Episode 13 of the Bite-Size Guitar Podcast looks at how you can learn songs by ear.
Being able to listen to any song and figure out how to play it on your guitar is an incredible skill to have. This episode will explain the basic steps to follow to learn how to do this.
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Here are some helpful guides covered in this episode:
- Best Ear Training Apps for Guitarists
- What is Ear Training
- How to Develop a Good Sense of Pitch: Episode 7
- Can You Learn Guitar Without Reading Music?
After you listen to this episode, try figuring out how to play these songs on your guitar by ear. The below videos are great starting points and help you assess your current ear abilities.
Try figuring out a few of these basic violin covers before you try any guitar-based songs.
The above video is a good example of first figuring out how to play the simple melody, then figuring out how to match the phrasing you hear. Try using slides to mimic the way the violinist slides in and out of the notes.
Once you can easily figure out how to play anything like this on guitar, you’ll find it much easier to move on to guitar-based songs.
Podcast Episode 13 Transcript
Hi, I’m Aaron from guitargearfinder.com and this is episode 13 of the Bite-Size Guitar podcast.
In this short and to-the-point episode, I’ll give you an overview on how you can start to learn songs by ear.
This is a topic that was requested by a listener, so if there’s something you would like me to cover in a future episode, go to guitargearfinder.com/podcast and send me a message or record your question.
Being able to figure out how to play a song on guitar just by listening to it is an incredibly handy skill to have. It’s also something that a lot of guitarists avoid like the plague because it seems intimidating. If you like the idea of being able to listen to absolutely anything and figure out how to play it on guitar, this episode will give you a way to start working towards that ability.
I talk about this topic in episode 7, where I explain how to develop a good sense of pitch. If you haven’t listened to that episode yet, listen to it before continuing here.
Breaking Songs Down
Being able to learn a full song by ear is really just an extension over what I talked about on that episode. When you work on basic ear training exercises, it probably won’t feel like they’re going to help you learn full songs by ear. But the skills those basic ear training exercises help you develop are the exact same skills you need to figure out a song by ear.
In other words, if you don’t develop the skills that those ear training apps work on, you can’t learn songs by ear. Of course, there are many guitarists who never used these type of apps, but they still learned those same skills in other ways. The ear training apps just speed up the learning process.
The trap a lot of guitarists fall for when trying to learn songs by ear is that they try to dive into it without building up the foundational skills first.
They’ll pick a song they really want to learn, then try to figure out a part of that song on guitar. If the song uses complex chords or moves too fast through notes, it’s going to feel way too hard. So they’ll give up and just assume that they just can’t do it.
Trying to learn to play songs by ear this way is like signing up for a marathon when you’ve never run a mile in your life.
If you can’t tell the difference between a major chord and a minor chord by ear or you can’t figure out how many notes are playing in a chord, it’s going to be near impossible to figure out extended chords or chord inversions you’ve never played before.
So let’s look at this in a smarter way and how you can get started learning songs by ear.
What are you actually listening for when trying to learn songs by ear?
Well, if we break a song down, you have chords, scales, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. To learn to play a song by ear, you need to be able to identify any of those elements and figure out how to play them on your guitar.
So let’s take chords for example. If there’s a song with a four chord progression, you need to figure out the quality of each of the four chords and what the root note is for each chord. Some people will try to figure out the root note for each chord first, while others try to identify the quality of the chords first.
So when you break it down, being able to figure out chords by ear is actually two skills you need to learn: being able to work out the root note of each chord, and being able to work out the quality of the chords.
The point to remember so far is that it doesn’t matter how complex a chord-based song is, you still need to break it down in the same way. Figure out the root notes and the quality of each chord.
So how do you do that? That’s where the ear training exercises I covered in episode 7 come in. You can start with exercises that train you to identify the difference between major and minor chords. Then once you feel comfortable with those chords, you move on to exercises that add in seventh chords, or suspended chords, and you gradually work your way to more complex chords.
So if you’re trying to learn a song by ear and the chords are too hard to figure out, step back and work on exercises just comparing major and minor chords. Then build up from there.
