How To Learn A Song By Ear

All over the internet there are sites full of tabs, chord charts and video tutorials on how to play just about any song.  So the idea of learning a song “by ear” ie. listening to it and figuring out how to play it, poses 2 questions in this day and age.  Why? And How?

1) Why? 

  • The majority of tabs/chord charts and even a good percentage of video tutorials are incorrect.  Some only by a couple of notes, yes, but in others you’d be hard pushed to find a couple of notes that are correct.  There are tabs out there of songs in the wrong key, or full of wrong chords played in unhelpful shapes and positions.  I’ve even seen some that bear little or no resemblance to the song they’re supposed to be.  There are lots of great, trusted guitarists and educators out there doing brilliant video tutorials, (search for Guthrie Govan, or Justin Sandercoe), but the vast majority should not necessarily be trusted with your development as a guitarist.
  • Aural/Musicianship.  Training your ear is really important, especially for performing live, improvisation, teaching or a career in music.  What you’re doing is developing the ability to hear in your head what something you do on the guitar sounds like.  So when you’re improvising, you can create melodies your ear feels should happen next, rather than something with a sense of randomness, based on scale shapes.  As a teacher, I know how to play a great number of songs but, logistically, given the number of songs in existence, the number i don’t know is almost infinitely bigger.  So if a student comes to me wanting to learn a certain song that I haven’t previously learned, I need to be able to work out how to play that song on the spot.  I can do that, and that’s down to practice.  If you’re in a band, and you hear a certain melody or line come from your singer or bassist that you want to echo or imitate, an aural understanding will enable you to do so.  Never ever underestimate how important developing your musical ear can be!

2)How?

  • Use The Information You Have  – What this means is, try not to guess blindly, try to use what you already know.  Say the song you’re learning is in the key of C Major.  You hear it go to a minor chord, what might it be?  Remember its relative minor is A minor, so an A minor chord is very possible.  What other minor chords might it be?  etc etc.  Does the next chord sound like an open chord or a barre chord?  Does it sound heavy and full like an open E major? Thinner and higher like an open D minor?  Then you hear a heavy riff come crashing in, if it’s a rock song it’s probably derived from the pentatonic scale, so start there.  And so on.  Starting to learn about music theory, chord formation and keys will help all this no end, as you’ll become aware of “packs” of chords that tend to usually come together, for example it is so much more likely that a C Major chord will be followed by a G major than an A major.  Head to our series on Music Theory to start discovering why.
  • Remember What You Learn From The Process – Is there a certain type of chord change that always catches you out?  Make sure you recognise that the next time it comes up.  What was the “breakthrough moment” in working out that song?  How did that come about?  Apply that in future.  Do you find it easier going over and over the verse section for 5 minutes repeating it and gradually uncovering it?  Or just all the way through the song in one go a few times?  This whole process is about momentum, narrowing down your options and gradually uncovering the harmony of the song.  The more you take from it, the quicker you’ll get the next one. 
  • Keep Style In Mind – You’re working out a blues solo, so look out for the moment it feels most bluesy and add your blues scale notes to your pentatonic.  Sad song?  Focus on minor chords.  Does it sound like every chord in the pattern shares a note, ringing out over the top?  Chances are it’s an open string, the e or b.  Heavy Rock?  Try powerchords, not jazzy inversions!  It’s all common sense really, but these are all applied ways of thinking that can help you quickly narrow down what might at first seem like a vast spectrum of chords and notes.

When you’re done, you’ll be accurate, satisfied, and a little further down the road to guitar hero status!  Good luck!

-Alex
-Guitar Lessons London

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