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Learning songs by ear means that you recognize where the sounds you are hearing are, on your instrument—sort of. I have a few friends that learn material in this fashion. They hear the music they want to play, whether by singing the melody and letting their hands find the notes, or listening to a recording and letting their hands find the notes. Sometimes this process is instant and sometimes there is some hunting-and-pecking: you play around until you find it.
Another method of playing by ear, is understanding how the notes you are hearing relate to each other, thereby understanding the particular “alphabet” of that song or piece of music. I use the word “alphabet” because just as you are reading the words in this article and the words are based on the alphabet letters A – Z, most pieces of music are based on a specific alphabet of notes and when you know that alphabet, you can hear the music and know what the notes are. Musical alphabets are called “scales.” This area gets a bit technical, but you can read more about it at this site by searching for the articles about “The Language of Music” which explains more about this.
Anyways, without getting into all of the specifics, which often require some efficient music instruction to understand, here is a routine you can follow to learn songs by ear. You can find the definitions of the musical terms at my Glossary of Musical Terms at http://buttwinickmusic.com.
To learn the chords:
1. Listen and find the bass notes. These could be played by the electric bass, keyboard, cellos or whatever low-pitched instrument is playing. The bass notes are most often the root of the chord. Once you find the bass notes, try and determine whether the chord is major or minor. By doing this, you can determine the chord progression. You should be able to actually sing or hum the notes in whatever range you can (high or low). If you can’t sing the notes, just play a bunch of low notes until you find it. Then play the bass notes along with the recording and see if they seem right. If they do, that could be it. (I am fairly good at this, and sometimes it is difficult. I just wanted you to know that...)
2. If the chords are difficult to hear due to a lot of sound being present, such as effects, drums, etc., or poor recording, try to pick out ONE other note in addition to the bass note. Now you have two notes. Then try and pick out ONE MORE note. Now you have three notes and are on the way to discovering what the chord is. Sometimes you have to loop a section of the song and listen to it many times to hear exactly what it is—this is normal. Do this chord by chord until you have figured out out all of the chords and the whole song.
3. If you have some music education, once you start learning the chords you can recognize the alphabet that the song is created with, and that theory knowledge can assist in guiding you through the process of figuring things out.
That is the basic process of learning the chords for a song. If you can’t carry a tune, this can be quite difficult if not impossible. If you can carry a tune fairly well you should most likely get through the process.
To learn the melody or solo section:
1. Go note by note and figure out what the notes are. Start by finding ONE note, then another then another. The better your ears are, the faster the recognition of the song’s alphabet will be and the easier it will be to do this. There really aren’t any shortcuts to this step. Knowing guitar fingerings help. Knowing some scales helps even more on whichever instrument you play. Training your ear to recognize musical alphabets, scales, is the ultimate tool. That is what ear training and music theory are all about: you learn to understand what you are listening to. (Which is not overly difficult with the proper instruction.)
OK! Those are the bare-bones methods of learning songs by ear. Getting computer programs and smart-phone apps that slow the music down without changing the pitch helps a lot. Training helps a lot, as well as just DOING IT A LOT!
Also, the better your speakers are the easier it will be. Since it is the bass notes that primarily outline what’s going on, you need to be able to hear the bass! Little speakers and ear buds often DO NOT reproduce bass sounds well and you should be aware of this. When I transcribe music, I often need to hear the music on my studio speakers or head phones. Small speakers can work as well, as long as you can hear the bass.
Now go learn some songs by ear! (And email me to let me know how you did!)
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