How To Learn A Song By Ear

The impressive skill of being able to pick up a song by ear is much easier than it may seem. The following method works incredibly well for me. With some practice and some knowledge of scales and chords this could work for you, too. 

1. I will first, play random notes until I find one that I can hear in the music. Pick a part of the fretboard that you are familiar with where you know the notes best. 

2. Use the major scale formula to find other notes that fit. I’ll start by treating the matching note that I first found as the first note in the scale because the beginning is as good of a place to start as any. I’ll go up the scale formula until I find one that is clearly off key. Unless I am very lucky or have some kind of clue about which key the song is in I will more than likely not find the key in my first attempt. After hitting an off key note, which you will be able to tell by listening, try another scale that contains your note. It could be a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, or 7th. Keep experimenting with different scales until you find the scale that sounds good with the music all the way up. 

The major scale formula is as follows:

whole step - whole step - half step - whole step - whole step - whole step - half step

*remember that a whole step is two frets and a half step is one fret*

3. The scale that is consonant with the music is the key of the song. The name of the scale and the key is the first note of your major scale.

If the song is based around the relative minor, then it is customary and acceptable to name the key after the 6th note of the scale. Steps one and two still work because the major and the relative minor are the same key.

4. Once you know the key you can start using the seven chords of the major scale to figure out the chord progression in your song. You will get good at this with practice. Write the chords down as you find them to make it easier. It is a bit like putting a puzzle together while the pieces are moving, but it's worth the effort. 

This process works incredibly well for me and I’m able to figure out a song quickly with the tips in this article and not much else. Most pop, rock, folk, and country songs are simple enough to figure out by ear using this process. Review my post on triads and seventh chords to increase your proficiency. The more you know about music theory and how chords and scales work the better you will be able to make sense of songs. If all else fails, you can always look the song up.   

Give it a shot! Be patient at first and take it step by step. 

  1. Find a note that sounds agreeable to the song you are learning.
  2. Start looking for other notes that sound consonant with the song by using the major scale formula.
  3. Once you have found the major scale that fits the music you know the key. The ‘1’, or the first note of the scale that is congruent with the music names the key.
  4. Use the seven chords of the key to figure out what chords are in the song. Use your ear!
Truman Young2 Comments