I get asked a lot by students exactly how I work songs out for myself. That is, by not using any sort of tab, chord chart or YouTube video—nothing but my own hands and ears.
Often a student is really keen to learn this skill but they cannot believe it is something they can acquire. They see working songs out by ear as a mystical skill that only wizards such as Gandalf and Merlin could acquire (just imagine those two rocking the guitar!)
Usually they will tell me a song they want to learn and I’ll help them out learning it in a fun and broken down manner.
In the old days of teaching, I would be super organised and spend time before the students lesson learning and deconstructing the song so I could teach it to them during their lesson.
Many would ask:
“How did you go about learning it?” or “How do you get started playing music by ear?”
I would explain to them the process, but I realised (not as soon as I should have) that showing them during their lesson exactly how I do this is way more beneficial.
Until they actually see me work out a song by pressing play on a song on Spotify and then going through my process they don’t believe that working out a song for themselves is something they can do.
Seeing is believing.
Once they see me work out a song in front of their very own eyes they usually think, “Wow, that is impressive, and wow, that is actually pretty simple, I think I could do that”.
The truth be told, working songs out by ear is simple but it requires a little patience and lots of perseverance, but the benefits are awesome.
Being able to work songs out for yourself is great for your aural skills, your Autonomic Tone Efficiency and your general guitar playing.
People think, “Why should I bother learning ‘aural skills’? Dammit I just wanna rock the guitar.”
It’s a valid question, but good aural skills is like good rhythm, in that it covers ALL your guitar playing just like a big umbrella in a wet and windy storm.
Simply put, having good aural skills makes you a better guitarist in many ways.
There are three key factors that make up one’s ability to work songs out for themselves.
Playing music by ear – 3 key factors
- Music Theory
- Good Ears
Oh no, not this. Music theory is either loved or hated in the guitar world. On one side of the fence you have the naysayers—those that hold up their pitchforks and proclaim that music theory is evil and should be banned. And on the other side, there are the peaceful loving white cloak wearing pacifists who love everything to do with music theory. Me, I love it, but not in an angelic way.
Music theory has many benefits as long as you can apply it to real music. It’s great. If it isn’t practical, it stinks.
Therefore, you should get the basics of music theory down. It will save you potentially hundreds of hours of time working things out.
Let me give you an example. When I started trying to work songs out for myself, I would use zero logic. I would often work out the first chord.
Let’s say, G Major. (When a song starts with the chord of G Major, the chances are the song is in that key – G Major).
In the old days, instead of knowing that the other chords in the key of G Major are D, C, Am, Em, Bm, I would randomly pick chord after chord after chord until I stumbled across the correct chord.
I would try A, E, Dm, Asus2, F, D, E7, and all the others I knew in some sort of random fashion until I got the second chord. It would take so long, that I’d often give up.
Learning a little theory would have saved me all that time and frustration. If I would have know a little music theory, I would have known what the other chords in the key of G Major were and tried those before trying all the wacky chords I had learnt.
Simply put, music theory will help you save time and effort. When working songs out for yourself, think of music theory as the map. Without it, you can get to your destination, but the chances are you will get lost. Music theory will help you arrive there with little fuss.
If music theory is the map, experience is your countless journeys driving around learning where all the side roads are.
The more you do this the better you will become. It is that simple. You can’t buy experience. These days I don’t have to use logic, good ears or music theory to know that a G Major chord is likely to be followed by a C Major or D Major, or that in the key of C, an E Major and not E minor chord is a good possibility, etc.
After learning lots and lots of songs over many years, I know the above and plenty more from experience.
Imagine this scenario. You have been playing guitar for a few months and you know how to play four songs. Let’s say two of these songs have the same chord progression of G, D, Em, C.
Now, you want to learn Jason Mraz’s modern classic ‘I’m Yours’. Firstly, you work out that the song starts with a G Major chord with a capo on the 4th fret. Great start.
Now, your experience tells you that, hang on, two songs you already know both start with a G Major and then move to a D Major.
You think to yourself, “Well, let’s try a D Major”. And lo and behold, it works, it is the correct chord.
Yeah, experience will guide you as to which chords will likely be the right chords/notes/scales and which ones won’t.
Therefore, keep learning lots of songs too, always look for new patterns and you’ll save yourself a load of time in the long run.
Be logical and use your experience wisely.
Remember, the more you do it—the whole working songs out for yourself thing, the quicker you will get at it.
Good ears will help you on your journey just like a finely tuned and high quality car would. A bad car will break down, get flat tires or crash. Bad ears will do the same.
If you have ‘bad ears’ (by this I mean poor ability to hear pitch, NOT bad hearing), then all the experience and music theory knowledge in the world won’t help. You’ll simply get stuck pretty quickly.
To work out music for yourself, it is often assumed that you need ‘perfect pitch’. This is not the case at all. In fact, as long as you are not tone deaf (nearly everyone isn’t), then you can work out songs for yourself quickly and with relative ease over time.
Train your ears to get better and to attain a sharper sense of pitch and you’ll be well on your way to success.
What’s the best way to train your ears?
Work out songs for yourself of course. You can get extracurricular training from specific ear training apps or sites but actually working out songs for yourself is more productive, more enjoyable and more beneficial.
If you are on the train or are somewhere where there is no guitar to practice on, yeah, go ahead and use these sites/apps to work on your ear training skills. It will always come in handy. Plus, you may look like a bit of a loon if you take your guitar on a train and start jamming!
Just spend more time working out actual songs you enjoy when you can.
If you have never tried working a song out for yourself by ear, then try it. Start simple. Strumming songs are often the best ones to work out for beginners. As long as you know the strumming pattern, (it will most likely be one in my strumming course, most songs are), and you know some basic chords and have a capo you’ll be able to do it for yourself.
Remember, the ability to play music by ear and work songs out for yourself is a journey. Being able to do so is a skill that you can and will develop over many years. Start this journey today and get the show on the road.
In the near future I’ll be creating some more posts on this very underrated part of playing guitar. For now, get started.
Just remember, learn real applicable music theory, put your experience to good use by seeing as many patterns between songs as you can and always be looking to improve your ‘ears’.
Your guitar playing will be stronger for it and you’ll be able to impress your mates by showing them how to play any random song of their choosing, and that’s always a bonus.
Leave a comment below and let me know which song or songs you have tried and succeeded (or struggled) at working out by ear. Would love to read your thoughts.