all of the song’s melodies.
4. Learn the Accompanying Melodies (start with the singing parts)
Once you have established a good portion of the structure of the song, you can start figuring out all of the smaller melody parts that give the song it’s true flavor. This includes:
- The singing melodies
- Instrumental fills
- Soloing parts
- Intros and Outros
One of the best ways to get in touch with the song is to try and figure out the singing melodies. I like to start here because the human voice has more limitations in speed and range than many popular instruments. The typical human voice has a range of around two octaves (or 24 notes). That means that if you just blind guess at what note the singer is singing, you have a 1 in 24 chance.
Now, that may not sound like great odds but typically singers don’t constantly sing at the extremes of their range, as it is very difficult to do so. They spend the majority of the time singing in a more comfortable range of 14 – 18 notes. The odds just got better.
Now compare that to what you may be hearing from the range on a guitar or piano:
- Guitar (in standard tuning) – 45 notes
- Piano – 88 notes
Unlike the singer, the guitarist and pianist have no difficulty playing the extreme ranges of their instruments.
The point here is that if you work on trying to figure out the singing melodies by ear first, you will be able to pin-point each note more easily compared to the melodies played on other instruments. The singer’s notes will be relatively close in distance to one another.
Also, keep this in mind. Let’s say you are trying to figure out what note the singer is singing over our C Major chord. If you have some music theory knowledge, you would know that the notes found within the C Major chord are C, E, and G.
Mostly likely, the note from the singing melody will be one of these notes. Listen to the singer and try to hum the note out loud. Then try notes found within the underlying chord on your instrument against the note you are humming and see which note matches up best.
Once again, the more you do this, the easier it gets. Just try it. You don’t have to follow along with the exact steps I have laid out here in this article. Switch them up a bit and see what works best for you. In my opinion, humming the note you are tying to figure out is the absolute best way to get that note burned into your head so that you can find it on the instrument. It works great when trying to figure out the bass notes and chords as well.
Use this same strategy to figure out any of the other melodies of the song.
Now, if you’ve put the work in over a few days and you still can’t figure it out….. look it up.
5. Cheat and look up some help.
Don’t sit on a song, stuck for days and days, causing yourself massive frustration. Playing music is supposed to be relaxing and mind expanding. When you’re truly stumped, look up the chords or tabs to the song and see how close you were.
Likely, you will find that you were not far off. For example, what you thought was a C Major chord was actually an A Minor chord. These chords are relatives and share two out of three notes. Well good for you, you were close. I still do this all the time. You still succeeded, and it only gets better with time.
This is really one of those disciplines in learning music that you are just going to have to try over and over. The more times you try it, the faster and better you will get. Don’t ever quit.