Sister-Music | Top 9 Tips For Learning Songs By Ear
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Top 9 Tips For Learning Songs By Ear

No matter if you are a total beginner or have been playing guitar for some time, there are times when you just want to figure out a song quickly and tabs are not around for some reason. That’s when your ear comes into play. For 15+ years of playing it has always been my primary tool for learning the basic melody and the structure of the songs I like. So here are all the tips I gathered through the years of self-taught practice.

As with anything – you have to start with something. Several things are a must before you dive into figuring out songs.

1. To have a basic relative pitch
You don’t really need a perfect pitch to start doing songs by ear, but a relative pitch is essential. You just want to be able to tell the difference between two sounds (which is higher or lower than the other). And this is something anyone can learn to do with a little practice.

2. To know how to play basic chords
That means you are comfortable playing E, A, G, D, C, F and the minor counterparts with Em, Am, Dm. And F is essentially a barred E chord, so you can save it for later if you want to.

3. To know the basic intervals
Since we’re trying to do something around rock and metal music we won’t get far without the intervals. If you are a total beginner you should just look up a fifth, a fourth and an octave. Probably 60-70% of rock/metal riffs consist purely of fifths, fourths and octave (power chords, anyone?)

4. To be able to play to a metronome
This will come handy later when you’re playing along with the song. In essence you need to stay on time rhythmically with your playing.

And now for the tips.
1. Tune your guitar
That seems obvious, yet criminally overlooked by many beginners (and sadly, not only beginners). Use a tuner or a piano to tune your guitar correctly.

2. Start with the songs you really love
It can be obvious, but the more you’ve heard the song – the better. That means, you’ve probably already air-guitared the crap out of it, sung it in the shower and showed it to all your friends. It is definitely easier to hum something you know versus something you’ve just discovered.

3. Sing the riff. Core notes.
Next thing you want to do is to make sure you can find and match a single note to what you want to play. And it doesn’t matter if the riff in question starts with a chord, since every chord has a core note.

Let’s take ‘Smoke on the water’ for example. The correct tabs say that the main riff is played with fourths, yet if you sing it (admit it, it’s playing in your head right now) you only sing one note at a time – that’s your core note. And in case of ‘Smoke on the water’ it is a G played oh the third fret of your 6th string.

If you do it often enough, you’ll be able to sing almost any riff, from Linkin Park to Cannibal Corpse in no time.

4. Use piano
If you have a piano where you practice it might be useful at times for figuring out more tricky parts of the songs, since it’s much easier to play. You will also see the correct notes, which will allow you to find the correct tuning faster. When I was trying to learn ‘Seabeast’ by Mastodon, that was the only way I could figure out all the arpegios and difficult bits. And no, you don’t actually need to know how to play piano to do it.

5. Find the correct tuning
It’s definitely better to actually know the correct tuning beforehand, but there are ways to figure it out on the fly. Within the song find the lowest note (it can be a tedious process, but anyway), there is a big chance that that is your open E string (the 6th string). While doing this, keep in mind that there are 7 and 8 string guitars right now, so you may need a new set of strings at the very least.

Also, when you’ve figured out the song but it’s too difficult to play, consider the drop tuning. It is widely used in modern music and allows you to play a power chord on a single fret with one finger. Leave the E string and tune every other string two tones higher, that way you are still in tune with the song you’re trying to play, but now you have a drop tuning.

6. Add intervals to your core notes
When you have the melody and core notes figured out start adding intervals in places with fuller sound. As I mentioned earlier, it will probably be a fifth (turned into a power chord if you like) if we’re talking about rock.

7. Use basic chords where applicable
Sounds natural, I know, but when one masters a power chord it is sometimes becomes difficult to think outside those chords and they miss an easy solution in favor of more complications. For example let’s take another classic – ‘Back in Black’ by AC/DC. You can actually play it somewhat correctly with power chords, yet I’ve seen people who played the second and the third chord on the 5th fret which sounds right, but makes things a bit more difficult to play. Yet if you use the correct E, D and A chords to play, this song is a walk in a park (and a fun one) to play. When you hear a wide and full-sounding chord there’s a good chance it’s one of the basic ones.

8. Count the notes
In terms of rhythm songs may not be as straightforward as AC/DC or Rammstein. Sometimes you actually need to count the notes you play in your head and keep that count in mind while playing.

One of my favorite songs out there is ‘Pyramid Song’ by Radiohead. It features a weird non-standard rhythmic pattern which can be confusing if you’re not used to play pieces of music like this.

But just try and count the notes. You will get [1, 2, 3 … 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … 1, 2]. That rhythmic pattern goes unchanged throughout the whole song, so by counting it once you have the whole structure in terms of rhythm.

9. Play alongside the actual song
Probably the most important tip is to play alongside the actual song you’re trying to learn. Learn the song in parts. When you’re confident with a part play it along with the song, no transitions to other parts. You will immediately hear if you’re making mistakes, and if you are not – you will get a sense of satisfaction and fun playing together with your favorite artist (although virtually).

There is a learning curve with playing by ear, and it may be a big one for some. But such skill can be quite useful in playing in a band, learning songs fast and improvising with others.