Mike Moxcey ©2005

Learning Songs by Ear

Some folks can learn songs by ear naturally. They have an inborn talent for it. For some reason, folks think if you don’t have that inborn talent, that if you are “tone deaf,” then you can’t learn music.

That’s garbage.

Some folks have a natural talent for reading or arithmetic, but everyone can learn those skills. You can learn musical skills, too. With practice, you can hear chord changes and melodies. And don’t despair if you don’t have “talent.” The ability to automatically hear tunes and play them back like a human tape recorder actually holds folks back from improvisation. There are always two sides to every coin.

Developing Your Ear

Step one to developing your ear is practicing that skill.

There is only one thing to practice: Listening

Of course, there are many different things to listen for.

To begin with, listen to a song and see if it’s a regular 3 or 4 chord song or if it’s odd somehow. Don’t start trying to figure out chords to minor or modal or ragtime songs by ear. Just as with any new skill, start with an easy project.

In fact, the first listening skill is to decide whether a song is normal or not. Put on a CD of country, rock or folk music and see which songs sound regular and which don’t. Singing songs are probably a better choice to start with than instrumentals because instrumentals usually are complicated in some way.

Listen for the Main Chord

Choose a normal song to practice this skill. Maybe even choose a song that’s on this site that you haven’t learned AND that you have a recording off that sounds normal. Any song can be made to sound simpler. It can be made to sound more complicated.

You want to start with simple songs.

You want to figure out the chords using the I-IV-V method. If you try to start by figuring out what key a song is in, then you’ll actually be developing a different skill: hearing pitch . That’s also useful, but there are other ways to learn it and it’s not really necessary to know the correct pitch unless you’re going to play along with a CD.

Chances are the song will start with the I chord, but it may not. Listen through the whole tune and see if you can determine where the base chord appears. It will almost always be the chord at the end. If the song sounds like there are a lot of chord changes or isn’t quite as normal as it was at first listening, move on to another one. Your ear will eventually get better.

Hearing Chord Changes

Now that you know what the main (I) chord is, see if you can figure out what the first chord to be played is. Chances are, it ought to be that chord. If not, then it will be either the IV or V chord.

Write down the words to the song on a piece of paper. Break it by line and leave space between the lines to write chords on. Write down the chord numbers where you think changes happen. Write down the beats (slashes) where the beats occur. All this forces you to listen closer to how a song is created.

Now turn off the CD and try playing the song in your favorite key. If it sounds good, great. If not, mark down the areas where the problems occur. Here’s a counterintuitive tip: Try not making so many chord changes. Beginners tend to think the chord changes occur more often than they do, not less often. Sometimes, the guitar is just playing a different inversion (going up the neck or down the neck) of the same chord just to vary the sound or match the singing. This is a change of sound, but it isn’t a chord change. Listen to the bass and to the other instruments to see if they make the same change or not.

If it doesn’t sound right for some reason, then save your piece of paper to work on later, and try another song. This is a skill that should be practiced along with learning your instrument.

Playing Along With A Record

One reason the song may not sound correct to you is that it’s in a different key. You may have all the chord changes exactly right, but the sound just doesn’t go with the words in your head because you’re playing it in C or A and the singer is going along in Eb or Bb.

That’s one reason why I recommend folks don’t learn to sing from records. Your ear automatically hears the pitch of the singer and your voice tries to match it. That’s fine if that key is in your range, but not otherwise.

Hearing Pitch

To play along with a recording or radio or TV, you need to match the key, the I chord, the song is in. To start with, you will not be able to do this with live stuff off the radio or television or computer. Just as with listening for chord changes, you need to listen through and figure out what the I chord is.

Now pluck the lowest string you’ve got and then move up fret by fret until you find the note that matches that I chord. Chances are, that note is the name of the chord. Try it. Strum the chord and see if it sounds right. If it doesn’t, then that note may be one of the other two notes of the chord (see the section on Music Theory). You can try to figure out what the chord may be or just keep fretting up the string to find another note that matches.

For an authoharp, just pluck individual strings until you find the right chord.
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