How to Transcribe a Song by Ear

In this lesson you will learn how to transcribe a song by ear, which is a very valuable skill in a musician's life.

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Ultimate Guitar
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You've been playing guitar (or any other instrument) for a while now, and you like to play over your favourite songs? Everyone does, but the problem you may be experiencing is that some songs do not have tabs on the Internet. You searched for hours for a tab, asked all your musician friends if they knew how to play this song, and that didn't led to any result? This article is for you. We will learn how to transcribe any song using our ears. To transcribe music actually means writing it, writing which notes are played and with which rhythm (for one or more instruments, it is up to you depending on your needs). Here we will only focus on what the guitar plays. Here is what we will see:
  • Use some tools
  • Define the structure of the song
  • Find the notes played
  • Find the rhythm
  • Write a tablature

    Use some tools

    First, I advise you to install on your computer a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). It will allow you to slow the music down, and apply some effects to change the sound of the song (EQ, compression, etc). You will also be able to replay the most difficult parts, and add markers to identify the different sections. I personally use Reaper, but you can use one of your choice (Cubase, ProTools, Audacity, etc). There are other tools that can help you, although I personally limit myself to the DAW. Note for example Transcribe! Which determines the frequencies heard at a certain time and then the corresponding notes.

    Define the structure of the song

    The first step is to determine how the song is structured, which means defining the different parts that compose it, and the number of repetitions of each of these parts. To do this, take a sheet of paper (or use your computer) and listen to the whole song. During playback, you will write down a line for each part. When a new section begins, write down its name on a new line (for example, "intro", "verse", "chorus", etc). Count the number of repetitions of that part, then when the part finishes, write down the number of repetition next to its name. Here is an example of song structure (basic): intro (x4) verse (x2) chorus (x1) verse (x4) chorus (x2) Solo (x1) chorus (x2) outro (x1) Doing so you will help you later to see where you are in the progress of transcription, and it will also help you when you will write the corresponding tab.

    Find the notes played

    The technique is the same whatever part of the song you study. If you have no idea of the key note of the song, listen to it, and play on your guitar all possible notes (12 in total on the fretboard). Note that some of them sound nicely with the music and other sound bad. Note down those that sound good. They will be the ones most likely to be played in the song. From these notes, we can begin to find the real notes played. Start studied part from the beginning, and try to find the first note played. For now, do not try to find a complete chord, only focus on finding the notes used. When the first note is found, find the next one, and so on. I suggest you write each note found, not to forget them along the way! Once you have determined the notes played, you can find what chords are played (if there are chords). In metal music, most of the time there are power chords, composed of the root note and its fifth (for this reason, the power chord of, for instance, E, is named E5). Beware though, in hard rock more complex chords are used. If you do not find any chord corresponding to the one played, try to play all chords corresponding to the fundamental, you should find one that sounds the same as the one you are looking for. As for solos and fastest parts, don't hesitate to slow down the music with your editing software. You can also write down the scale (or look for it on the Internet or GuitarPro) so you'll see which notes are most likely to be played. Also remember that you have the right to improvise during the solo, you're not forced to play a 100% identical solo!

    Find the rhythm

    For some people, this stage is natural and if you're one of those people, you have at this point already found the right rhythm for each note. For other people, it is not so easy to play over the song with the good rhythm. If you can not find the duration of each note, start by slowing down the music, so that each time lasts longer. This way, you will more easily be able to count both the black notes, but also the divisions of this time. Another tip is to tap (with your foot, your hand, whatever you want) on the tempo (or even 2 times faster than the tempo when the tempo is slow). You will hear that some notes fall right on time, some other right between two times, and some fall at quarters of time.

