Learning Songs By Ear
Learning songs by ear is a valuable skill that will make you a better musician. It is a great way to train your ear and make you less dependent on TABs or chord charts.
If you ever play in a band there will probably be times when you will need to learn an intro or fill or solo off a recording. Being able to do this by ear makes everything much easier. Sure you could try to find TABs online, but they often have errors. If they sound wrong, they probably are. And sometimes all you can find are the chords (often with incorrect chords also.) Developing your ear can help you find mistakes and correct them.
Here are some helpful tips for getting started learning songs by ear.
Start Simple: Melodies
If you have never figured out a simple melody by ear. That is a good first step. Pick a simple melody you know well. For example “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Yes, I know it’s not a cool song. But that is not the point. It is a simple melody that almost everyone knows. And it only has four different notes.
In the key of C, all four notes are located on the 1st and 2nd strings and somewhere on the first three frets. Start with the open 1st string E note. That is the note for “Mar” of Mary. Now try o find the note for “y” of Mary. If you can sing, try singing the melody. If you don’t sing, think/hear the melody in your head. Is the second note higher in pitch or lower in pitch? If you think the pitch is lower try to find the note on the 2nd string. If you think it is higher in pitch try the first three frets on the 1st string.
Did you find it? It is the D note located at the 3rd fret of the 2nd string. Now try to find the note for “had.” Use the same method. Is it higher or lower in pitch? Keep going until you can play all the notes for “Mar - y had a lit - tle lamb, lit - tle lamb, lit - tle lamb. Mar - y had a lit - tle lamb, its fleece was white as snow.”
Next pick anther simple melody like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star which starts with the C note at the 1st fret of the 2nd string. (Hint it will go up to the 5th fret on the 1st string.)
Try other simple melodies. Maybe a favorite song. Be sure to stick with simple, hummable melodies, not wordy songs with little change in melody.
Use The Key To Find The Melody Notes (Or Riffs)
One thing that will make the process easier is knowing what key the song is in. Then you can use the notes in the major scale for that key to find the melody notes. For example, the key of C has no sharp or flat notes, so the notes are: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. You usually won’t need to try sharp or flat notes in the key of C. The key of G has one sharp: F#. So if the song is in the key of G try F# instead of F (natural.) This requires learning some musical theory but saves a lot of guessing. Guitar keys are mainly C, A, G, E, and D. So those are good ones to learn.
This will also help when trying to figure out riffs, solos, intros, etc.
Gradually add more complicated chord melodies and then try some riffs. Keep at it and it will get easier.
Learning Chord Progressions By Ear
Again you will want to start easy. Pick an easy song. Perhaps one with just strummed chords. And one where the guitar is distinct and easy to hear. Don’t pick sings with multiple layered guitars or lots of riffs. For example Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door by Bob Dylan (also covered by Guns & Roses and Eric Clapton to name a few) has only four strummed chords. And the same 8 bar progression repeats through the entire song - verse and chorus. The are countless three and four chord songs out there. Those are the ones to start with.
Don’t try to guess the chord at first. Instead, try to find the root note of the first chord. Play single notes, not chords, until you find the note that strongly matches the chord being played. This will give you the root note of the chord and the chord name (but not the suffix: m, maj7, 7, m7, 9, etc.) . Then try different chord types: Major Minor, 7th, maj7, m7, etc. until you find the correct chord type. Major and Minor chords make up the bulk of popular music so they are obvious first choices. If they don’t sound exactly right try 7th or sus4 or maj7, etc. until you find the correct type of chord. Then move on the the next chord and repeat the process. It can be challenging at first but keep at it.
Gradually add more complicated chord progressions.
Things To Consider
There are somethings you need to consider when learning songs by ear. Guitarists often use capos. So this can make things more difficult. If you can find a live performance of the song by the original artist on You Tube, then you can see if they are using a capo and where it is placed. You can also see where they are playing on the neck, even chord fingerings. But that is cheating! Resist the urge unless you are in a hurry to learn the song. Or you are just stumped.
Remember that people may also use alternate tunings. Drop-D tuning or dropping the tuning of the whole guitar are common also. If they playing chords with just one finger they are probably using a Drop-D tuning, maybe even in combination with a drop tuned guitar.
Also remember all the techniques guitar players use: hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, etc. These can factor into the equation.
Developing your ear is a lengthy process but well worth the effort. Try it.
Photo by Anita Peeples