Developing the ability to figure out music by ear is an essential part of being a well-rounded musician. Learning riffs, parts, solos, and techniques off of recordings and videos is a time-honored method of study. Many times I get called for a gig and am only given an email list of YouTube or Spotify links to learn the songs from. Worse, I have been on jobs where there were charts with obvious mistakes. Playing the wrong chords/voicings for a Steely Dan song should be grounds for immediate exile to a muzak-themed purgatory, right?
You might think that with all the resources available on the Internet you could simply look up the song title plus the word “chords” or “sheet music” and the answer would pop up. Unfortunately, while many answers do pop up, in far too many cases they are close, but not actually true to the recording or original performance. Many chord and guitar tab sites are user-contributed and they are either too basic or innacurate.
Furthermore, sheet music typically provides a vocal staff plus solo piano accompaniment, not the part you need to play within a band context. Many critical parts of the song that we are required to cover are not part of that simplified arrangement. So if you care enough to get it right you often need to do it for yourself. Luckily, there are wonderful tools available to help you get the job done. Let me share a number of techniques that make the task simpler, faster, and more rewarding.
The Rest of Us
Some musicians are blessed with perfect pitch and just know the notes they are hearing with no effort required. But the rest of us have to work at it and develop the skills. I’m a perfect example; I grew up reading printed music and used whatever sheet music and songbooks I could buy, or I relied on other band members to help me with my parts. Once I started formal music studies, I worked hard at my music theory and ear training courses to make up for my deficiencies. So if I can do it, trust me, you can, too.
Like most things in life, there are no shortcuts. Training your ears (isn’t it really your brain?) to recognize pitches, intervals, and chord qualities is an essential activity. You can find plenty of books, software, and online exercises, and I’ve listed some of the better ones at keyboardmag.com. Studying with a teacher is always recommended, and even just getting together with another player and working on these skills can be rewarding.
The ability to recognize intervallic jumps is fundamental. Most methods of study teach you to hear the various intervals by associating them with a well-known song. Play a C to an F (a perfect fourth) and you hear “Here Comes the Bride.” Play an E to a D above it and you might hear “Somewhere” from West Side Story, or the opening of “Josie” by Steely Dan. And so on.
Being able to recognize the sound of basic chord qualities is also essential. You need to know the sound of major, minor, suspended, diminished and augmented triads, as well as the various seventh chords, at a minimum. Using the various software tools available, you can easily hone these skills; all it takes is some dedicated practice.
Better Tools and Techniques
Fig. 1: Priced at $9.99, SuperMegaUltraGroovy’s Capo Touch for iOS is bargain, as it can help detect chords and beats as well as slow down recordings without changing the pitch. With that background established, let’s get into my recommended ways of working. The most important tool you’ll need is a software program that can slow down audio without changing the pitch. This function is available in most DAWs (digital audio workstation software), but I don’t recommend using them because there are dedicated applications that focus on this task. The top titles include:
● Transcribe! (seventhstring.com; Mac/Windows/Linux)
● AnyTune (anytune.us; Mac and iOS)
● Capo (supermegaultragroovy.com; Mac/Windows)
● Capo Touch (supermegaultragroovy.com; iOS, see Figure 1)
● Amazing Slow Downer (ronimusic.com; Mac/Windows/iOS)
I recommend these tools (especially the top two) because they are designed specifically for the task of learning/transcribing music. For example, they allow you to set marker points to locate sections quickly (bridge, solo, difficult lick, etc.), endlessly repeat sections of the song, speed up and slow down the music without changing the pitch, and change the pitch without affecting tempo. Plus, they usually have EQ tools and other unique features to help in the process. Let’s walk through an example session.
If you’re new to learning by ear, start with something really simple and just try to figure out the basic chords. Load your audio file into the software and play it over and over again. You want to get familiar with the song and listen for things such as how often the chords change, whether they are simple or seem to have some complex or fancy alterations. Get to understand the form of the song, and especially how many different sections there are, as opposed to repeats of the same sections.
After a number of passes try to play some notes on the keyboard to figure out what key the song is in. You should slow down the song slightly to make this more comfortable. Focus on the bass player; most of the time they will be playing the root tones of the chords. Finding the key of the song gives you a guide to what notes are likely to be used, drawing on the major or minor scale of that key. That’s not a strict rule, but it helps.
You may find that your keyboard sounds out of tune when playing along with the track. Artists sometimes speed up or slow down a recording intentionally to give it a quality they like—especially how it affects their vocals. Or you may be working from a copy of a recording that was unintentionally played back at the wrong speed.
Fig. 2: This shows the tuning page in Transcribe! with Cents adjusted to match my keyboard. Note the Octaves slider on the far left, which I often use for bass lines. Here you have two choices: Go to your keyboard or software instrument and adjust its tuning until it sounds right, or use the pitch control on your player application to tune the track up or down to match your keyboard (see Figure 2). Whichever method you select you’ll be using the fine-tuning control, which shows increments in cents, not semitones. This works best after you have found the key, or root tone, the song is playing in.
