How to Correctly Learn a Song

This article will help intermediate or advanced players excel as players by explaining how to learn more from a song.

Ultimate Guitar
Learning songs is the foundation for most people's music education. There are two general process's people use to learn songs. The first is method books. The method book is simply a collection of small songs, usually designed in a linear fashion to work on specific musical techniques and textures. The second, which is more common among guitar and vocal students, is to simply choose what song they'd like to work on.

For beginners, this is a great, it allows them to stay engaged in the learning process by working towards a goal. In this case, the goal is being able to play the song. Most players continue this style of learning even when they become intermediate and advanced level players because the process worked so well when they were beginners.

Learning how to play songs is effective in getting beginner level students to the intermediate level. For intermediate level students learning songs can be beneficial, but if the students continues to only work on the physical aspect of the song, they will quickly begin to plateau. To get from an intermediate level player to become an advanced level player, the skills you have to focus on are different. As a beginner you can barely play the instrument. So the majority of your time should be focused on developing the coordination to play. When you become in intermediate level player, you don't need to focus as much on the physical aspect of playing. This will allow you to start developing other important musical skills.

When you learn a song as an intermediate level player, you need to:

1) Transcribe the song by ear
2) Practice the physical aspect of playing the song
3) Analyze the song

Transcribing a song by ear:

The first part of the process is transcribing a song. These days so many people go straight to YouTube or tab sites to learn songs. By doing this, they are only hurting themselves. It's better to spend time transcribing the songs yourself. The act of transcribing a song is connecting your mind to the fret board. Many people would insist that using tabs is fine. It cuts down on the guess work and then their mind can already connect the patterns to the fret board. This is an assumption and if you carefully noticed how someone uses tabs, it doesn't help their ear.ю When someone goes to play tablature, they sit in front of the tablature sheets. They look at where they need to put their fingers. Then they look over at the fret board and place their hands where they need to be. Then play the chord or note. There is no listening going on here. Their just moving their fingers.

The act of transcribing song by ear means that you're going to listen to the music. You're going to play what you think it is and correct it if you're wrong. You're listening to the song, not viewing it as a finger pattern. This is what's going to develop your ears, not YouTube and not tab sites.

Before I move on, I want to bring up one more point. Even though I list how to learn a song in a specific order, you don't need to work on each separate process first before you move on to the next one. In fact, it's better for you to practice all these areas at the same time. This way you will optimize your growth.

What I just wrote might confuse you, so I'll offer some suggestions I find beneficial.

You will have to transcribe a song in order to practice the actual physical aspect of a song. However, there is no reason you can't analyze the song structure or other aspects of the song while picking it out by ear.

You can also analyze two songs at a time. Work on transcribing one song by ear and then when you've finished this one, begin analyzing it and practicing it. While you're analyzing and practicing the one you already transcribed, transcribe a second song by ear.

My final suggestion is this:

Practice all the areas in isolation. If your ear isn't strong enough to do the two suggestions above, pick one song to work on transcribing by ear. Keep working on it until it's done. Then pick a second song, find tabs or music notation for it and work on the physical aspects and analyze the song. We do NOT practice transcribing this second song by ear.

What we want to do, is start getting out of the habit of simply learning the physical aspect of songs. It's not important that you transcribe every song by ear at first.

Song Analysis:

If you're a beginner songwriter analyzing a song is going to be very useful to you and a lot of fun. Many people aren't sure how to anaylze songs correctly, so I will take some time to discuss this. When analyzing a song, you can literally analyze anything. What you'll want to analyze will probably depend on the weaknesses in your own songwriting. Since this is a small article, I'll keep the discussion to the more important aspects for beginner song writers and analyzers. 

First your going to want to breakdown the chord progression. Figuring out what chords are used and in what order is going to help you see how the song fits into music theory. Breaking down the chord progressions in a song will also help you notice any specific patterns in your favorite artist's music. Even more important, you'll be able to find exceptions or differences between your favorite artist's music and music theory.

After the chord progressions, you'll want to analyze the melodic aspects of the song. If you're a singer or lead guitar player, you can look at what notes they use over what chords. Each note is going to give off a different emotion over a different chord in the scale. Knowing what note over what chord is giving you the chills, will allow you to represent this in your own songwriting.

Again, many artists don't strictly follow music theory or use what's commonly used in certain situations. You'll gain enormous value by analyzing their melodic choices.

The final basic aspect you're going to want to analyze is the song form. Most amateur songs these days are structured in the traditional verse, chorus, verse, chorus Bridge, Chorus format. They maintain a 4/4 beat and every part is grouped in 4's. There are so many different song forms, and twists and turns you can use to spice up your songs. Analyzing song forms is going to help you learn these twist and turns.

Transcribing and analyzing songs is the first step towards developing some serious musical skills. Make sure to take the time to do more than just play songs and you will reap the benefits.

