How To Learn To Play Music By Ear

These days it’s so easy for guitarists, pianists and bass players to go online and download chord sheets, tabs and sheet music. This is turning learning music by ear into a dying art. However, learning to transcribe this way will complement all areas of your musicianship and make you a better instrumentalist. It will take time, practice and patience but the rewards will be great. Here is a great method for those interested in learning by ear. Please note, this is a beginner’s guide to getting started with aural transcription and as a result, is very simplistic. It is not meant to be the definitive, theoretically perfect authority, but if you have always wanted to play by ear and never knew how, this guide is for you.

Getting Started

The first thing you should do is listen to the song and try to pick out the bass line. The bass usually plays the root of the chords and can be a huge help in figuring how to play the song yourself. Try humming along to the bass line and latching onto the most prominent note for each chord change.

Now, go back to the beginning of the song and hum along with the bass again. But this time be ready to pause the track before the chord changes. The note you are humming is probably the root of the first chord, keep humming it and play different notes on your instrument until you find the same note. For the purposes of this example, we will pretend it is C.

Finding The Tonality

Once you know the root of the chord, the next step is to find the tonality. This refers to whether the chord is a major or minor chord. The difference between a major and minor chord is the 3rd. In a major chord the 3rd is 4 semitones above the root, whereas a minor 3rd is only 3 semitones above. In our example of a C chord, the major 3rd would be E, whereas the minor third would be Eb.

This sounds tricky but there is a very easy way of finding the tonality of a chord. When you listen to the chord, if it sounds happy it is probably a major chord. If it sounds sad it will, in all likelihood be minor. It’s that simple!

If you are still stuck, try playing along with the track by strumming the C major. Then try again with C minor. Usually one will sound very right and the other will sound very wrong! For the purposes of our example, we will say you found the chord to be a major chord. So now you know the root of the chord is C and the tonality of the chord is major.

There is one exception to this step of finding tonality and that is chords that have no tonality at all. The most common example of this is the ‘power chord’, or in our example C5. Power chords only contain the root of the note (C) and the 5th (G). They contain no 3rd and so have no major or minor orientation. Power chords are usually found in rock or punk music and if you are a guitarist at the level of beginning to transcribe music by ear, you will no doubt already be familiar with power chords.

Considering Extensions

Once you have the root and the tonality, the majority of the work is done and you may want to rush onto the second chord, and the third and so on. However, before you do just listen one more time to this first chord and play your C major along to it. Does it sound exactly the same as the track? If not, the reason could be chord extensions.

Chord extensions are extra notes added to a chord to give it a different flavour. Picking these out is one of the trickiest parts of transcribing a song correctly by ear. It takes lots of practice to master this skill. As with all the steps, listening is the key to success. With time, your listening skills will improve and things will get easier.

For our example, we will assume that the track sounds a little different to your C major chord. Try listening to the track and humming a note that is in that first chord. Pause the track and find out which note it is. It could be a C,E,G (all of which constitute a C major chord) or something else. If it is C,E or G, repeat the step, trying to pick out a different note until you find the ‘something else’. We will assume you find yourself humming a Bb.

So now you know that the root of the chord is C, the tonality of the chord is major and that it has an added Bb.

Naming Chords

There are some strange conventions when it comes to naming chords that I found very confusing when I was a beginner and I thought it would be a good idea to say a few words on it. I will continue to use our example as I explain.

We know the first chord is a C of major tonality with an added Bb. What do we call this chord? The first thing to consider is that we assume a chord is major unless it is referred to as minor. Therefore, a C major chord would usually just be called C.

But what about the chord extensions? The way we decide how to name these is by discovering their relationship to the root of the chord. Play the root note and then count the semitones between the root and the extension. Below is a table telling you the names of all the extensions for a C chord.

Our C major chord contains a Bb which is the dominant 7th of the C scale. So do we call our chord C major dominant 7th? In a word, no. This once again, is just down to convention rather than theory.

Just as chords are assumed to be major unless stated otherwise, the 7th is considered to be dominant unless stated otherwise. So you can omit both the words major and dominant from the name of this chord, making it simply C7th, often written even more simply as C7.

Now simply repeat these steps for every chord of the song, write all the chords down as you figure out what they are and eventually memorize them all. You just learned your first song by ear!

Listening And Practising

You may know other musicians who can press play on a track they have never heard before and know how to play it by the time it ends. Don’t be tempted to think that they were born with this ability or that it was magically bestowed upon them by a mysterious guitar wizard. They started from the same stage you are at and they spent a great deal of time developing their listening skills and practicing transcription.

Of course, everybody learns differently and at different rates and some people find this stuff easier than others but I firmly believe that any musician can learn to do this. It just takes time, commitment and patience and the rewards are huge. Persevere and don’t give up!

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