guitar and coffee

 The Hard Baroquer blog is a hub for musicians to improve their playing. It is edited by Pana Markides, a home musician that has pursued music as a hobby for nearly 20 years. An intermediate guitarist, beginner bassist and even sometimes dabbling on the harmonica, he is always learning something.

By The Hard Baroquer

Learning songs by ear is excellent practice for improving your playing and your ears’ ability to analyse and break down what’s going on in piece of music. Musicians with a strong ear can often play songs or pieces accurately on one listen and professional music transcribers often have to rely on their skill to tab out songs for the general public to learn from (often when you buy sheet music books of your favourite album, it was tabbed by someone else with the composer only offering advice where needed). But if you’ve just picked up guitar or any other instrument and are used to tabs and sheet music or learning from video lessons, you may struggle initially to play by ear. So let’s look at a few tips that will improve your ability to play songs by ear.

Practice aural skills

Using your ears to analyse music is known as the aural aspect of music, stemming from latin for ears. Your aural skills refer to your ears’ ability to hear intervals by ear. Strong aural skills help you to effectively pick out notes without referring to a written copy.

You’ll still need the root, unless you’re pitch perfect, but being able to pick out a tone from a semitone (aka intervals) is half the battle.

The easiest way to teach your ears how to pick different intervals is to play intervals and sing both notes at the same time. You don’t need to become Tom Jones, but do become familiar with the various intervals of the various scales.

Listen analytically

Even if you’re familiar with the song you want to learn, listening to it specifically to understand what’s going on is a completely different experience. You’re not listening for all the elements in the song you enjoy and that resonate with you, you’re listening to break down what makes those elements. Maybe you do that automatically, but maybe it takes a special focus for you.

Ask some of the questions while you’re listening:

  • What’s the time signature? is in 4/4 or in 3/4 ? Is it in 2/4 or indeed 7/4? You can usually hear this, but clapping will help you clarify. Be careful of tricky songs that switch time signature (Seal’s Kiss From A Rose is a good example)
  • How many instruments are there? If you’re trying to learn the guitar part, there’s often two and you’ll need to learn either the rhythm or the lead (start with the rhythm which is the foundation of the track, and once you’ve learnt the rhythm section, you can learn the lead section)
  • What is the root key? Is it overall in A? Is it in major or minor? Keep playing strings of notes to find a root note that resonates.

The root key is actually the answer to a lot of your questions when it comes to figuring out a song. The key decides the palette of notes the song will use (and rules out plenty of notes). It will also dictate the chord progression.

If it’s a pop song, the song writer will keep to a simple, familiar progression that is often seen in pop. If it’s more niche or underground, there will be a wider palette that the songwriter has chosen, so guessing becomes more difficult, but generally speaking whether it’s the The Clash or Slipknot, they often follow the same rule, but differ in their production process.

All in all, with a little experience you can guess the chord progression.

Yes, I said guess. Sometimes an educated guess is all it takes to learn a song, so long as you can figure out the key signature. Which brings me to my next point.

Don’t overthink it

You think ‘of all the musical possibilities’ guessing is like finding a needle in a haystack. To which I respond: musicians make music for a living, and they’re more often than not contractually obligated to create recordings, usually within a deadline. Making music, to musicians, is a trade and their instruments are the tools of the trade (as David Gilmour once referred to his guitar collection).

Add to this, their sound is their trademark. Their music needs to be recongisable to listeners. So, they often utilise the same chord progressions and techniques.

Figuring out the chord progression

Even virtuoso instrumentalists have a preferred musical palette. John Petrucci is a prolific virtuoso progressive metal guitarist, a genre known for blurring musical boundaries and complex song structures.  But once you become familiar with just one song you realise 1) how hard he works and 2) he has a huge musical vocabulary, but still has distinct preferences his discography showcases that. I’ve not heard a Dream Theater track with slide guitar or multi-finger tapping or hybrid picking (so rule all those ideas out if trying to learn a John Petrucci song).

