How to learn songs by ear

How to learn a song by ear

By Mattie O'Boyle

Table of Contents

Use a methodology

Learning to play music by ear requires a methodology. A methodology helps you to organize and prioritize the tasks that you need to follow to accomplish your goal. At we encourage you to structure your music practice with a methodology. Read on about how an effective method to learn your favorite songs by ear.


Hearing versus listening

We are going to talk about two different areas. The first area is listening. You want to listen to the song a lot. Now, there is a difference between hearing and listening. Hearing, you hear all sorts of things but probably, but your mind is thinking about other things. It happens often when you are talking to people. Somebody is talking to you and they are trying to get a point across, but you are already thinking about what you are going to say. You are hearing that person, but you are not necessarily listening to them. Musicians are professional listeners; we listen with our full attention to the music. A lot of learning to play music by ear is just that, it is centering your attention on the music.

Global Listening

Now, there are different kinds of ways you can listen. You can listen globally and just let the music sink in. You don’t really have to think about anything; you just listen. You concentrate on the sounds that you are hearing, how they make you feel, how they make you move and that is enough, and you don’t really have to go further. And that kind of listening is very important. You want to do that; that is global listening.


Analytical listening

Then, there is analytical listening. The analytical listening would be your next step in listening to a song that you are preparing to learn by ear. Analytical listening has to do with directing your attention to different parts of the music in order to glean information about it. Typically, what happens is if we are listening to a song that is in a band arrangement, we will zero-in on our own instrument in order to hear the parts that it is playing. And that is a good idea, but it is not necessarily the first step of analytical listening.


Song Structure

The first step of analytical listening is listening for the song structure. Is there an introduction, is there a bridge in the song? How many verses are there before the chorus? If it is a fiddle tune, is it a 2-part fiddle tune, is it a 3-part fiddle tune? Is it a regular tune? If we are playing fiddle music is it a regular tune or is it a crooked tune; does it have any extra beats in it?

Navigate through the song

So, depending on your style of music you are going to want to analyze the song structure. That is really going to help you memorize whatever you are going to be working on later. It is going to help you memorize more quickly and help you navigate through the song. A big part of playing music is actual navigation. Songs happen in space. They happen in time; time and space are the same thing, thank you Albert Einstein!

You are going to be actually moving through the song as you play it. It is going to unfold, and you are going to have to know when to turn right, when to turn left, when to go down the stairs, when to go through the door. Paying attention to your song structure – it is important.


Apart from the song form, the next thing you want to do is you want to analyze rhythm. The rhythm is the basic building block and organizing principle of all styles of music. I have talked to a lot of people who play very complex music, classical musicians that work in a professional level, jazz musicians that work in a professional level. Those are two very complex types of music. I have talked to many film scorers as well, and frequently, they spend a lot of their time with this kind of abstract ideas, these harmonies that are very complex, chord forms that are not your basic C, D and G chord but they are ninth chords and 13th and suspended chords. Or they are talking about chromaticism and the melodies and all kinds of modal modulations, but for all that complexity, they need to establish and maintain a steady rhythm! From simple to complex, it’s rhythm that organizes sound into music.

Put the beat in your body

Now, listening to rhythm is good, but it is not enough. You need to put the beat in your body. A lot of musicians tend to carry the beat in their foot. It doesn’t have to be that way. I see a lot of base players using their head, their neck. So, get that rhythm in your body. If you are just starting out in music, you want to stand up and walk to the rhythm. The grossor the motor system that we are using in our body to internalize the rhythm then the easier it is. As you get into finer motor skills, like just using your fingers, instead of your legs, then it has a little extra layer of complexity so stand up and walk, walk to the rhythm. March around the room, march in place or just sit in your chair and use one foot or use both feet; one, two, one, two. You want to do that.

Zero in on the melody or chords

Once you can keep the beat in your body, zero-in on the melody. I play a little rhythm guitar but a lot of the instruments I play are melodic instruments, in that case, I will zero-in on the melody. If you are playing rhythm guitar or a rhythm part on the piano or some other instrument where you are basically in charge of chords, you want to zoom in on some part of the rhythm as well but just zoom in on the rhythmic aspect. Don’t worry about what chords they are playing. If you are going to be listening to a rhythm guitar part, just focus on the rhythm. Don’t worry about the chords. Play all the rhythm right here on your legs. The same with a melody line. At first, don´t pay attention to the melody pitches, just focus on the rhythm underlying the melody. Play that rhythm on your knees.