    Write a tablature

    This step is not mandatory, but is recommended if you do not want to forget the song over time, and thus lose all your transcription work! And also because here we are on a website that gives you tons of good user tabs, so it's a good idea to post some of your own tab to help other people! You can either choose to write it by hand or using specialized software. If you write it by hand, you can find on the internet empty tabs (which only contains the lines corresponding to the strings), print them and then add notes on top of it. If you prefer to write on a computer, you can use a specialized software like GuitarPro or TuxGuitar. For more informations about how to write a GuitarPro tab, you can check the tutorial I have on my blog (link below). Have a question about this lesson? Got a problem? Post a comment, I will answer! Here is my blog for more tutorials.
  • 62 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Absolute Rock-O
      Some ear training can help a lot too. Try this : http://www.musictheory.net/exercises/ear...
      CurlOfTheBurl
      Can you guys seriously tell what interval it is just by listening to the song? Jeebus, i feel bad that my expertise stretches as far as "play em all til it sound right". And i failed spectacularly at that game.
      JimmyStJames97
      Hey man, that's how a huge amount of people - including me - do it as well. Don't let other people being more talented in one area than you get you down. (Love the username, by the way.)
      mysticguitar77
      Ugh, used to have tests on intervals in music theory class in high school. Always can get the 3rd, 7th, and octave, but I still can't get the 4th, 5th, and 6th's. Nobody in my class ever got them all right and my teacher would get pissed like it's the most obvious thing ever. Trial and error is the way I've always learned songs. Play the song, hum the notes/chords in your head, find the notes on the fretboard that match the notes you're humming. Method has been working fine for me thus far for rhythm... leads are a little more complicated...
      gateway01
      min 2 - Jaws Maj 2 - Happy Birthday min 3 - Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll - Blue Oyster Cult Maj 3 - Heartbreaker - Led Zeppelin P4 - Wedding March P5 - Star Wars min 6 - the one with no song Maj 6 - NBC jingle min 7 - the other one without a song (not hard to tell from a min 6, though) Maj 7 - Sextape - Deftones Octave - same note That's how I do it at least.
      fedora bora
      Intervals are super easy to name as long as you know your scales and practice them one your instrument and by sing aloud. I think sometimes practicing other aspects to music besides playing your instrument such as writing music, studying theory, playing other instruments, reading and writing notation, and listening to music is more important. If you want to get really good at learning your intervals by ear join a semi-profession or college or big community choir. Professionally trained and college educated vocalist can pull intervals and chords out of the air like its nothing (granted the dont use note names, they use solfege which is annoying but it works).
      shaundp
      Ack, I cant get the descending intervals. Now you have me worried about how I did on my ear training final.
      Petrucci08
      Well I've got them all. My music teacher always said I had a very good ear
      triface
      You're Petrucci. You should be able to improvise in tritones if somebody wants you to do it.
      Jazz1992
      Does someone know where there are some tutorials on this, instead of just jumping into exercises?
      shelovemyguitar
      First I thought I'd get rick rolled by clicking that link but realized it was an actual exercise. I didn't do it cause I fell like I'm gonna get rick rolled if I manage to do it.
      Bob.Loblaw
      As a french music listener, I have often done this, since there are less chords on the Internet. I usually stop at chords though, since I'm a really casual guitar player (aka, not great). Thanks!
      HomerSGR
      When I first started I was overwhelmed instantly when trying to figure a song out... there was just the endless possibility of all notes. But then I realised - it wasn't. There was a system behind everything. It will get easier and easier, and as you learn to recognise the intervals played you will realise that there is no superpower or wizardry behind learning 'by ear'. Just experience achieved through trial and error and theory.
      lVlaniac
      Ive been tabbing for years now and all ive needed to do is to arm myself with patience and keep playing the same sections over and over until i feel they are right. I used to need my guitar to transcribe everything but now i can do it without it for most of the songs except very fast solos.
      Job4ADeadCowboy
      That's what I do now. I play the same two to thirty seconds over and over and over and etc.. until i think it's right.
      metalhead983877
      I didn't learn anything with this lesson as a seasoned guitarist, but nonetheless a great lesson for beginners.
      maguri