Fig. 3: The main screen for Transcribe! with a section highlighted for looping. Note the small lines above the section where I tapped in beat markers to help match the waveform to the tempo. To really get down to work, you’ll want to focus on small sections of the song at a time. I often work on one to four bars at a time for chords, even less when I get into figuring out riffs and solos. To set the software to play a section over and over (called looping) you may have to press an onscreen button to set the start (or in) point and then another to set the end (or out) point while the song plays (see Figure 3). The better apps will also support key commands from your computer keyboard or even MIDI input. I always have the song playing slower when doing this, and I may have to adjust the values a bit to get a loop that plays in time. Some applications show a visual waveform and you scroll over a section to select it (see Figure 4).
Fig. 4: The main screen for Anytune, showing a section set up for looping. With a region selected you can now play along with the slowed-down music and try to find the notes of the chord. There are two things to consider when doing this: What is the root, or name of the chord, and what quality is the chord (major, minor, diminished, augmented, seventh, etc.)? I like to start by finding the root of each chord, and I focus on the bass line to do this. It is very helpful to try to sing the pitch you’re hearing, so you can stop the track and find the note on the keyboard that you are singing.
Hearing the Bass
Sometimes I find the bass pitch hard to hear clearly. This happens when it is a synth bass with a lot of low-EQ boost or a sub-tone, or within a muddy mix. In these cases I will pitch the track up an octave, bringing the bass into a much clearer register. Yes, it sounds funny, but just focus on the bass notes, not the whole track.
Other times I will go to the software’s built-in EQ and boost one of the bass frequencies to help hear it. If it is muddy I will go to a low-mid frequency, not the lowest bass to add some clearer pitch to the sound. Generally, bass low end is strongest between 60 and 80 Hz, and adding clarity to the tone comes from increasing frequencies above this range. You can also cut the lowest lows (below 50 Hz) to get rid of any muddiness. Most software lets you save EQ presets so you can build a library of often-used settings.
Finding the Chord Quality
I tend to start by listening and trying to recognize if a chord sounds major, minor, diminished, and so forth. If you have found the bass note it is often the root or name of the chord, so you can try playing that chord (you hear a G, you play a G chord) with these different qualities to see which matches.
The second most common tone a bass player uses is the fifth of the chord, so you can try that as well (you hear a G, you try a C chord). If that is still hard, I recommend setting a loop range to capture just one hit of the chord, be it from a keyboard or the guitar. This very small segment will now repeat that chord over and over, letting you focus on that single event. I tend to slow the track down even more when doing this, to lengthen the chord hit. Play along, first confirming the root, then trying the third to see if it is major or minor, and then going up the harmonic “ladder” (fifth, seventh, etc.) to find the other notes.
If you still need help you can set the loop points so close that you only grab the very attack section of the chord, setting the end point so close to the start that the chord doesn’t decay. This is the same as looping a sample on a few cycles, and while the tonal quality becomes more of a buzz than the natural sound, it gives you a very clear, sustaining target to match to. I use this freeze-the-chord technique to figure out advanced jazz voicings all the time.
Don’t always assume you have to start at the beginning of a tune. If it has lots of repeats of sections (verses, choruses, bridge) you may find it easier to hear the bass or chords in one of the later instances, or when the instrumentalist plays the part slightly different, but in a way that makes it simpler for you to figure it out.
Clearing the Way
Fig. 5: The EQ screen in Anytune, complete with presets and a nice graphical display. In some songs it can still be hard to clearly hear the chords, or a clav comping part, or string/horn line. In these cases, I go to the EQ to clear other frequencies out of the way (see Figure 5). I always start with this subtractive approach before boosting a frequency because I find thinning out the track helps best.
Since I already know the bass notes, I first cut those frequencies, often everything below 250-300 Hz. This removes all the bass, bass drum and lower mud, helping to expose the midrange meat of those parts. I often cut some of the highest frequencies, as well, to get rid of cymbals and hihats, which can mask a lot of sound.
Once I remove the far extremes, I can focus on the part that is left. If needed, I boost a single band or two of the remaining frequencies to bring the part into clearer focus.
Some software offers advanced features like a vocal remover (karaoke mode) which works by taking any signal that is present in both channels of a stereo file and mixing it with a phase-reversed version of itself to cancel it out. This works in varying degrees of success based on how the tune was recorded and mixed, but it is worth exploring if available, as the vocals may distract you.
Another really effective technique is to stop the track just after a chord hit. This leaves the sound hanging in the air, and in your aural memory as well. Then play what you think it is on your keyboard, or sing it.
Stopping also takes on another meaning: After a while your ear and brain get fatigued. At that point it’s helpful to stop working, get up and do something else, then return when you’re refreshed. I also find that stopping and coming back to the task the next day really helps my perspective, and parts that were giving me trouble suddenly become very clear. I also will search YouTube for anyone posting a “how to play” video of the song I’m working on, just to compare what I’m doing with what they offer. Some are really good, while others… not so much.
Practice Makes Perfect
Master these techniques and you can move from simple songs and parts to more complex tunes and solos. The main difference for me when working on solos is that I slow the music down much further, and work on even smaller sections.
The time spent learning songs by ear and transcribing them will not only sharpen your ears, but will help you on gigs, at jam sessions, and in bridging the gap between what you hear in your head and what you can quickly realize with your fingers.