About the Author:
By Chris Glyde.

19 comments sorted by best / new / date

    "When someone goes to play tablature, they sit in front of the tablature sheets. They look at where they need to put their fingers. Then they look over at the fret board and place their hands where they need to be. Then play the chord or note. There is no listening going on here. Their just moving their fingers. The act of transcribing song by ear means that you're going to listen to the music. You're going to play what you think it is and correct it if you're wrong. You're listening to the song, not viewing it as a finger pattern. This is what's going to develop your ears, not YouTube and not tab sites." This has got to be one of the most important insights I've seen on learning and practicing guitar. Absolutely spot-on. Hit me like a ton of bricks. Today I'm doing things differently. No more monkey see, monkey do. Many thanks, Chris!
    I agree but there's one little problem, some people can't transcribe by ear and their only option to learn a song is through Youtube or Tabs.
    Philip Xander
    A common misconception. Learning to transcribe by ear takes time and practice, like any skill. At first you'll be groping all over the fretboard trying to find the right notes, chords and positions, but the more you try it, the easier it gets.
    A common misconception. Some people can't tell a difference between certain chords, not to mention notes which are close to each other.
    It's okay to transcribe incorrectly. Spend a few hours on a song, chip away at the stone, do the best you can. No one says you can't learn it from tab after you've transcribed it. If you're tuning only be ear, you may in fact transcribe a song in the "wrong" key. That's cool to. The point is this, there is value in struggling to learn by ear. I remember being so frustrated as my brother and I would rewind the Thin Lizzy song Cowboy over and over and over trying to figure out the different sections. But it was a good frustrated. Like a crossword puzzle. Now days, unless a song has some really oddball chords, I can generally sit down (often just after hearing the song on the radio) and figure out a song within a few minutes. Solos of course take a while, and if it's full of 32nd notes, it's not going to be easy. But, I think the author is basically saying get all the benefit you can from learning a song. It'll help you in the long run.
    Neuroscience tells us that people who say they can't do things are just making it worse for themselves by saying they can't. It's a nocebo effect. All it takes is practice and the belief that you can do it.
    I struggle with unusual chords. Interval training helped with working out melodies. Satch did a good lesson on it. Knowing what a third and fifth sound like is a good start.
    @ sn00ze, i agree-- i dont think it hurts beginners to use tabs or youtube to get an idea or a concept. Its like putting on training wheels for your bike; doesnt hurt to start, but at some point, you gotta take em off and just go for it.
    It's a skill that you need to learn. For some it's more natural. But you aren't really born with any "skills". You need to learn everything. Yes, there are some people that are kind of tone deaf but even they can train their ears. There are just a few people that are completely tone deaf. But I would guess none of them are really guitarists. If you really were tone deaf, I bet you would never even get into music. So if you can't do it by ear right now, pick an easier song. You need to learn to do it. Nobody could do it perfectly when they started playing. There's nothing wrong with learning from tabs. I would say it's pretty reasonable in the beginning because that way you'll learn to play more songs which helps you improve your technique and also musical skills. I think beginner guitarists should start learning by ear right away. Just pick one song to learn by ear and some other songs to learn from tabs. Not all songs need to be learned by ear but once your ear gets better, it just becomes easier to learn songs by ear and there's no help from tabs.
    Philip Xander
    Like cinnabarjack said, your point about transcribing by ear is extremely important. Yes, it helps you become a better guitarist, but more importantly, it'll turn you into a better musician . Good lesson. My only advice; run a spell check or two, and take a bit more time to think out your structure and make it a bit more readable. Contentwise: superb.
    But that transcribing stuff only work for advanced players. How can a begginer transcribe a song if you dont know all the sounds on all strings in all frets? Doing all possilble combo would be extreme slow progress.
    On a wild guess I'd say, probably no one knows "all the sounds on all strings in all frets", plus, there is quite some repetition, as you could for example play an E powerchord on 7th fret A string or on 12th fret E string, additionally to the basic one with open E string, to just name one of the easiest examples. To say transcribing only works on advanced level is, to be brutally honest, a lousy excuse for being lazy and impatient. As soon as you know the basic chords in major & minor (and have a slight idea of how they work), you have everything you need for transcribing by ear. Well, everything besides patience and passion.
    This is bullshit. I play with tabs, but after 15 years I know easily when a tab is wrong, when is right, some times I can correct it for myself or just use it as a base. Yet i dont know shit about chords or scales, even though i recognize what sounds good or wrong.
    I do know some basic chords really. All self taught. And all thanks to tabs.
    Exactly the point of these kinds of articles. You took 15 years to learn to be able correct a few mistakes in someone else's transcription when in 1-2 you could have been writing your own, transposing them and doing your own arrangements.