      "First, I advise you to install on your computer a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)." I don't think that is the first thing one should do in order to transcribe a song by ear. You do not need a lot of equipment to do that. Why not start with a guitar, a song you like and any kind of audio player? Slowing down the recording might be useful for very fast solos or arpeggios. But the first thing many people want to achieve is to play a song they like and to accompany themselves using the right chords etc or at least something that comes close. For me, that was a question of practicing very often, starting with traditional songs, until I knew common combinations of chords (I-IV-V / II-V-I etc). It's like learning vocabulary. Recognizing conventional chord patterns opens your ears for unconventional ones. Suddenly you realize - oh, this sounds different and you start to ask yourself why. Whatever, software and equipment can be useful sometimes but one should not rely on them too heavily - especially not if you're a beginner. At least that is how it worked for me and for the kind of music I like to play. It may of course be different for other genres ...
      fanapathy
      Interesting article, particularly as this is quite different from how I do it I think it's really good to write what you figure out into tab editors. When you're piecing together a song, it's really gonna help to play back the music you transcribe as it will be more obvious when something's sounding off. Good article, cheers!
      gavwah
      You don't need a DAW to slow mp3s. Windows media player does it, and I think VLC as well
      tsoun-net
      Of course not, but a DAW allows you to do everything (slow down, effects, ...) with just one software, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about it
      aureliusgtr
      i thought this was a lesson on how to transcribe a song by ear? not by using DAW software and the "keep playing different notes until you get it right" technique....but this is UG, so I should've expected an article that had little to do with the title...
      von Layzonfon
      Other software tools worthy of note are: AmpliTube - will slow down mp3 jam tracks, among everything else it does. RiffStation - playback speed control and also chord recogniser and guitar isolator, although these last two didn't work brilliantly for me. PowerTab - still my favourite (free) tab editor.
      guitarist5477
      Usually I just start soloing in random keys till I find the right key, then that narrows it down a good bit. Then I can figure out the chord progression. Then the hard stufff usually is the solo
      mirinbruh
      Thanks man. This should help me.. I was never able to ear out songs but there's some great tips in here. I need to fix my auxiliary input in my laptop, though, cause I don't think a smartphone is ideal for this lol. Will get at 'er tomorrow! --Kodi
      henrihell
      I'm not really good at transcribing, but I usuallytry and get for example the intro (or an other part) 'relatively right' and then find the right key to it. Based on how the guitar resonates it's usually fairly simple to get the right one right from the start.
      BillR87
      So long as the tabs arent half arsed bullshit like they always seem to be these days >< youtube covers havent proven to be a better source for me personally at least I know its correct by listening to it and watching it
      ArtistLion
      Dunno if it helps, but I use the A major pentatonic scale to identify the root note of the intro. Then I use my chord book to look at the intervals of the notes (IMO it's quite helpful to know where the 3th and 5th are and how they sound). Afterwards it's listening to intervals and 'chord' switches.
      daveytwardy
      ok someone tab out me and my girl by theory of a deadman
      maguri
      Do you want a full blown tab? That would take a little time. Chords? VERSE | C#m | E | the guitar playing that single note "eb" here and there turns these chords into | C#sus2 | Emaj7 | respectively CHORUS | C#m | E | BRIDGE 1 ("Now I know / Now I see / All this time I've been sleeping with the enemy") | C#m | % | B | MIDDLE 8 | F# | % | A | % | C#m | % | % | % | (repeat) BRIDGE 2 ("It's just the two of us / It's just me and my girl") | C#m | % | E | % | F#sus4 | % | A | % |
      maguri
      Do you want a full blown tab? That would take a little time. Chords? VERSE | C#m | E | the guitar playing that single note "eb" here and there turns these chords into | C#sus2 | Emaj7 | respectively CHORUS | C#m | E | BRIDGE 1 ("Now I know / Now I see / All this time I've been sleeping with the enemy") | C#m | % | B | MIDDLE 8 | F# | % | A | % | C#m | % | % | % | (repeat) BRIDGE 2 ("It's just the two of us / It's just me and my girl") | C#m | % | E | % | F#sus4 | % | A | % | Tab submission is in the approval queue. Good song, too!
      DarthTyrannus83
      A lot of the stuff with transcribing comes from experience of just playing songs. You should take note of the repeating patterns in the songwriting. A lot of music uses octave jumps. Also if you know a band uses a certain tuning in general, then you can assume a default tuning for the song, and most of the time, songs start on one of the octaves of the tonic note. Knowing the general style of riffing in a genre/band really helps in transcription. As for software, definitely use Transcribe, its really fast to use, you can slowdown, put on repeat, single out instruments by tweaking the EQ, find the played notes by the built-in note guessing system, etc. And yes, try to always write the tab in guitar pro.
