Figuring Out Songs by Ear - a Lost Art

One of the best things you can do for your playing is to regularly figure out songs by ear. You'll learn more than you can possibly imagine. Here are some tips to make your path easier.

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Wouldn't it be great if you could figure out your favorite songs all by yourself, and not have to rely on tabs or to wait until next week's guitar lesson?

To a lot of beginning to intermediate guitar players, I might as well have said, "Wouldn't it be great if you walked outside of your house this morning, and tripped over a bag of $100 bills, and a vintage Les Paul?" Well sure Dave, but that ain't gonna happen. Well, hold on, I'm here to tell you that it's not as hard as you might think. It's definitely not easy, but as they say, nothing worth it is. In this article, I'm going to give you some tips and inspiration to get you started.

Helpful Knowledge

If you're just beginning to play guitar, you'll want to be comfortable with at least all your open position chords, and at least one pattern each of minor pentatonic and major scale patterns to be best prepared for this - the more you know, the better.

Some basic music theory will be really helpful too - scale and chord construction.

Other Details

There are a few things that might make your road easier.

Software/Apps

You may want to invest in slow down software. You'll be able to slow down a song or a riff down to 20% the original speed, and loop small sections - very handy. They're not absolutely necessary, but helpful and worth it.

I use Amazing Slow Downer. The desktop version runs around $50, while the iPhone version is only $14.99. I'm sure there are others out there, but this is what I use.

Environment

You'll be working at this for decent stretches of time, so find a spot where you can listen and write comfortably.

More Tools

Finally, if you plan on writing your discoveries down (tab or standard notation) - which I recommend, but not necessary - get some tab paper, a sharp pencil, a good eraser and you're ready to go!

Let's Do This!

If you've never done this before, don't worry - nobody masters this the first time they do it. Just start with easy stuff - really easy - and then keep building on that.

For practice, try figuring out the vocal part to a song you know really well.

Like I said - easy. You have to be able to hear the parts VERY clearly for your first try at this.

Now I'm going to recommend something crazy. Once you've decided on a song to work on, I want you to actually sing the notes that you're trying to figure out. It doesn't matter if you have a good voice or not - that's not the point. The point is that if you can sing the notes, that also means that you stand a shot at "holding" the note in your head long enough to find it on the guitar. All you have to do is match the note on your guitar to the one you're singing.

The Process

I can sum the process up in 3 steps:
  1. Sing the note
  2. Hold the note
  3. Find the note on guitar
As you get more comfortable, try singing and holding 2 or 3 notes at a time - gradually build up your ability to do this over time.

Once you make the leap to doing slightly more difficult songs/riffs, I'd recommend that you listen to the section that you're working on many times WITHOUT trying to figure it out. Just LISTEN... This will make your job easier by helping to "burn" the sounds into your brain.

Scales

Let's take a timeout to talk about scales. You can definitely figure out songs by ear without knowing any scales. But, I want you to know that it will be MUCH easier to do this if you devote some of your practice time to learning scale patterns - a good starter set of scales would be major scales and both major and minor pentatonic scales.

For instance, if you're figuring out a song in either the classic rock or blues genres, many solos use exclusively minor pentatonic patterns. So, if you know those, your guesses will probably hit the right note a good amount of the time. So, in short, I'd say it would be a good use of your time.

Actually, I'm understating that a bit. Here's the full truth - If you want to be a solid or great player, knowing all your scale patterns is essential. As a side "note," I think scales get a bad rap. Every great solo you've ever heard has been based on scale patterns. Once you get them under your fingers they're a lot of fun to play, and practicing them makes your guitar playing go through the roof. What's not to love? Anyway, I digress.

As you work on this, you'll notice that after a while you may hear a few notes, and know exactly what shape they form on the guitar. That's an exciting day!

It may take awhile to work up to this level, but this skill is crucial in your development as a musician, especially as an improvising musician. So get crackin', and when you come back we'll talk about how to tackle the chords of a song.

Chords

Depending on the song, figuring out the chords to songs will quite often be more challenging than figuring out the solos. By the way, my rant on scales applies to chords as well. The more you know and can do with chords, the easier it will be for you to hear chords in a song and find them on the guitar.

The first thing you'll want to do is to just listen to the song a few times. While you're doing this, practice focusing in on what the bass player is playing. If your song has 4 beats to the bar as most rock/blues/pop/country/jazz songs do, beat 1 is where most of the chords change. So, listen carefully to that 1st beat. Most likely, the note that the bass player is playing will tell you the note name of the mystery chord.