On the other hand, Slash’s music is deeply rooted in blues. As a result, his solos and riffs often rely on conventional chord progression and pentatonics. What makes him a great guitarist is how he uses those.

Common chord progressions that are used in music

It’s worth having a general idea of some chord progressions you’re likely to see often in many areas of music. Here are some popular simple three and four chord progressions.

I-V-vi-IV

This is the standard four chord progression. Beginning in A major then going to to E major, followed by F sharp minor and then D major before repeating is seen so often in pop music and is used extensively by the likes of The Beatles to punk heroes like Green Day and many many more.

If you’re in the business of writing songs that are colour by numbers, this is as good as a template as you’ll get. Watch a piece of comedy that highlights how common the progression is.

I-IV-V-I

I-IV-V-I is another simple progression. It progresses from the first (or root) to the fourth, then to the fifth and back to the root. All that means is if the song is in the root of A major, the next chord is often D major (four notes down from A), followed by E major back to A. If the root is A minor, then you’ll use D minor and E minor respectively as minors are a different sound palette to majors. This also forms the basis of the 12-bar blues and is basically one of the most commonly used patterns.

I-V-II-VI

I-V-II-VI is a simple yet effective progression. In the case of A again it moves from A to E, then from B

Often times, the chord progression alternatates every other repeat. That’s pretty typical and keeps songs interesting. Keep a listen out for that!

It can be confusing as you may think a track in A major, but it is in D major, with a chord progression that includes A major in it. It takes time, but you’ll eventually get the idea of the general chord progression, barring any quirky devices the song writer may have added in.

It goes without saying that you’ll need to do the same for the chorus.

Once you understand the skeleton of the track, it’s likely the song writer has also added a short section that deviates from everything – the key will be different and the mood will be different.

Dedicate time to repeating the whole chord structure process for those sections and figure out what’s going on there.

Find the melody

Chances are, the song you’re trying to learn is riff-based or has a melody line. Now that you know the chord structure, you’ve put yourself in a position to narrow down the notes the song writer has used as the chords will be based on their scales. In commercial music, knowing (pentatonic scales)[ /pentatonic-scale-mother-of-rock-music] is enough to learn a huge repertoire of songs, riffs and solos.

Noodle around in various scales and arpeggios using the chord progression as a reference point. You’ll quickly learn that most riffs are nothing but different combinations of 8-note scales, 5-note scales (pentatonic scales) and three-note scales (arpeggios).

Iterate the result

You may think you’re done. You’re not – but you’re close. Keep playing what you’ve figured out over the original. Try different hand positions. Play your riffs on the same not on a different string. Iron out the kinks through iteration. The more you play the song, the more you’ll notice about it and realise what’s going on and what more needs to be done.

Eventually – it may take a day and it may take a week or even a year if needs to – you’ll have the tune figured out to the point of near certainty that that’s how the original writer performs it. And the more experience you have under your belt the quicker the process becomes each time. Sometimes you have the happy accident of trying to figure out one song and realising that changing one small thing, or getting one small thing wrong, means you’re playing a second song perfectly.

Refer to video lessons if you’re stuck

I haven’t suggested watching videos of performances since musicians often simplify or alter how they play their songs for a live set up, but there’s no reason why watching a live rendition of the track won’t help you learn the basics of the song quickly if you’re struggling.

While this post was written in the spirit of learning songs independently, there are plenty of tutorials on YouTube; use them if they sound accurate to you! Learning a song by ear is a matter of applying yourself and putting in the time. The more songs you teach yourself, the more you’ll become aware of recurring techniques and device in music, and the quicker you’ll be able to learn to play new songs.

There’s no harm in learning new songs through tabs, sheet music or videos as they all increase your musical knowledge, but it’s still worth strengthening you ears to play songs using nothing but a recoridng of the song as reference.