The rhythm section

If you are playing any kind of music that has a rhythm section and a bass player in it, a good place to focus your attention, really, before you get into your melody or your harmony part is what the bass player is doing. Bass lines are often a bridge between the chords and the melody. Additionally, in a lot of styles in music, bass lines can be a lot easier to pick out melody lines and chord progressions. Spend time just listening to what the bass is doing. It is going to give you a little bit more orientation.

Now your ready to sing it

Don’t grab your instrument yet! It’s time to sing your part. With a chord instrument, obviously, you cannot sing three or four notes at a time, but you can sing whatever note within that chord feels comfortable to you. And with a melody instrument, just try and sing the melody. While you sing, keep on tapping the rhythm out on your knees.

At this point you will have the song structure completely memorized, the rhythm completely internalized and have a good idea of how your part goes, even though you might not know exactly what notes they are or what chords they are yet. So that is 95% of the work and all you need to do now is fill in the blanks with the right notes or chords. So now grab your instrument and get ready to play.


Phrase by phrase or fill in the blanks?

There are two kinds of learners out there that I have experienced. I would say that the vast majority of learners, they learn song quicker if they go linearly, in phrases. So, you take the first phrase of the song, whatever you perceive as the first phrase, put it in a loop and slow it down, and then you want to get out of your instrument, you are going to have to find the key of the song and you can do that listening to the bass. AT the start of ear training, that step can be a bit of guesswork, but it gets easier with practice.

Once you have the key of the song, that will help you narrow where your first guess might be, and soon as you get one note of that song, and you know where it is on your instrument, the rest of it should pretty much just begin to fall into place. Because you have already listened, is this phrase going up or is it going down? Is it going up and down or down and up? What is the contour? You have the rhythm, and it is just getting those few little notes or few little chords in that phrase. And once you have that, practice it a lot in a loop. You can speed it up then slow it back down; practice it a lot. Then go on to the next phrase and do the exact same thing.

Daisy chain

Once you have the first two phrases, put them together. Put that first phrase that you learned and the second phrase that you learned into a larger phrase, into a loop. You will be reinforcing what you already did and working on the transition between the two phrases connecting them. Once you got that, go to the next logical block of the song, whether it is a phrase or it might be two phrases, depending on how repetitive the song is in its note or chord progressions. And just do that again, go get one phrase, maybe two phrases, put them together and then put the whole daisy chain together, so you are going to want to build up like that. You are going to want to do one phrase, two phrase and then one and two phrases. Third phrase, one, two and three phrases. Fourth phrase, one, two, three and fourth phrases together, and that is generally how I find that most students learn a song the quickest.

However, not everybody learns in the same way, and there are people that I have worked with that learn a song globally and they do it with a fill in the blanks method. And what they do is they just put the song on, they can slow it down and loop it and the parts that are most salient to them, they just fill in. And as they fill in those parts it gives them more information about what the other parts can be, and they will do it that way. They will actually be looping the whole song or the whole section of the song, maybe it’s the chorus or maybe it is the verse or maybe it is the bridge, and they will not be going phrase by phrase. So, it depends on where you fall in that spectrum. You want to experiment with both methods and find what works for you.

Practice makes perfect

And then lastly, I would like to say that all these gets easier with practice. I have worked with people that can hear a song one-time and play it through easily. I have worked with people who actually never even heard the end of the song and already have guessed it. They already learned the song just by hearing the first three or four phrases of the song. You do get a lot better at it, and just like anything, it just takes practice.

The big takeaways

The big takeaways here are methodology and probably, within the methodology the two biggest takeaways are the difference between just hearing and listening, which is center your attention. Don’t be in other conversations in your mind; center your attention. Close your eyes if it helps you to center your attention. This is all about sound; you don’t need a lot of visual input. That is one of the big takeaways. And the other one, really is the fundamental role that rhythm plays. Not just establishing and maintaining steady beat, but also tapping along with your part, learning the rhythm of your part really well before you even pick up your instrument, and that will also accelerate your ability to learn this tune and further tunes in the future by ear.

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