Back in pre-internet days, most rock and pop guitarists had to learn how to play songs by ear.
Nowadays, it’s so easy to get tabs, playthrough videos and guides for most songs, which is great for all of us who want to learn songs fast, but it unfortunately means most modern guitarists haven’t developed the skills necessary to play a song ‘by ear’.
After all, why bother working out a song when you can have the answers given to you?
But I’m certain, if it hasn’t happened already, it will happen to you soon: you’ll want to learn a song and won’t be able to find good tabs for it. Or, you’ll follow along with a YouTuber and think to yourself “this doesn’t quite sound the same”. Or perhaps more importantly, you’ll want to write the musical ideas in your head into a guitar part and won’t know how to do it.
That’s when you’ll need this guide! Here’s how to develop your ears to the point where you can play a song just by listening to it.
The 3 Elements That’ll Help You Work out Any Song
If you are totally confused by this subject, start by reading this guide to the 3 Sounds You Need to Be Able To Identify As a Guitarist.
If you’re ok with the above, here’s the 3 things you need to identify to learn a song by ear:
The Key Signature
The Time Signature
The Guitar Part
Make sure you do them in this order! (you’ll see why shortly)
Finding The Key Signature
The key signature tells you what 7 notes (with a few exceptions) make up the song.
This will make learning the song 84% easier, as you’ve narrowed down your note options from 12 notes (ie all the notes we have in western music) to just 7.
However, remember that musicians break rules all the time. So, I’m not saying every song will stick to one key exclusively; I’m saying that these notes will be the most likely notes being used.
So how do you work out the key signature of a song?
With the song playing, use your guitar to find the root note of the song. This is the one note that the song is full of, the note that you would play at the end of the song to make it sound really strong and finished.
You’ll probably narrow it down to about 3 notes through trial and error, which are all good keys to test out, but only one of them will be the actual key, so use your ears and experiment.
Let me give you an example which I use all the time with students:
Try playing some notes on the bottom string until you find the one that matches best: the root note.
Chances are, you either chose C, G, Ab or Bb, as these are the 4 chords played in the song (and played in the bass line).
The one that the song feels most resolved on (ie the note that doesn’t leave your ears wanting to hear just one more note after it) is the root note. In this case, it’s C.
Next, we need to work out whether the song is in a major or minor key. In general, if it sounds sad, mellow or just “interesting” it’s probably minor. If it’s happy, bright or upbeat, it’s probably major.
You can test it out by combining these two elements, the root note, and the major or minor chord, then try playing it with the song. For example, I could play a C Major chord over The Stray Cat Strut, then try a C Minor chord and decide which one fits better (it’s C Minor, as the song is in the key of C Minor).
Bonus step: Use theory!
If you aren’t quite sure if you’ve got the right key, you can use your music theory to double check. One good tool is the Circle of Fifths, but you can easily just do a quick Google search for “what are the notes (or chords) in C Major?” if you don’t know your key signatures yet.
For example the bass line in The Stray Cat Strut is C, Bb, Ab, G.
The key of C Major has C D E F G A B in it, so the song must not be in C Major, as the Bb and the Ab don’t fit the key. However, C Minor has C D Eb F G Ab Bb, which fits perfectly.
Don’t rely on theory though, as that’s not really going to train your ears! Just use this to double check your answers.
Finding the Time Signature
The time signature tells us how many beats are in the bar. For example, if it’s in 4/4, you should be able to tap your foot four times before the strumming pattern or drum beat repeats, if it’s 6/8 it would be 6 and so on.
Best way to work this out is to tap your foot hard for the first beat, then tap along with the song, trying to count whether it feels like it fits into divisions of 3, 4 or 6.
90% of the time it’ll be in 4/4 if you’re a rock or pop player, but there are heaps of exceptions, so it pays to double check.
For the Stray Cat Strut, you could either think of it as being 2/4 or 4/4 depending on how you count it - either answer will give you a similar result so don’t stress too much if you get a multiple (for example, if you hear it as 16 beats per bar, just cut it to 4 and it’ll be a bit easier to work with and will probably be more accurate).
Working Out the Guitar Part
Finally, with these two bits of information, we can try to work out the guitar part!
Most of the time, the guitar is either going to be playing:
Melody (like a riff or lead guitar part) or
Chords (either strummed or played as an arpeggio)
To work out a melody, it’s all about trial and error using the key signature!
For example, if I was trying to work out the solo for the Stray Cat Strut, I would start by playing my C Minor scale. Most of the notes in the solo will be in this scale, so it makes it much, much easier to work out what he’s playing.
When you find your starting note, write it down (in whatever format you want: tabs, notation etc) and just keep adding notes until you have something that matches the song.
You can slow down the playback on YouTube or using recording software or apps to make things easier, but don’t worry if this takes lots of plays to get it right - the more you do this, the easier it’ll be to identify the notes being used, and you will get faster.
Remember that there are multiple places you can play the same note on the guitar, so if you have found the correct notes but it’s too hard to play, try finding those same notes on a different string and see if it’s any easier.
To work out chords, it’s mostly a matter of working out which chords are used, in which order and with which strumming pattern.
The best place to start with the chords is - you guessed it - our key signature.
For example, in C Minor we have the following chords:
Cm Ddim Eb Fm Gm Ab Bb
Try playing each of the chords until you find the one that matches the first chord in the song (quick hint - it’s probably not the diminished chord).
Once you’ve got that, find the next one, but write it down as you go. Remember, most songs only use 3-5 chords, so you probably won’t need all of them. It’s also possible there will be a variation chord, like a sus chord, a 7th chord or something similar, which is great to use if you know it, but if you don’t know those chords yet (or how to identify them) a straight major or minor will still sound fine most of the time instead.
For the strumming pattern, start with your time signature. If it’s in 4/4, just do a generic 4/4 strumming pattern, like four downstrokes per chord, then compare it to the song. Are there more strums? Less strums? Variations between bars?
This is tough to get 100% perfect, but if you can get it sounding very close to the song (with the right feel), you’ve done this task well enough to perform the song.
But I can’t work out any notes at all!
Playing by ear takes patience, because most of us hate being wrong. And you will be wrong A LOT when you first start trying to work out songs using your ears.
Getting feedback on whether you have the right notes or not is part of the challenge, so once you think you have it worked out, compare your notes to a tab online and see if they match (but don’t assume the online one is right and yours is wrong, as it could very well be the other way around - instead, use it to confirm notes you’re unsure of by treating it as a second opinion).
Even better, try doing this with a friend. Even if they’re not musical, you can say “hey, does this sound the same as the song?” and get some honest feedback. If they’re a musician, you can help each other, as different people find different parts easier to identify, so that one chord you just can’t figure out might be super obvious to them.
But no matter how challenging you find ear training, persevere, because the time you put in to train your ears will pay off tenfold in the future!
You’ll eventually get to the point where you can learn songs faster as you won’t have to rely on deciphering tabs or notation.
Plus, it’s a pretty good party trick, and you can pretend you’re using voodoo magic or know how to play every song ever written.