The second job for you is to decide what kind of chord it is - major, minor, dominant 7th, etc. You can narrow down your choices considerably if you understand that different styles of music tend to use specific kinds of chords. Here are some general suggestions that may help - just remember that there are exceptions to every "rule":

Guitar Styles

Metal

Mostly power chords, with an occasional major or minor chord.

Classic Rock

If it's on the lighter side of classic rock - rock ballads - listen for mostly major and minor chords, with an occasional power chord, and maybe an occasional dominant 7th chord. On some rock ballads, you may find some notes added to your basic major or minor chord. Major add 2 chords are very popular, as these chords are perfect for rock ballads - very pretty chords. For the heavier stuff, it's reversed - mostly power chords, with an occasional major/minor chord.

Blues/Blues Rock

Anything that sounds "bluesy" is likely to have a fair amount of dominant 7th chords. Once you've heard them a time or two, they'll probably jump out at you compared to the major and minor sounds. Blues rockers like Eric Clapton, and many others, generally use a combination of power chords and 7th chords. Like I said generally speaking...

Folk/Folk rock

Major, minor and dominant 7 chords, sometimes with an added note or two.

Country

These songs rarely use power chords, but rely more on major, minor and dominant 7th chords.

More Advanced Sounds

For this next group, you'll most likely need a good amount of experience with chords, and actually playing songs in these styles. For that matter, for any style of music, the more songs you've played, the easier it is to hear and identify the chords.

Pop

By pop, I'm referring to the big pop ballads that you might hear Mariah Carey (like "Hero") or Whitney Houston sing. Pop songs use a bit of a wider range of chord types. They'll use major, minor, dominant 7th, major 7th, minor 7th, and others.

They also use what are called inversions. Inversions are easy to understand - instead of an A note being the lowest sounding note in an A major chord (the usual situation), another note from the chord takes it's place. In the case of an A major chord, either a C# or E.

They usually take a bit of experience to hear. But there are ways to figure them out, using a little music theory, which I'll explain later. So given all that, you may want get some experience with some of the other genres before tackling these. But don't let me stop you if you feel ambitious and want to test your ear! That's always fun, when you work and struggle to hear something, and you FINALLY get it. I've been transcribing songs for over 20 years, and that feeling never gets old - and I always learn something.

Jazz

Seventh chords, inversions, and some more advanced techniques - slash chords, polychords. Slash chords are kind of like inversions, except they can have ANY note as the lowest note, not just the notes of the chord.

Polychords are combinations of 2 chords, which can create a very sophisticated and complicated sound. For these kinds of chords, you'll most likely have to figure them out note by note, which I'll talk about shortly.

Odds and Ends

What I've covered so far should get you up and running. However, no matter who you are, you will ultimately get stuck at some point. Here are some advanced ideas to help you out of a jam (or help you into a jam!).

If you're not currently using a piece of slow down software, this is where they usually pay for themselves. You can loop down to less than a second of the song, and slow it down at the same time. I've found that if I just step back and listen - and not try to figure it out - the notes become clearer to me. Read that last sentence again - you're welcome.

This applies to both lead and chords. If you're stuck on a chord, most of these software packages allow you to "freeze" a chord and loop it. In Amazing Slow Downer, you can hit "H" on your keyboard to freeze and unfreeze.

Once you've done this, try to sing the notes in the chord. It will take some practice, but try to match your voice to the notes that you're hearing in the song.

I'll let my voice slide up and down until I feel like I've "landed" on a note that matches the chord. Then, I'll search for another note in the chord that way. Sometimes I can figure out the whole chord this way. Other times, I can hear only part of the puzzle. Which leads to...

Figuring out chords this way is kind of like playing Wheel of Fortune with notes. Once you've snagged a few, the picture will become clearer and hopefully your growing knowledge of chords will lend a hand and solve the rest of the problem for you.

Here's what I mean by that: What if you hear the bass player play an E, and you hear a G somewhere in the rest of the chord? Well, if you know your chords, you've already got some options to try...

Em: E G B
C: C E G

What do these chords have in common? Well, they both have an E and a G in them. These are the only 2 major and minor chords that have both notes. If you included 7th chords, you would have more options to work with. Now all you do is test both chords against the one in the song, and decide if you've guessed right. This isn't an exact science, but it will definitely help you get to the finish line.

Summing It All Up

Transcribing, or figuring out songs by ear is quite a challenge, but it's definitely worth it. All the great players have done it, and it's largely how they got to where they are today. So, keep learning about chords and scales and learning everything you can by ear. This way, you can think AND feel.

I think it's the best of both worlds. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing what your experiences are!

