How (and Why) to Learn a Song by Ear

learn a song by ear

Written by Alex Bruce of BruceMusic.co.uk

When my team of Guitar teachers and I talk to our new students, so many of them, whatever their level list being able to learn a song by ear as one of their main aims. It seems to be something that aspiring Guitarists want to be able to do, whether they feel they need to or not. Perhaps it’s part of their perception of what a ‘real’ musician is, or just feels more authentic than using a tab or a tutorial.

The internet is full of tabs, charts and video lessons for almost any song a student could wish to learn. So then, this notion of learning a song “by ear” – meaning simply listening to it and being able to deduce how to play it, throws up two questions – Why? And How?

1) Why Learn A Song By Ear?

Accuracy: There are far, far more incorrect tabs and tutorials out there than correct ones. Some are in the wrong key, some are full of wrong notes and wrong chords, some ignore the song’s structure, many are lazily written, don’t mention a capo or give no indication of rhythms, a strumming or fingerpicking pattern. This isn’t to say there aren’t a few great, dedicated jabbers out there, there are indeed a few, but only a few!

Aural Skills: Developing your musical ear is crucial to progress and success in Music, whatever that may mean for you. The capacity to recreate what you hear, to know how to get something from in your head onto your Guitar is a really important and useful tool. For improvisation, for jamming, for writing parts with your bandmates, for accompanying a vocalist, for transcribing and most pertinently to this post, for learning a song, it all starts with your ears!

2) How To Learn A Song By Ear?

Refer To The Available Information: The main thing about developing your aural skills is attempting to take the guesswork and trial and error out of the process. Trial and error can sometimes work, eventually, but it’s an elongated, frustrating process in which it’s very easy to lose your thread, and the learnings from which can be very minimal. Key questions to ask yourself when trying to learn a song by ear would be:

  • What key is this song in?
  • What chords might be used?
  • Do the chords sound like open chords or barre chords?
  • Where does the chord pattern begin and end? And how many chords make up one cycle?
  • Which of these chords sound Major and which sound minor?

Through questions like this you begin to develop a process that you can work through, your route becoming a bit quicker and easier each time.

Turn Your Weaknesses To Your Advantage: If you know there’s a chord type, say Major7 chords, that always seems to catch you out, then there are two things you can do to turn this to your advantage. Firstly, look out for these recognisable moments of being caught out, or stuck on a chord. Perhaps in these instances, a Major7 chord should be the first thing you try? Secondly, make some time in an upcoming practice session to work on your recognition of Major7 chords. Get a friend to test you on recognising Major7 chords Vs. basic Majors, identify characteristics, qualities and reference tracks (songs that are full of the distinctive Major7 sound) and make them something you begin to recognise in future!

Style It Out: Bear in mind what is stylistically typical for the song you’re trying to figure out. Is it a sad ballad? Try your open minor chord shapes. Do all the chords in the progression share a unifying single note, soaring them? If so, is it one of the high open strings? Is it a jazz standard? It’s not going to be powerchords, then! It’s all about narrowing your options, so that at the beginning, yes there may still be a slight element of trial and error, but from a sensible, considered, small selection of choices, not every note and chord in existence.

Good Luck!

Alex Bruce
Alex is a Guitarist, Guitar Teacher and Writer with 15 years experience. He runs Bruce Music – A London-based Guitar and Piano school.

Bruce Music
Bruce Music is a Guitar & Piano school based in London, UK. They are a community of young, active working musicians who visit students all over the city to provide expert Guitar and Piano tuition.

BruceMusic

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2 Responses to How (and Why) to Learn a Song by Ear

  1. Gavin Whitner says:

    The image that you’re using on this page is actually my photo, which is licensed under CC 2.0 (free to use, as long as credit is given).

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/156466858@N02/42769581640/

    Could you kindly add a small credit for the photo?

    Best,
    Gavin

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