It’s the same with figuring out any guitar riffs, licks, melodies, or solos. When you break all of those parts down, you end up with basic scales and intervals.
If you have trouble trying to figure out a complex solo by ear, practice working out a slow and simple solo by ear. If you struggle with that, try something basic such as a nursery rhyme.
Once you can figure out how to play nursery rhymes by ear, you can work your way up to more complex melodies.
The main point is that you can’t just dive into learning complex songs by ear without a few key skills. Work backwards to find your current ability level, then work on building those skills up before you tackle a tough song.
Let’s look at how a guitarist who has never tried to learn a song by ear can get started. Of course, I suggest starting by working on ear training exercises in an ear training app, but let’s look at how to start practicing learning songs by ear.
It doesn’t make sense to start with any complex songs. They’ll be too hard and you’ll get frustrated.
Instead, start with something ridiculously easy.
On the page for this episode at guitargearfinder.com/podcast/episode-13/ I have included a few videos of basic violin covers of nursery rhymes such as twinkle twinkle little star. These are the perfect starting point to practice learning songs by ear. I know that sounds crazy, so hear me out.
There are a few good reasons why I suggest this starting point.
The reason I suggest starting with nursery rhymes is that they’re the simplest melodies that you probably already sort of know in your head. If you can already hum the melody to twinkle twinkle little star, it makes it a perfect starting point to trying to learn how to play it by ear.
You already have a basic idea of how the melody should go, so you’re able to focus on finding the notes you hear in the cover version.
There are a couple of reasons I recommend starting with for violin covers instead of guitar covers. The first is because basic violin covers tend to use long notes. So you’ll find it easier to work out what notes are being played.
The second reason is that violin covers will only play one note at a time. Guitar or piano covers on the other hand may incorporate chords or arpeggios, which you may not be ready to try and figure out.
Another reason I don’t recommend searching for guitar versions is that you’ll be tempted to see where they put their hands on the fretboard. If you glance at the screen and get a general idea of where the note is played, you’re not working your ears. You don’t have that temptation with a violin cover, so it’s a good way to push yourself to only focus on what you hear.
If you’ve never done this before or you think this type of exercise is beneath you, give it a go. If you find it easy, great, you can move on to something more challenging.
If you find it challenging, then it’s a perfect starting point for you. Don’t even try to learn a proper song by ear until you can easily figure out any nursery rhyme cover by ear.
If you just can’t seem to figure out a simple nursery rhyme melody by ear, then you need to spend some time with an ear training app.
The next step up from basic nursery rhyme melodies is simple chord progressions or more complex melodies.
Again, I suggest searching on YouTube for violin covers if you want to focus your attention on melodies. Start with covers of songs you are familiar with, then work your way through any other covers at your current skill level.
The whole point of this type of practice is to get you used to listening to the first note in a melody, finding that note on your guitar, then practicing building the rest of the melody from there.
So here’s your challenge for this week. Start by searching on YouTube for violin covers of nursery rhymes, and try to figure out how to play those parts by ear.
If that feels easy, move up to more complex violin covers. If they feel easy, move on to piano covers or guitar covers, but avoid looking at what the guitarist is playing.
Work your way up in complexity until you start to struggle to figure out what is being played. Take note of how complex the song is. Think about what ear training skills you need to work on to be able to figure out that song and work on those skills.
Use an ear training app to work on those skills for a week, then come back to the song and see how you go.
If you follow this method, you’ll find that even a week is enough time to make some impressive improvements in your ability to figure things out by ear.
Unless you already have a good sense of pitch, you probably won’t be covering complex songs by ear within a week. But one week of practice is enough to prove to yourself that you can get there.
Check out the page for this episode at guitargearfinder.com/podcast/episode-13 where I’ve included a few YouTube violin covers for you to test your ears out on. Figure out how to play those covers on your guitar to get a sense of what is involved in figuring songs out by ear.
Try this for a week and you might see why spending time training your ears is worth the effort.
Thanks to the listener who sent in this question. If there’s something you’d like me to talk about in a future episode, let me know.
I hope you found this episode useful and I’ll talk to you next time.