How to Figure Out a Song by Ear

Two Parts:Familiarizing yourself with the songPutting the song together for your playing

When you cannot find the sheet music for a song, or you're tired and annoyed that you can't find a tutorial or lesson for a particular song you want, then try and learn it by ear. This article sets out how to go about doing this.

Part 1
Familiarizing yourself with the song

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    Listen to the song again and again. Pay attention whilst you listen to the song. Identify the number of different parts and if any of them repeat. This makes up song structure. If a song goes: opening, verse, chorus, verse, and ends on the chorus, then you basically have three different parts to learn.
    • The song structure is important because some songs can actually just have one riff or chord progression played throughout. Other songs have non chorus based structure.
    • Listen to your chosen song all the way through without pausing it. Are there parts to the song that sound harder to learn than others? Or, if you're learning with technology, are there certain parts you might find hard to create? If any of these answers is yes, consider starting off with an easier and shorter song.
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    Determine the genre of the song you wish to learn. Some genres are much harder to learn than others. For example, Dubstep is harder to learn than RnB because you have to use certain technology and effects to create it.
    • If you're a pianist, consider learning Pop and Classical songs first.
    • If you are in a band or would like to be in a band, consider learning Rock, Metal, Country or Folk.
    • If you are into the charts, or would like to be a DJ, consider learning Hip Hop, Urban RnB, DnB, Dubstep and Electronica.
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    Be aware that learning one song (hard or easy) can be quite obsessive and/or may distract or annoy other people around you. Always try to use headphones or shut yourself in an empty room. And don't ask everyone what song your playing.
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    Be aware that learning one song (hard or easy) can be quite obsessive and/or may distract or annoy other people around you. Always try to use headphones or shut yourself in an empty room.

Part 2
Putting the song together for your playing

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    Listen to the song again, this time stop and start it at any specific point where you might find it easier to learn. Note down in your head any memorable melodies and bass lines. Or, if it's a technology genre, note down any effects or uses of technologies.
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    Discard the lyrics, if possible. If the song has lyrics, consider listening to instrumentals of your chosen song. It will be much easier to hear the specific instruments. Always note down what you can hear. Do you notice any patterns? Are there any pauses or breaks?
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    Note down the tempo and time signature. Listen for any changes to these. In some music this is bound to be frequent so always take your time when trying to learn. Don't rush and don't give up.
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    Learn the chords. This requires figuring out the bassline. This is helpful because you can easily see what key the song is in. Once that's done, you can apply some theory to help get the right chords. Since songs use scales (mostly major), each successive chord on the 7 intervals of the scale will use the notes of the scale used in that specific key. In other words, in the key of E, your notes will be E, F#, G#, A, B, C#,and D#, and those are the notes you have to use to apply the 1-3-5 chord form onto each interval of the scale. That would mean your chords used on the 1 to 7 intervals would be E, F# minor, G#minor, A, B, C#minor, and D# diminished (a minor chord with a flattened fifth). Of course, musicians often substitute other chord variations like suspended chords (substitute the 3rd. for the 2nd. or 4th.) or dominant seventh chords (a major chord with a flattened 7th.), but knowing how to figure out chords with theory is very helpful.
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    Learn the rhythm. Don't pay any attention to the notes or chords (even though you have already learned them). Figure out the rhythm by tapping your foot to the beat or tapping your fingers on something to get the rhythm.
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    Memorize the tune or melody by going over it again and again until you are sure you have it completely in your head. Note down any effects used on the melody, such as reverb, EQ and delay. In dance music, this is frequent.
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    Learn lead breaks and solos. If you have already figured out everything else, then you know what key the song is in and should be able to get the lead work pretty easily. Moreover, if the song does not have any solo parts, you can just add them using some simple scales. Try to play the solo part using pentatonic scales first. Be sure your solo is based on the main melody of the song. Then add some more improvements with slide, bend and vibration techniques.
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    Put it all together and practice. If it's of the technology, genre then look for tutorials on how to create certain parts and effects that you can't do with your chosen instrument.


  • Know as much theory as possible. It will always make the process easier, but at the same time, don't be afraid to play what you've figured out (correctly), even if it doesn't match with anything you know theory wise.
  • Don't give up after five minutes. A song lasting three minutes can take hours to learn (it depends on your skill level).
  • Always take songs from the most general to the very specific. Learning a song is best done in layers. Don't try to learn a song by analyzing every note. It really doesn't work that way for most people, although guys like Eddie Van Halen work this way.
  • Make sure your practice environment is conducive to learning.
  • Use the help from all the tabs which you can find. Although chords and notes of those tabs can be on different tones or scales, you might figure out the similarity among them. This may help you a lot.
  • Learn all the chords. You really only have to worry about major, minor, suspended 2nd and 4th's, 6th., and 7th.'s (artists using minor scales would use a different series of chords). Other chords, like augmented chords (make the fifth sharp) are dissonant and not very common. "Jazz" chords like ninths and thirteenths appear sometimes, but not in a lot of pop songs. Every chord has a distinct sound, and if you've learned them you'll listen to a part and say "hey that's a chord!".
  • Try to learn all of the notes on the guitar fretboard if playing guitar.
  • Beginner books always try to teach you children's songs using full chords. Instead, listen to punk songs that often use just power chords (the root and the fifth played in a movable shape).
  • If you're learning on the piano, create sections to the music. Learn one bit first and then another bit next before putting it all together. This is a great technique that can be used for any song.


  • Avoid Tascam's guitar trainer and other "lick learner" devices. They are not quick fix-it solutions, and they are only useful for advanced guitar songs with fast and complex solos or unusual rhythms. A regular CD player will do just fine. Guitar trainers are also expensive.
  • Avoid doing this when stressed or tired; you need a clear head.

Article Info

Categories: Songs and Song Writing