About the Author:
Dave Lockwood is an accomplished musician and award winning teacher in the Atlanta, GA area. Keep up to date by signing up at his website, and subscribing to his YouTube channel.

37 comments sorted by best / new / date

    CJax
    Everything I tab is by ear. A snark tuner with the microphone is great for finding the note you're looking for. Then just open guitar pro and listen to the song in 5 second pieces until you hate it.
    Immortal`Guitar
    Great article. I've developed a good ear mainly because I didn't have the luxury of a computer when I started playing the guitar. I initially started by playing along to the vocal melodies of songs because I wasn't able to transcribe the chords. The more you accomplish nailing those little melodies, the more encouraging and fun it is to figure complex chords/songs by ear. Every human being is equipped with the power of this amazing tool that only a few properly use. Happy practicing.
    bakaaah
    I'm using BestPractice. you can also slow down or speed up the track but also, you can change the pitch in any way. This is helpful when your guitar is in a different tuning than the song you want to transcribe. Also, this tool is freeware.
    Macejko
    I recommend the SMPlayer, its a free audio/video player for Windows where you can slow or speed up anything.
    HeidiCPascua
    My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can't believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do... www.wallstreet34.com
    NeThZOR
    I found writing my own music has helped me to recognize patterns and have a better ear for notes when tabbing songs.
    UGBugs
    VLC media player is all I use. It's got a loop function and a slow down function
    Jfzgd
    based on what helped me, here's my 2 cents worth of salt grains: *understanding that every major or minor chord (you name it) has a relative chord (look it up). go learn those pairs, this is not hard. *figuring out the most common progressions so you guys can have preexisting references when trying to figure out the song by ear. the biggest offender here is any permutation of I vi IV V so C G Am F or Bb F Gm Eb etc... proof of troof:
    It's especially the I vi (or I IV, using relative chords discussed above) sound that appears everywhere and that's helpful to know. Non exhaustive list of course. Mastering just the 2 points above will allow you to recognize a surprising number of songs, mostly stuff you'd hear on the radio but it's still a good start. On a side note, reggae is great for this since the genre uses chords in a nice and predictable way yet diverse enough to still train your hear.
    MaggaraMarine
    I would also suggest learning about scale degrees/intervals and chord functions. That way it's not just trial and error - you'll learn to hear how different notes sound related to the tonic or the chord. You'll also learn how different chords sound related to the tonic. If it has an explanation, it's easier to understand and memorize. This is what theory does - it gives names to different concepts in music. There are certain very common chord progressions that you hear everywhere. I would suggest learning those first. They will also teach you some chord functions. The video in the post above is a good one. By using that, you can pretty easily learn how the I, IV, V and vi chords sound like in a major key. And those are the most common chords in many music styles (well, not in metal). Many songs are just based on the three basic chords - I, IV and V. Learn to recognize those first. It makes learning to play chords by ear a lot easier.
    john549
    Transcribe! is definitely one of the better pieces of software for slowing songs down. It does much more than that, and I suggest folks check it out!
    vikingman369
    i learned every song from Bathory's last two albums by ear (just a pair of head-phones and playing the songs over and over again)
    RickyThomson
    Another open source program that can change speed and pitch correctly is audacity @ http://audacityteam.org/ Just click "Effect > Change speed" and drag the slider to the left to slow it down. Pitch changes automatically. I've found this very useful.
    ShameofaNation
    Phase cancellation is another great tool for learning by ear. Assuming the guitars aren't mixed dead center, it can cut out excess instrumentation and make what you're trying to learn easier to make out.
    mr_rainmaker777
    I get asked a lot how do I transcribe,Loop Loop Loop,small bites,2sec chunks or 5sec chunks up to a bar,it just depends on the music.
    hinashaheen670
    [deleted]
    hinashaheen670 · Nov 25, 2015 02:00 AM
    Prince_Paradox
    Started doing this last year after years of tab using. One of the best tips for beginners/intermediate players.
    JustStayDown90
    I've always learnt most songs by ear, including solos. Always had a good laugh seeing people ask for tabs for a 4 chord song.
    JayBlack
    I'd love to figure out more songs by ear, but I am mostly into progressive metal, so it's pretty painful.
    jzgy12
    You may not be able to figure out an entire song right away. You have to start simple - a single riff, a vocal line, a power chord section - and build on that.
    nanna_guy414
    does anyone know any software that can isolate tracks? I tried the riffmaster program but it wasn't that good, Id like to be able to isolate drum and guitar tracks.
    Avielp
    Audipo is an amazing app for slowing-down audio,bookmarking sections and changing key.I know it works on android, don't know about apple. It's free and it's great!