How figuring out songs by ear will make you a better musician

songs by ear
Written by Just at StringKick

Tabs are great and not so great.

On the one hand, they’re an incredibly simple form of notation that anyone can learn in no time. It makes it really easy to get started and play some songs on guitar.

But on the other hand, relying on tabs makes you miss out on a huge opportunity to become a better musician with each song you learn. 

Here’s why.

Say you want to copy a drawing of a dog. Compare these two approaches:

  1. You put a piece of paper over the original drawing and trace all the lines.
  2. You carefully look at the original image and try to recreate it by drawing it yourself.

In both approaches, you’ll end up with a drawing of something resembling a dog. But though the final result is similar, it matters how you got there.

What if you were asked to draw that same picture a week later? If you went with option b and drew the pup yourself, you’d probably do much better. You’d have a much better understanding of ‘dog-ness’. The shapes, sizes, lines, dimensions… Even if your drawing last week looked horrible, you probably still learned more than if you’d simply traced the picture.

Learning a song from tab is a lot like tracing a drawing. You get the end result, but you’re missing out on the chance to develop a number of essential skills.

When you learn songs by ear, you go through three steps:

Step 1. You listen as carefully as possible and try to accurately ‘record’ what you’re hearing in your brain. You’re training yourself to listen intently and correctly hear everything, down to the smallest detail.

Step 2. You have the sound in your head and figure out what your fingers need to do to get that sound out of your instrument.

Step 3. Once you know what your fingers need to do, you need to practice actually playing the song.

When you use tab or a video, you’re skipping the first two steps. And that’s too bad, because those two steps will make you a better musician in multiple ways.

The first step, listening intently to the music, will give you a much deeper understanding of what’s going on in the song. This step will also sharpen your ears and grow your ability to hear music in more and more detail. You’ll get better and faster at recognizing certain sounds, rhythms, chord changes, harmonies, melodic fragments etc.

So, if you want to learn songs by ear, where do you start?

First, you should know that the process of figuring out stuff on your own is actually pretty straightforward (which isn’t to say it can’t be hard at times). Simply find the first note of the melody you want to learn and search for it on your fretboard (going up and down the same string). Once you find it, write it down and move on to the next note! For a more in-depth guide on how to figure out melodies and chord progressions by ear check out this step-by-step plan. (

Next, you’ll want some good practice material. A good place to start are melodies played on a single string. Here’s a couple of them to get going. ( One string songs are great training material. They’re easier to figure out, because you don’t have to worry about switching to other strings.

Don’t fall into these traps

Don’t be intimidated by more complex songs though. With each song you learn, try to pick out a couple of things that you can figure out yourself. Whether it’s a vocal melody, a bass line, maybe a trumpet part or piano melody… Everything you figure out using your own two ears will push you forward.

If you get stuck, don’t hesitate to check a tab or video. There’s a major difference with going to a tab directly, without having tried to learn on your own. After having tried to figure out a part on your own, the ‘answer’ (i.e. how to play that part you couldn’t figure out) will stick with you.

That means that next time you come across something similar (and you will), a part of you will go ‘Hey, I’ve heard this before…’. So even failing to figure something out or getting stuff wrong is actually a great way to improve your ears and get better and better at figuring out songs on your own.

I know it’s tempting to use tabs. It’s fast and it’s easy, so it might take some willpower to break the habit. And don’t get me wrong, you’ll still learn a lot if you learn songs using tab.

You’ll find great results

But if you do put in the effort to start learning by ear, it’ll be worth it. It’s a great feeling to not have to rely on other people if you want to learn something. It allows you to learn whatever you want, from the most obscure bands that no one has heard of, to theme songs for TV shows or podcasts and even movie or game soundtracks. You’ll be able to shape your own path and explore pretty much any music you enjoy or think is interesting. In short, you’ll be able to follow your taste, the thing that makes you a unique musician.

I know that a lot of people are intimidated by the idea of learning songs by ear. But whenever the people I teach start to figure out stuff by ear, they’re amazed at how much better they get in just a couple of weeks. So give it a shot!

2 thoughts on “How figuring out songs by ear will make you a better musician

  1. Absolutely. Just like the drawing of the dog, WRITING the TAB (from what you figure out by ear) will lock that song in your memory. If there’s a section you can’t figure out, just leave a few bars blank in your TAB and move on. Chances are, there will be a similar sequence later in the song. If you figured out any of the similar passages, if will help you go back and figure out the first one. Use the TAB to map out the song, so you’ll understand the key, the time signature, how many bars and what chords in the verse (all verses), the chorus, and the bridge (all occurrences). It will start to make structural sense to you, and you’ll feel more confident in faking your way through the parts you can’t figure out.

    For what it’s worth, Guitar Pro is the best software for writing TABS. Currently at Version 7. It’s not really very expensive if you’re serious about your music. You’d pay a similar amount for a good music book, a top capo, a couple of sets of strings, a couple of lessons, etc.

  2. Great points! I always found that if I first determined what key the song was in it really narrowed down the options for learning melodies and chord progressions. Thanks for the post!

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