You can learn to play songs by ear without needing a teacher or expensive materials. You don’t need the sheet music and you don’t need any special musical “gift” either.
The basic process is to choose a song, and try to work it out piece by piece:
- Start by identifying the key.
- Then figure out the melody (the tune) based on the key’s scale.
This will take some trial-and-error but it should be possible for you to hear when you have it right, without checking the sheet music.
- Once you have the melody, try to figure out the chords to go with it. Understanding the concept of 3-chord songs and 4-chord songs will help greatly with this.
At first this will take a lot of trial-and-error. Try not to get discouraged! Mistakes are the stepping stones which bring you to the right notes. Trust your ears to help you gradually find the right way to play the song. Over time, the more you practice the faster you will get at reaching for the right notes first time.
There’s more than one way to play a song
Note that the important thing is to find a way of playing the song which sounds right – this may not be exactly what’s printed on the sheet music! To exactly write down each note of a recorded song (transcription) is an important skill too, but it is different from playing by ear.
In fact, if your goal is to play a song by ear, you shouldn’t need to ever check sheet music for the song. Just listen to a recording or your memory of the song, and use your instrument to reproduce it in your own way.
Don’t start with hip jazz
Start with simple songs. Pop, rock or folk songs with simple melodies and which don’t use strange or unusual harmonies.
The more songs you figure out by ear, the larger your mental musical vocabulary of common patterns and idioms will become. This is part of what helps you improve and get faster at working out songs by ear. The other part is the passive ear training you are doing throughout the process, honing your ears to more clearly and reliably hear what’s going on in the music.
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