Learning a song by ear consists of two steps. The first is to hear and remember the music. To record it accurately in your brain. Anyone that sings along to a song on the radio possesses this skill. It might seem like a simple step, but it’s absolutely vital.
Guitarists often rush through this stage and proceed to their fretboards immediately. But if you can’t hear the music in your head, you will learn the song the way you THINK it is, rather than how it actually is. It’s like building a house without carefully looking at the blueprint. You’ll end up with a house, but it just won’t be the one in the plans. If you can’t sing or hum the music, you can’t play it. You don’t have to be a great singer, you don’t even have to sing in tune. But you need to hear the music in your head.
When I learn a solo or some other longer piece, I like to listen to it for a while first. When I’m on my bike, on the train, or walking to the store. Just to take care of the memorizing part. I often sing the part to check where my memory isn’t strong enough yet.
The next step to learning a song by ear is to try to find those notes on the fretboard. To translate the music into movements of your hands and into sound.
Part 1: Transcribing a Riff or Melody
1. Put your guitar away and listen to the music
Really, don’t touch that thing! Make sure you’ve got the melody in your head. If you’ve never transcribed a song before, it’s probably a good idea to start with whatever you hear. This might be a guitar part, but it can also be a vocal melody or a bass line. Check if you really know the melody by humming along with the recording. Stay away from that guitar until you can hum the melody!
2. Find the very first note of the melody
In the beginning, this will be a lot of trial and error. Just think of the note you’re looking for and let your hand float towards the fret that you think will give you the right note. This is an intuitive process, so don’t overthink it! Is it the correct note? Is it higher? Lower? Try to slide up or down the string you’re on, until you find the note you have in mind. Note: To get better at this, you can turn it into a little game. Sing a note, any note, and find it on guitar. You’ll find that within a matter of days you’ll get better at this. Your subconscious mind will be connecting pitches to strings and frets.
3. Write the note down
Found it? Great! Make sure to write it down. I like using tab for this, because it gives you both the note and the position where you’re playing the note.
4. Repeat the process until you’ve found all the notes
Is the second note higher or lower than the first note? Or is it the same note? Try and find the second note. To make things easier, stay on one string. Just slide up or down, until you find the correct note. Once you find it, write it down and repeat the process until you’ve found the whole riff or melody.
5. Figure out the easiest way to play it
If you’ve stuck to one string, and the melody is hard to play that way, now is the time to look for a way to play some of the notes on other strings too. Hint: When you go one string higher (i.e. higher in pitch and physically closer to the ground), that’s the same as moving up five frets (unless you’re moving up the b string, which is four frets). Slide back those four or five frets and you’ve found the exact same note!
Those are the basics steps you need to go through. And then it’s just a matter of doing it. A lot. It may seem a little bit overwhelming if you’ve never done this before. But what if you set a really modest goal for yourself? Try to figure out just three or four notes a day. Within just a few weeks your skills will go through the roof. Here are some suggestions for some simple melodies that you can figure out by ear that you can get started with if you want some more practice.
The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army
Queen – Another One Bites the Dust
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Otherside
MGMT – Kids
James Bond Theme
Part 2: Learning Chords & Chord Progressions by Ear
6. Tune into the bass
The lowest note in music determines how all the other notes above it will sound. Harmony always starts with the bass note. So, the first thing you want to do, is listen closely and tune into the bass line. This may take some practice, because we’re used to listening to melodies that are easy to hear.
￼Bonus tip: use an equalizer
If you’re using a program like iTunes or VLC media player you can try boosting the bass frequencies using the equalizer. This can make it a bit easier to It really depends on the recording, but generally speaking it should help to boost anywhere from 60 up to 400 hertz. So look around that area until you find a setting that makes the bass easier to hear. Also, keep in mind that earbuds or laptop speakers often don’t have the most powerful low end. So trying a different pair of headphones or speakers might also make it easier to tune into the bass.
7. Figure out the bass part
Next, figure out what the bass is playing, note for note. It might be a single note that is repeated or it might be a more melodic line. This process is pretty similar to learning riffs and melodies by ear. Most importantly: make sure you’ve got the bass line in your head and that you can sing or hum it first. Next, figure it out one note at a time, until you’ve found the first five to ten seconds of the song.
8. Figure out the root note
The root note is the ‘letter’ we use to name a chord. So the root note for a B minor chord is B. Think of it as the foundation of a chord. The next step is to listen to the bass line and figure out which note is the root. The bass line won’t usually play the root note all the time, but it will emphasise it. For example, listen to which note the bass plays on ‘the 1’ (i.e. the start of a new measure). Listen to which note the bass plays the longest. On which note does the bass sound the most ‘at rest’? Whenever the harmony seems to change, you’ll notice that the bass is emphasizing a different note.
9. Check if the chord on the root note is major or minor (or neither)
Say you found the first root note is G. Try playing a G major chord and a G minor. Listen to which one sounds correct. Roughly speaking, you can say that major chords sound happy, and minor chords sound sad. In time, you won’t have to try both, because you’ll hear immediately if a chord is major or minor. But figuring out chords like this is the best way I know to learn to recognize these sounds.
If these ‘standard’ major and minor chords sound wrong, you might’ve run into a chord that’s constructed a bit differently. If you know how chords are constructed, I highly recommend using the detective approach I’ve laid out in the full article. You can also check if one these chord types sounds better: a. half diminished chord b. diminished chord c. augmented chord d. sus chord (sus2, sus4, or both) e. a slash chord (i.e. a chord where the bass isn’t playing the root note, but probably the third or fifth)
10. Check if you need to add an extra note to make it into a 7th chord
If you found a major or minor chord in step 4 (i.e. not one of the exceptions), the sound might still be a bit different. This is most likely, because the chord has one or more additional notes that give it a richer sound. The first options to check:
a. dominant chord
b. major seven chord
c. minor seven chord
d. major minor seven chord
Keep repeating these five steps and you’ll be able to figure out most common chord progressions. You’re basically ‘trying out’ the most common possibilities. Of course, after a while you’ll come to know these sounds better and better, making your ‘guesses’ more and more educated. You’ll start to recognize common progressions.
Jimi Hendrix – Hey Joe
Outkast – Hey Ya!
REM – Everybody Hurts (except the bridge)
Bob Marley – Jammin’
Radiohead – Creep
Arctic Monkeys – Cornerstone
Otis Redding – Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay
Queen – Don’t Stop Me Now
Jack Johnson – Sitting, Waiting, Wishing