5 Tips For Learning to Play by Ear

These tips for learning to play by ear are things that I practice and help me develop my ears. Learning to play by ear is an important skill to develop as it will help you in many musical situations where music may not be provided. It also helps you react to changes in musical situations more easily. For example if the band changes key to build the song.

Listen for the key of the song

If you can work out the key of the song you can eliminate a lot of note choices that would be unlikely to be used in the song. For example if it is in F major (1 flat, Bb) then it is probably not going to contain Gb, Ab, B, Db or Eb.

Once you have that established you have a smaller sample size to deal with. Of course this works better with simpler songs as some melodies and harmonies in styles such as jazz will not strictly follow one key centre. Normally most songs start with the root chord (the key of the song) but if it doesn’t then try and observe which chord in the sequence is the root and go from there.

Use your theory knowledge to help guess the next chord

If you’ve learnt about harmony then you may find tendencies that occur in lots of songs. One example is the infamous 4 chord progression which is 1-5-6-4. In the key of C this would be C major – G major – A minor – F major.

The tendencies of chord movement will become more apparent the more you do it. A lot of pop songs use the 1, 4 and 5 chords a lot and this can be a good way to start. Try to listen for these 3 chords in every song and you will start to notice patterns forming.

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Practice intervals

Sit down at a piano and start playing different intervals and noticing how they sound. After you’ve done that a bit find an interval training app or software (there’s tons of free stuff out there). Use the app/software to test you intervals.

This will translate when you’re learning something by ear because the intervals you practiced will make it easier to identify in the context of a song. If there is a big jump in the melody you can eliminate smaller intervals and use your ears to identify which larger interval it might be.

Slow it down

I use a program called Transcribe! to slow down whatever it is that I’m learning. Having the notes come out slower means you have more time to find the note/interval on your instrument and can speed up the process of learning. Instead of playing back a blazing Coltrane solo and full speed and having to replay it many times to hear the individual notes you can set it to 10% of the speed (without changing pitch) and slowly deconstruct complicated fast lines.

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Do it heaps!

At the end of the day the more you practice this skill the better you will get at it. These tips for learning to play by ear will over time improve your overall playing. Make a challenge to yourself of trying to learn a new song every day/week/month (depending on your time available) and see how fast you can improve!

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