Ultimate Guide to Playing by Ear

This guide will show you how to play a song by ear.

Ultimate Guitar
Hi, recently I did something amazing. My friend had started learning guitar, but the real problem was that he was tone deaf. Three months ago, he asked me for help with that. So I worked with him and 2 weeks ago, I found him playing the solo on "Society" by Eddie Vedder, which he figured out within half an hour.

Then I asked him to figure out "Carry On My Wayward Son" by Kansas. He did that too, not the complete song, but the intro riff and the one after the second verse.

It was actually the first time I have ever helped someone with it. I thought I was just lucky, although I always had the steps in my mind that helped me to figure out songs quickly (most of them at first listen). I asked him to follow the steps and look where he got him.

So, I am going to share these steps with you, if you can make use of them, great!

Step 1

Play any note. I'd suggest play something that has it's tone very different note from the note that is actually being played. I'll explain later on why.

Step 2

Once you pick a note of your choice, compare it with the actual note that is being played (or you can compare it with any note, doesn't matter if it is the one in the beginning or somewhere in the middle).

Now, here comes the ordeal. A lot of people have trouble telling one note from the other. Here's how I can help, assign adjectives to the two notes. Like thin, high, light, thick, heavy, low. I know that this sounds ridiculous, but this is how you are going to differentiate between the two notes in the beginning.

Step 3

Adjust your note accordingly. Since you chose a note whose tone is very different from the actual note, it should be relatively easy to adjust your note.

Let's say your sense of weight is weak. So you should start with comparing a feather with a stone. Then you move to a piece of cloth. Then you move to a steel spoon. Then you move to an iron rod. Then you move to a heavy stone.

Now, given the fact that there are only 11 articles available, and the weight of one of them matches exactly to that of the stone, wouldn't it be easy?

Similarly, you have 12 notes in total. Not counting the actual note that we want to play, we are left with 11 notes. Let's assume you play a note on the 6th fret. Well, the actual note could either be on one of the 6 frets ahead of the 6th fret (including the open note) or it could be on one of the 6 frets behind the 6th fret (including the 12th fret).

Now, you listen to the note that you are playing, and listen to the note that is actually being played and compare.

"Hmmm. The note that is being played is heavier than the note that I am playing. I should move my finger towards the headstock."

Keep doing that. At first, it will be really painful. Make sure you pick up a song that does not have a lot of sounds in the background. I made a mistake in the beginning and asked my friend to try the solo on "Start of Something Beautiful" by Porcupine Tree. Although it is a simple melody, but the sounds in the background make it difficult for a beginner to focus on the note that he's trying to figure out.

I hope this helps. If you want to ask more on this, then message me, I'll do the best that I can.

Also, I have been thinking about starting a blog because I have a lot to say on ear training and in general improving musical skills.

I looked up on the internet, but I didn't find much material on ear training (most of them have just one or two articles, trust me, there is a lot more than just 1 or 2 articles that we can talk about), and on improving the quality of music that a person can produce.

I'll start a blog focused mainly on these two topics. Let me know your thoughts on it.

Thanks for reading.

4 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I remember my father bought me a cheap keyboard, the one that can run on AA batteries. I had nothing better to do, so I used to sit with it and try to play my father's favorite songs on it, and he used to get ecstatic. So, I did more of it. I'd play people their favorite songs, and they would get happy. I had a great incentive to sit down with my keyboard for hours. It wasn't an ordeal for me. It gets easier if you have a better incentive. Trying to play better than the next guy, is not a good incentive because there will always be a guy who can play better than you.
    How do you think we learned songs in the eighties? There was no internet, me and my peers were too young to buy song books. It was all ear training. Friends would teach what they learned and vice versa.
    Same in the early to mid-90's. We used to guess the chords by rewinding and playback cassette tapes to nail the chords of the song we want to "decipher". Another helpful trick is to familiarize yourself with the common chord patterns, like what usually goes with C (G-Am-F) or D (Bm-A-G) etc. Might not help you to get the chords 100%, at least you're very close.
    This would be first time figuring out be ear. Of course further progression in playing by ear would be to figure out the chords from which you can determine the key. Then if you know you keys and scales figuring out the lick should be relatively simple. hunting one by one for each individual note would be terribly inefficient.