      In-Ghost
      this might be an ignorant question, but, apart from ear training, what are the biggest advantages of transcribing a song by ear instead of just learning it from a tab/video?
      maguri
      To me, the biggest advantage of being able to transcribe songs is that you are autonomous and do not depend on others. What if there are no tabs/videos of a song you want to play or the ones that exist do not sound good - which is often the case? No problem because you can do it yourself.
      paul.zack1
      i tryed droped d tuning and later discovered that all i had to do to regular tuning to get to drop d was wrap my thumb around low e.
      ederdaaron
      A great guitarist that taught me the basics back around Van Halen 1 was to listen to the vibrations between the notes and not get to wrapped up in the theory of it all at first. I started playing at the age of 12 and I am a well above average player, be 48 in a few days. If you want to transcribe it first know your fret board, you are gonna have to know where you are at every second of the song. When I started tabbing there was no software that I can remember so pencil and paper it was, this is what helped beside the endless practice I put in back in the day. Music is based around harmony to me lets take the song I fully understood 3rds---"Big Balls" by AC DC and 5ths --- was "She" by Kiss most music today has those two i call harmony notes together, the vibrations between G and B of a G major scale is 3rds and the vibrations between G and D of that G major sale is 5ths when I trained my ear the difference I could hear it plan. learn the distance of major and minor scales 2nd to root, 3rd to root, 4th to root and so on. something else that helps me is doing the melody with your voice. I struggled many years trying to understand the circle of 5ths , about 3 months ago a rock fell out of the sky and i saw and hear in my minds eye to the right goes the 5ths and to th left goes the 4ths. I now know what it meant when I went to jam with a group of guys and someone would call out, " hey this is in G, 1,4,5... being G, C, and D or E, A, B with the 5th being a major 7th. I hoped this helped shed a small hit off light and if you got a song you are trying to tab and hit a snag email me -- ederdaaron@gmail.com
      Laeh666
      Try this page. You can load song from computer or use Youtube link and it turns that song to chords. Its not 100% accurate, not even 70% but it gives good idea what notes there are. Very helpfull. http://chordify.net/
      Metalxorxdie
      It's very hard to pick out alot of chords in the songs of some death metal bands that play extremely fast and they are harder to hear over the drums or vocals during certain parts...but I'll have to try out that Reaper program you suggested, thanks!
      City_Machine
      tried transcribing, was kinda meh at it. Slower riffs and chords I'm okay with but solos and different tunings drive me nuts
      mysticguitar77
      Pick out the lowest note or chord in the song as that'll tell you the tuning most of the time for standard and standard drop tunings. Alternate tunings are more difficult to figure out. You can sometimes spot them when you're learning a song and there's a certain section of notes that there's no way you can play in a standard tuning. It's also good to know the guitarists style and what type of tunings they normally use to give yourself a good starting point in figuring it out.
      osiris12
      That's one thing I'm kinda good at. I don't have much trouble hearing a low C or A, but when it comes to figuring out notes by myself I'm a lost child.
      FoxAndTheHound
      As far as tools for transcribing, I prefer the software called Transcribe . You can download it online, it's worth every penny. Every music teacher i've studied with (even at the college level) has recommended it to me
      Kefdude
      Well, if you need to get chords for a song real quick and easy i suggest http://chordify.net/ So far so good. Like any automated system can have some flaws so can this thing, but i havent stumbled on any yet.
      Harleyrider73
      Remember the song writers aren't school trained unless your Dream Theater or Randy Rhodes. It's pretty easy to slow it down and remember everything is wrtten in scales
      canadianmaples14
      Yall are making it so much harder than it is. This is how you tab a song. A. Figure out what key the song is in. B. Figure out what mode it is in. Most songs I have been doing have been easy, Aeolian, or, minor. or maybe major. 99% of songs. If you cannot find out if whether or not the song is major or minor using root note and ws/ws/hs formula vs. ws/hs/ws formula etc. you should not be trying to tab songs yet. Once you can do that C. Google the cooresponding mode and key followed by map. Boom you will get all the notes along the neck of the guitar for that cooresponding scale. So Lets say you have D minor. Google D minor guitar map and you will get every note possible in that key on the guitar. Handy reference and when combined with your ear can help you easily tab songs. If it is a harder song, that combined with watching a video of the guitarist or someone else playing it to give you an idea or clue at least as to where the notes are. Hopefully this helps.